Rob Smith, aka Black Rock Smitty, is a filmmaker from New York. He shared this perspective on social media and gave us his permission to repost it here. As always, we ask you to keep it kind and constructive in the comments. We will not tolerate hateful, racist or ignorant posts.
I hope you’re well & safe during these unprecedented times in the world. With the current climate of police violence, race & racism, politics, & covid 19. Questions & actions have been taking place all over the country. I’ve seen posts and threads relating to all topics. But I have refrained from throwing my 2 cents in the pot. I can’t tell you much or more than you already know about covid19, I can give you a fair conversation on politics. When it comes to police violence, race & racism, I could share my experiences from age 14 til now. But today I want to discuss race & racism on playa.
When my friends asked me what’s Burning Man like after my 1st journey home in 2018, I would reply that I can’t exactly explain, it’s just awesome & it’s the ONLY place in the world I’ve ever been where hundreds if not thousands of white people told me ‘ Welcome home, I’m so happy you’re here!!’ Someone had to have slipped me some LSD on the Burner bus in to Black Rock City for this to be real. Don’t get it twisted, I’ve been in the film industry for 25 years. I’ve probably got more White, European, Asian, & Hispanic friends than a lot of Burners have black friends. But the energy, the vibe, the frequency of Black Rock City is unlike any other. I’ve only had 2 Burns so far & I was so looking forward to this year’s Burn. It’s become my happy place, my peace, my sanctuary away from the default world & the prejudices of society, that for me have been going on all my life, & now in these times everyone’s seeing what we’ve lived.
I’ve seen discussions on things that can be done to help the Black community & diversifying Burning Man. With these discussions there are moments, when I’m reading through a thread where I feel like a charity case. The Burner community is large & dominantly white as we all know. So when you have these discussions in an open forum; you’re talking “about us”… as opposed to “to us” and It feels wrong. We might not have large numbers yet at the Burn but we are here. We are present. You can talk to us, we would love it. We welcome it. Read more on diversity, Radical Inclusion and differences in the global Burning Man community in this long-form series.
Read more on diversity, Radical Inclusion and differences in the global Burning Man community in this long-form series.
We can answer some questions such as “do black people camp?” And just like white people or other ethnicities…some do & some don’t. You can’t tell me every single white person in the world camps. Stop it, that’s nonsense. But “do they like EDM music”, or techno, or house, or anything that isn’t hip-hop (ya’ll call it rap). But again just like white people & other ethnicities…some do & some don’t. And let’s be honest here… anybody that parties & gets fucked up like Burners is gonna dance to whatever the fuck is coming out of the speakers. Shit, some of you probably can’t stand any of it sober & what are a lot of you listening to when you’re not at the Burn… Jay-Z, Biggie, Beyonce, Drake, Kanye? So what’s the difference there? We can get down to damn near every type of music & make it look good. Wait, except for Metal — that shit looks dangerous. Oh, but “can they afford it? Is it too expensive?” I spend roughly around $3K each of the 2 times I’ve attended, coming from NY. But I know people in the hood or ghetto that aren’t drug dealers that spend that kind of money on a belt, sneakers, & a night at the strip club. (I know, I know.) We can be resourceful, focused, & have great resolve when we want to do something or go somewhere. And worst case that’s what low-income tickets are for. Cause if all the white & other non POC are rich or well off, who the fuck is buying all the low-income tickets? Not the black people! Maybe some of us, but not all of us. So what’s the difference there?
There’s no real differences between any of us in any of the above mentioned scenarios except for perceptions & stereotypes. Stop that shit. Don’t put us in a box, we’re human beings just like you. We like adventure, we like art, we like yoga, we like the sun. (I haven’t touched a bottle of sunscreen ever on the playa — top that!! ) We like beer & liquor, we like dope sunrises with omelets, we like yoga & seminars, we like riding our bikes, we like funky, cool, wardrobe & outfits. Come on, some of you have seen my Black Rock Smitty vest! It’s hard, it’s cool. A lot of you thought I was a veteran Burner my 1st year because of the vest. Cause the vest says I belong here, I had it made because I wanted to be here & I knew I belonged in Black Rock City.
