(I bring people who aren’t necessarily part of my immediate community to parties, as I always like when my friends have fun when they go out. More importantly, I try and listen to them when they talk about their impressions/experiences. One of the photographers I’ve had the privilege of knowing & working with did me the honor of sharing some of her frustrations with one of the facets of the underground here in NYC: The Burner/Burning Man community, one she very much enjoys. Her comments are presented unedited & the photos added to the article are by her, chosen by me, with her permission.)
I do not consider myself a burner, but I’d really like to be. The principles of radical inclusion, civic responsibility, radical self-expression and reliance, gifting, participation, etc., yeah that’s a kind of world I want to see, that I want to help build. But what does radical inclusion look like when economics keep many would-be burners out of the NYC scene? How do we make spaces welcoming for people who don’t have the money & who lack the ability to create elaborate costumes? I want to be a part of the burner scene, I really do, but factors beyond my own social anxiety keep me out.
One of the hardest parts of privilege is that by definition you aren’t aware you have it. In New York City it’s easy to lose sight of one’s own economic privilege because there are always twenty someones with bigger wallets than you. Most burners I know have a financial stability that I have never had the luxury of experiencing which is probably why this issue is so glaring for me. I know people who live in apartments where the rent is two months’ salary for me and yet they still call themselves “poor” because compared to their finance neighbors they feel they are. To these people a fifty dollar party is no big deal but to someone working a minimum wage job it’s a day’s pay. Now I don’t begrudge anyone their good fortune but I also think people need to be aware of the privilege they possess. We need to be aware of fact that the prices of events and the expectation of elaborate costumes are by nature exclusionary. We also need to be aware of the kinds of people these exclusionary practices are keeping out.
Now I can already hear the argument that costumes aren’t necessary to be a burner and in an ideal world they wouldn’t be but I’ll come back to that in a second. Right now I want to talk about the cost of attendance aspect of the burner community. If you want to be taken seriously in the scene you need to show up to certain parties. I’ve had conversations with people where attendance at events like Burning Man are seen as a kind of “Burner Cred” and that needs to stop. More than once I’ve been told that “I just haaaavvee to go” (to Burning Man), as though it never occurred to me. As though it hasn’t been something I’ve longed for since I was a teen. But the truth of the matter is for those of us on the East Coast, Burning Man is not a cheap event. It’s air fare across the country, or an extra week off work to drive. It’s a shipping container of supplies or renting a car on the west coast and stocking up there. That doesn’t even touch the ticket price. For many low-income people Burning Man is an economic impossibility. Ignoring this fact as many burners do is hurtful and exclusionary. Pretending I’m not poor during these conversations doesn’t put money in my bank account.
Now when it comes to the prices of these events sometimes there’s really nothing we can do. We live in a capitalist society and while Burners strive for a gifting and bartering economy we have to work within the confines of the world we live in. We also live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. If you want a certain level of entertainment it’s going to cost a certain amount. But I’ve also seen parties that were not worth the cost of admission. Producers need to be realistic with their prices and if they really want to stick to the principles don’t charge forty-five dollars because there’s community of burners who don’t bat an eye at that price tag. Don’t pretend that money is no big deal. One of the things that makes me avoid people outside my economic class is a lack of awareness and understanding. It gets incredibly emotionally draining to interact with people who intentionally ignore the realities of life in the lower class. And yes I know about you’re one crazy friend who has like no money and works weird jobs and still went to Burning Man, so it’s totally possible right?
That’s what tokenism is, when you have one friend who fits that criteria. There is only so much we can do about the realities and effects of economic disparity but we can be aware of our attitudes and how we speak to each other. Understand that your shoes are not everyone’s shoes, an event that is just another Saturday night to you might be the one thing a fellow party goer is able to go to that month. Remember that pushing the “Just do it, just go” mentality on others might be kind of hurtful.
Back to that pesky dress code. I know what you’re thinking, radical self-expression means wear what you want! Be who you are! But that’s not what I’ve experienced and that’s not how events are promoted. Burners are a subculture just like punks and hippies, to pretend that they don’t have their own unique style is disingenuous. There’s nothing wrong with costume parties but acting like Themed parties don’t come with the expectation that people will not only come in costume but that the costume will fit said theme is a bit silly. I’ve gone to several of these types of parties and I’ve never felt like I belonged. From an outsider perspective the costumes seem like a way to differentiate whose a burner and thus part of the community and whose a tourist and that my friends is all about how we treat others. Costumes are not cheap, even DIY costumes require time, money and more importantly skill that most low income burners just don’t have. Radical self-expression shouldn’t be a competition for who can come up with the best glitter unicorn outfit. People without costumes don’t get photographed by the event photographers, unless they are supremely attractive women, which means they aren’t represented on websites. In the digital archives of our communities we’re excluding those who can’t afford to dress up and those who simply don’t want to. As an event photographer I’m guilty of this too. My job is to get the most interesting shots, but even if I photograph people in “civilian” clothes I can’t make my editor use those shots. Costumes are captivating but they aren’t the whole scene. This focus on costumes is superficial and also turns certain people into little scene stars by virtue of their ability to design, which is something they might not actually want. Promoters need to do a better job of reminding event goers that costumes are optional and attendees need to not treat their plain clothed brethren as less than for sticking to Keds and jeans.
I could stop here but Terry asked me to talk about how economic issues relate to those of gender and sexuality and because I’m an over-achiever I’m gonna throw race in too. Obviously this is a topic that someone could write a dissertation on and our attention spans for internet articles are only so long so in no way is this meant to be an in-depth critique. In general there’s never just one factor causing any problem. Economics are not the only thing that make the burner community less than inviting for people of color, trans folks and women (especially those in the first two categories) it’s just the factor I’m addressing here. I’ve been an activist for years now and something I was reminded of recently is that we tend to build communities, intentionally or not, of people similar to ourselves.
Understand I’m not saying there are no burners of color, or trans burners or women burners or that white burners are intentionally keeping these groups out. What I’m saying is that when you have a group that requires a certain level of economic privilege that isn’t readily available to marginalized groups you’re creating a culture that is inherently less diverse. Unfortunately when it comes to economic privilege the more marginalized groups you belong to the more fucked you are. We all know the statistic that women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns but what most people forget is that’s only white women. Black women make 70 cents and Hispanic women only 61. The reasons for this aren’t in any way the fault of the burner community. America is good at industry to the point where we’ve turned racism and sexism into ones. Institutionalized racism, by this I mean the system that makes it less likely that people of color will get in to “good” schools, makes it less likely for them to get good jobs and less likely that they will be paid the same amount as their white counter parts. Institutionalized sexism is that shit that creates the glass ceiling and the assumption that the woman will do the majority of the house work. These institutions effect everyone in a variety of ways and I believe that if the burner community is serious about being radically inclusive it has to take a more active role in fighting them.
Honestly I don’t really know how to solve these problems but I do know if we ignore them nothing will change. If burners are about more than just the next party and the next costume these issues need to be dealt with. The burning community is supposed to be about radical acceptance and in New York that’s not what I see. What I’ve experienced, more often than not, is the attitude that the clothes make the man & attendance will be counted. The New York Burner community would greatly benefit from a little more awareness of privilege and a bit more of that radical inclusion.