My Experience as a Black Woman at Burning Man

Tatiana Smith is a writer, product designer, full spectrum doula and activist living in Jersey City, New Jersey, with her daughter. They attended their first burn in 2016. 

Tatiana shared this piece with us after a recent callout in the Jackrabbit Speaks for stories related to diversity and radical inclusion. Here is hers, reprinted with permission. As always, we ask you to keep it kind and constructive in the comments. We will not tolerate hateful, racist or ignorant posts.

Back in 2006, my old roommate became obsessed with getting to this festival out in the desert with a bunch of wild hippies. I, being a hippy artist myself, was intrigued, but tepid. I considered myself open-minded, having been well-traveled, and spending time with a diverse group of folks as a performing dancer. But did I want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of mainly white folks, after hauling a bunch of art crap across America, only to have to bring it all back home? The idea wasn’t thrilling. Every year, my friend continued to go, and I wondered if I too should venture out, despite my fears. Though we haven’t been in touch for years, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go there.

Burning Man always seemed to me like a very white event. Not that I had a problem being around white people all the time. Growing up, and being in the digital design profession, I was always one of the few blacks in attendance. But I often wondered if I would feel completely out of place where so few black people would appear. The concept of Burning Man is a very ‘white’ thing.

Read more on diversity, Radical Inclusion and differences in the global Burning Man community in this long-form series.

Billed as a freeing, life-changing experience, Burning Man offers the chance to witness madcap artistry, meet like-minded, if otherworldly people, and release your soul in ways that are not fathomable in the real world. It’s no wonder so many people flock to this event. But in all honesty, there’s not a lot of talk of Black people wanting to go out in the middle of nowhere and survive. Perhaps because Black people have had to do that for centuries, in real life. So why the hell would we want to go through that again? Camping out, braving the elements, letting your lips, skin and hair get dry and dusty as hell. What is fun or freeing about any of that shit? Not to mention that Larry Harvey, [the late founder] of Burning Man has explicitly said that Black people don’t like to camp, which is not entirely false.

Photo courtesy of Tatiana Smith

We Black people are alchemists. We can take horror and sorrow and turn it into magnificent things.

But add to this notion the ticket prices, the costs of logistics, bringing (and taking!) everything that you will need with you into the desert to survive for a week, the lack of modern showers or anything comforting outside of your RV or camper van – those added factors are enough for any typically sane Black person to say hell MF no.

Oh, and the wooden Burning Man at the end of the festival. I went to the burning with a lot of trepidation of what I might feel. My daughter hated it when I even mentioned it to her. She let everyone she met after the burn know that everything about the festival was great, EXCEPT the burn. And I knew right then that all those civil rights movies, articles and books I had presented to her had sunk into her little 6 year old head, despite her obsession with Minecraft and Baby Alive dolls. Watching a man burn at the stake was real, and horrifying, and scary as fuck.

Luckily, I met with a sister in our camp who told me this and it changed everything about my mood. She said, “We black people are alchemists. We can take horror and sorrow and turn it into magnificent things. Just look at us, how we survived, and thrived.” As we talked a brother strode up to us on his road bike. He was deaf, but happy to connect with other Burners of color. And he taught us how to sign “Happy Burn.” It was awesome.

As I rode down the Playa and along the roads of the camps, I made sure to acknowledge every Black burner with a smile, a hug, a wave, an acknowledgement to let them know that yes, we’re here, and I support you being here. I saw dusty legs. Matted, sand-covered hair. Naked black bodies. Assured smiles. They saw me and their eyes said “You’re a Black Burner. You really are free.”

Photo courtesy of Tatiana Smith

Header image courtesy of Tatiana Smith

30 Comments on “My Experience as a Black Woman at Burning Man

  • Juno says:

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful and powerful perspective, Tatiana! Hope to meet you and your daughter in the dust someday.

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  • MMV says:

    This was very touching. Thank you for sharing your experience and and showing us how you found freedom in the dust. I hope when you come again your daughter can see that in burning the Man we’re letting go of so many things.

    From one Burning-mom to another <3

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  • Daniela says:

    Thanks for sharing! I

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  • Cynthia says:

    Beautiful! Thank you!
    I’m white and I do not like to camp, and feel that Burning Man was too white and was built on a sexist white California dude platform that repelled and embarrassed me. I finally went in 2019 because I saw too many of my friends who were *not* white California sexist dudes going and felt the “field” was getting more diverse. I was glad I went. I would love to see Burning Man get more diverse. Each year I am sure it will and will change the tenor of the experience and change the world in many ways.

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  • Penguin says:

    Well told, thank you.

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  • Pedro says:

    What about Mexicans?

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  • Dr Shelley says:

    Thanks for sharing! I have met many wonderful black people at BM who have become very close friends. It’s a special bond. So glad you got to experience it. Wish I could post pics here… i have some awesome ones!

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  • Nexus (he/him) says:

    Thank you for sharing!