Ok, now that’s all out the way. When it comes to Black people & POC, from what I’ve talked about with my people in real life & on social media, a great deal of them have never heard of Burning Man. Working in the film industry, I’ve asked some celebrity POC artists if they’ve been to Burning Man & the reply is, “Nah, what’s that.” And it’s the same question from my everyday friends & family, my social media followers (6k might not be a lot to some of you, but it’s more Black people than you know hmph) when I started posting I’m going to Burning Man on my Instagram. “What’s that?” When I describe it, the replies… “Never heard of it, sounds like some white people shit.” Followed by “You make it sound amazing, I think I wanna go.” So that makes me wonder….if there’s no real advertising about it (at least not in urban circles or communities), the only way we would know about it would be from word of mouth, or someone who attends inviting us. I found it on my own & made it my mission to get here & I’m not rich. I’ve only been 2 times and I have about 10-20 people if not more interested & ready to make the journey home. And that’s just me. I’m sure other POC Burners might have the same responses. If the Burn contains what, around 80,000 people & there’s only an estimated 300 plus POC attending. Some who have found their own way to the playa, some invited by the aforementioned person, & the rest invited by non POC or white people. Remember no known advertising so that leaves 3 possible scenarios.
- You’ve tried & your black or POC friends aren’t interested or they’re here.
- You don’t have a lot or any Black or POC friends that you would…or wouldn’t invite.
- You don’t have any Black friends! If so, I can be your 1st! If you would like or need. But my price is steep!! I don’t do disrespect, passive racism, public humiliation, or servitude! Unless its for 2 women or more on a Wednesday night, on an art car, after my dope ass camps party is over, at sunset. I’m quick witted, sharp tongued, sarcastic as a motherfucker & sometimes utilize racial jokes to break the ice cause some of you can be tense, timid & unsure of how to communicate with another human being of color. A Black man, a Black woman but still human beings. And I can almost guarantee I either am or will be one of the coolest motherfuckers you ever met in your life, period!
I’m doing my part, I’m spreading the word. But don’t worry, I know the Burn isn’t for everybody for various reasons. So I’m a bit selective in who I would bring into the vibe, cause I don’t want my trip home to be fucked up in any capacity. Like the friend someone brought that got too drunk or too high (wait, what’s that matter at the Burn duh) or the friend who tried to fight, or harassed a woman or a man. I know those things have happened. I’ve heard the stories & I’ve seen the scenarios. I wouldn’t bring that to the dope ass camp I’ve been with the last 2 Burns, Ashram Galactica. I’m one of the handful of POC at the camp & the core family has embraced me & shown me nothing but kindness, care, & love since day one. But let me keep it a buck ( 💯). If you’re not up on urban slang that just means I’m about to be really honest. You ready.
As amazing & as wonderful as Burning Man is, Black Rock City is not completely exempt from some of the racial prejudices of the default world. For the most part I’d say the vast majority of my interactions are awesome. But I’ve also had people not acknowledge my greeting them. I’ve seen people look at me whisper & turn away. Overall it doesn’t bother me, the default world prepared me for that a long time ago. And with 80,000 people there, the odds are good that some won’t completely embrace the concept of radical inclusion. And stereotypes….oh boy. My camp is awesome & the Gilded Lily Bar is in my humble opinion… one of the best bars on playa. Shout out to Jamie Mac. I usually enjoy the party there until midnight or a little after, before I head out into the night. But when I’m there you can usually find me right at the entrance greeting people. And for some reason (stereotypes) on occasions people talk to me & then wait for me to grant them admission into the bar. I AM NOT THE BOUNCER OR SECURITY! Some of my camp mates think I should get a rubber stamp that says I’M NOT THE BOUNCER. You’ll find out if we did it next year.
Closing out — sorry for the long read (if you’ve gotten this far) — Radical Inclusion, right..?
Once any of the black Burners bought a ticket to Burning Man…that was Radical Inclusion. Once any of the black Burners rolled thru the gate…that was Radical Inclusion. We are here, we are present, talk to us, engage with us… We are human beings. Pitstop at that camp with a lot of black or POC people. Drink with us, dance with us, laugh with us cause we’re fucking funny. In the default world many of us have to be the ones to break the ice, start the convo, or make you comfortable with our presence. If you feel intimidated or timid about approaching a black person on playa, imagine being black & rolling up to camp with 20 white people outside and saying hi. That should not be the case at Black Rock City. We are here and we are Burners that just happen to be black — radically include us & your friends in the default. And if you don’t have any black or POC friends in the default, get some, it’s time.
Rob Smith / Black Rock Smitty
Top photo by Greg McMahon.