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  • patpat says:

    agree that the main burn is scary – but I realize that is MY trigger – everyone else seems to like it. (00) There is lots that feels ‘unsafe’ but I push through a bit more each year because, if I can’t do it at BM, where can I?
    Glad you came out – love your photos and happy your daughter got to experience it

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  • Butthatsjustme says:

    So happy to hear there are more and more people of color attending. When we leave the Playa and return to our regular lives maybe the “acceptance tenet” of Burning Man will stay with us and will help our communities where ever we are. I live in a diverse area but in my opinion Burning Man has a diversity unmatched anywhere. It’s why I love going. I hope you can spread the word and get others to join you in the experience!!

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  • Dr. Woo says:

    Love the photo with your throne. That is a photo of a woman who is at Home. I also met many Black Burners and share the hope that Burning Man at BRC will continue to be more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming, for everyone, together.

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    my son wanted us to go . he was a cosmic, lovey, open guy– and he suicided in 2005. i kick myself for not goinng when we could have. i think BRC is a mass manifestation of humanity’s yearning, to completely escape the cruel game of the default world and return to each of our originality. the burn would have obvious fears for ppl who’ve been the targets of racial terrorizing, but reframe it: regard it as symbolizing other meanings. it could be the burning down of The Man, the so hated Oppressor of all ppl of color. or it could be viewed as the disintegration of male dominance and control or ” ownership” over women and children. it can represent the burning down to ashes of all those things that hold us back, both individually, personally—and collectively, societally—which is why i take each year’s burn as an act of willfull incineration— of all that’s wrong, of what needs to go from our world. and then lastly, there’s the symbolism of fire, giving out blazing Light and Heat, appearing out of the cold darkness, in the midst of the vast emptiness and remoteness of the playa. symbolic of the appearance of we humans, on fire with creativity, bringing forth beauty out of nothing. no other species on earth makes fire. and the first ancestors of ALL of us, thousands of years ago, in Africa, did that first. perhaps these meanings can help you come thru your ( justified, factual) associations with the sight of that human figure in flames, and carry you over those, to new, better understandings and meanings. BRC has to be out in a remote, empty location. yes, the Burn is dangerous. not just igniting the fire. the entire phenomenon of burningman is dangerous to society as it is! chaos! free expression! nudity in public! wild parties! no two alike! why, that threatens the very Order of Things! so it HAS to be someplace where Nice, Lawabidin Folks wont have to see it. which is how we like it. in nature, so we can be who we are, free of their cruel controls.

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    • JANET P SCHWARTZ says:

      just an observation: we humans do seem to have a penchant for having these periodic wild mass gatherings of uninhibition. Rio has Carnavál. New Orleans has Mardi Gras. England has Glastonbury. China has Lunar New Year. India has Holi. and there’s Burningman. we seem to need these periodic blowouts of freedom to let off the pressure of the hyper ordered, demanding, timed, inescapable grid imposed on us in the default world. the ordered world delivers benefits, but this outpouring of our wild spirit seems to need to be let out just as regularly. otherwise, it wouldnt happen.

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      • tracy avent-costanza says:

        good point. I do see, even lately with the covid and BLM and police behavior issues, the conflicts in my country between our desire for some form of “order” and structure, with our natural tendency to try things unfamiliar.

        Some elements of society, seek the unfamiliar while others pathologically avoid it or even react violently to the prospect of it disturbing their sense of security.

        There are clearly different kinds of humans.

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  • Rusty says:

    You’re helping the world change, one Burn at a time. Thank you for sharing your and your daughter’s experience/s… and for sharing hope and inspiration with so many.

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  • Robin says:

    “We Black people are alchemists. We can take horror and sorrow and turn it into magnificent things.”

    This is beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

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  • This is such a wonderful article!!

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  • Sebastian says:

    The important thing is that George Kirby will always be remembered as a hero.

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  • I admit being still kind of white and trying to learn to be not so much that way. It’s a journey, and along that journey it is refreshing to learn from someone on her own journey.

    I especially identified with the insight about “not really finding the survival challenge stimulating” since you and your people (up to you to define) have been surviving everywhere else up to now. And it does lend some legitimacy to “black people don’t like to camp” and other notions that might teeter on some form of cultural superiority.

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  • Rachael Kalan says:

    I’m glad you and your daughter went and I really appreciate hearing your insights and story. <3

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  • James says:

    Thanks for the article. I’m a black man and attended 7 times between 2011 and 2017. One interesting aspect of my experience was that in the first years I went, whenever I saw other black people we acknowledged each other and gave that “right on” kind of eye contact. By the time I went in 2017 I noticed that wasn’t happening any more. And as I pondered the changing experience, my conclusion was that it marked progress. I guess by 2017 so many black people were going and felt comfortable at the event that they really didn’t need to be reaffirmed by other black people. ‍♂️

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  • Mark McCormack says:

    Never have I gone to an event thinking maybe I won’t fit in. I go to the event to fit in, to be part of the event – as much as I can. In my 10 burns, i have never thought there are too many asians, too many guys, too many girls, not enough blacks, not enough, or too many hippies. What I do think is – damn, there are a shit ton of people having a good time, I am gonna have fun with them whoever they are!

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