AfrikaBurn: The Unbearable Whiteness of Burning
Burning Man in Africa and the Privilege to “Find Yourself”
“The jol — say ‘jawl’ — was a very important South African concept, connoting kamikaze debaucheries. It was a Cape colored street term, but all races used it, making it one of the pathetically few things we had in common. Divided we stood, united we jolled.” — Rain Malan, “My Traitor’s Heart”
I was curled up at the top of the art piece Yggdrasil , the Tree of Life, at 4 am on Saturday at AfrikaBurn. I was in the final throes of a long night of psychedelic exploration full of hard introspection and miscommunications with campmates. My chaotic thoughts turned into a fantasy where I imagined myself falling asleep at the top of the structure, rolling off it to my death and ruining the event for everyone else. Just then, a friend I knew from San Francisco magically appeared and rescued me from my dark visions. His knowledge of neurogenesis sparked a profound a-ha moment for me and two hours later I was dancing and crying with joy to the throbbing sounds of deep house at sunrise. I had found what I was looking for on my journey to South Africa: a cathartic clarity about what I wanted to do with my life and what it would take to achieve it.
It was a classic Burning Man story: a dark psychedelic voyage, rescued by a serendipitous encounter at the peak of an art piece which gave me a clear vision for personal growth and a prosperous future. It also represented another side of Burning Man: self-absorption and privilege and, intricately entwined with these, a whiteness for which burner culture has been criticized. My AfrikaBurn experience had little to do with Africa.
Like my European forebears, I had embarked on an adventure to a far away land to find myself. In spite of nearly a decade in the Burning Man community and an intimate understanding of its principles, my AfrikaBurn experience hardly constituted anything radical. I mooped a little, gifted some and while I certainly expressed myself, I’m not sure how radical my elaborate self-expression really is at this point. I remained largely embedded with my American and international friends and had a burn that was basically all about myself. It only became apparent to me afterwards that I had simply transplanted my Black Rock experience to Tankwa Town and that I had maintained a bubble of privilege halfway around the world. However, in the following days of self-reflection I was able to see this experience in the context of my broader privilege as a white American, which in the end gave me the burn I actually needed.
Whiteness and its Invisibility
I write from the perspective that whiteness is a social construct, not a biological fact. While whiteness is neither figuratively nor literally real, the white privilege I experience is real and impacts all aspects of my life from my progressive home in San Francisco to this little juice shop in Cape Town where I write. Self-inquiry about whiteness is a tricky thing. One of the central privileges of whiteness is that it is invisible to those who possess it. We experience our racial identity as the norm. The transparency of whiteness creates a feeling of innocence and can lead to defensiveness around the privileges that come with it.
In this article I use the terms white and nonwhite. It should be noted that this is an oversimplified binary based on my American perspective. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and later Nelson Mandela, both famously referred to South Africa as a Rainbow Nation of many different people. These include native Africans (such as Zulu, isiXhosa, and Khoisan), Afrikaners, British, Indians and those of mixed descent. I recommend reading further about ethnicity in South Africa if you’d like to know more. Whiteness is itself falsely homogenizing and privilege is not monolithic. Gender, sexual orientation and most especially class all contribute to who gets to participate with whom. I use the term white here to identify a particular and pervasive set of privileges that have existed in various forms around the global since the age of colonization.
Is Burning Man a “White People Thing”?
While traveling the rocky road to Tankwa Town I read a tweet that said “I’ll disown any black mate of mine that goes to AfrikaBurn, that thing is Caucasian AF.” As we lurched down the dark road, I thought to myself, “Damn, I’m definitely not touching race when I write about AfrikaBurn. What do I know about South Africa?” And yet, in this place where apartheid only ended in 1994, to ignore race is a perpetuation of the invisibility of whiteness. So we must ask ourselves: At the tip of the African continent, why are the demographics of Tankwa Town so unrepresentative of this country as a whole?
The history of South Africa is complex and its wounds are fresh and persistent. As an American abroad, the cognitive dissonance of gorgeous Cape Town is striking. The city’s breathtaking western coastline and quaint beach villages remind one a little of Southern California. Yet there is something terribly unnerving about the electric fences and coils of razor wire which enclose the opulent houses. A short distance away on the Cape Flats is Langa Township, a settlement created exclusively for native Africans in 1923 well before formal apartheid. In sharp contrast to Camps Bay estates, at Langa four large families might share a single small room. Out of this disparity of wealth and painful history springs South Africa’s regional burn which takes place five hours to the Northeast.
For a global culture with a principle of radical inclusivity at its core, the question of who gets to participate in Burning Man and its regionals is of paramount importance. The original burn in Nevada has also been criticized for its lack of diversity. Caveat Magister expressed the complex factors affecting race and participation in Burning Man with grace and expansiveness in his 2012 article “Is Burning Man a ‘White People Thing?’” In his article, Magister outlined four reasons he has learned that people of color don’t participate in Burning Man:
- Burning Man requires a sense of security that is not common in American minority communities.
- The sexual mores of minority cultures tend to be significantly more conservative than those of Burners.
- It would be difficult to get acceptance from one’s family and community.
- A different history with counter-culture movements.
(Further Watching: Members of the Washington DC burner community put together a video on this subject in early April called Burning Man: A “White People Thing”? Worth watching if you’d like to go deeper on whiteness at Burning Man in the US.)
It isn’t a leap to see how similar factors might also apply and, indeed, be amplified in Africa. After the event, I spoke with a number of nonwhite South Africans and their perspectives reflected what Magister wrote. In addition to the perception that AfrikaBurn was “for white people,” many nonwhite Africans couldn’t afford to attend. Even with low income tickets there is massive barrier in logistical needs, supplies and time off from work. As class is so closely tied to race in South Africa, this is as much a class issue as a race issue. I spoke to a charming server named Bongani, a Zulu from Johannesburg who wanted to go to the event but had to work. He told me the other big barrier to entry was the perception among his community that the music and vibe implied the use of drugs. “Africans are very concerned about the dangers of drugs and addiction. We like house music but trance goes too far.”
“Do you go to trance parties?” I asked. Bongani smiled mischievously.
Twin Traps of Tokenism and the White Savior Complex
“As soon as anyone mentions AfrikaBurn they remark that there are no black people, but that’s not the whole picture,” says Head of Communications (and one of the event’s directors) Travis Lyle. The organization welcomes frank evaluations but he feels that foreigners often indict a perceived lack of diversity without engaging more deeply. AfrikaBurn founder Monique Schiess calls this “political fast food, which perpetuates an endless sterile ping-pong game of debates and reinforces non-engagement in real solutions to exceptionally deep, multi-layered issues. And this often masquerades as social-conscience.”
Lyle has seen diversity in participation at AfrikaBurn increase every year (as it has at Burning Man) but doesn’t promote this trend through cherry picking media representation of nonwhite people at the event. As Lyle told me, the organization takes great care not to tokenize African participants. “Tokenizing people in this country has a long and dangerous history. If we tokenize people we would kill the experience for them.” In typical tongue-in-cheek burner fashion, an entirely nonwhite theme camp since 2007 (save for one Swede) calls themselves Smoken Token. They offer games and music and jokingly say that they are the token people of color at AfrikaBurn.
The organizers aren’t trying to promote themselves as heroes in their efforts to evolve the character of the event. “The whole white savior complex is a dodgy thing,” Lyle told me. The organization does outreach to aid communities around the Tankwa Karoo National Park as well as fund underprivileged artists and provide low income tickets. AfrikaBurn’s outreach information is available under the Community section of its website but it isn’t shouted from the rooftops.
The delicate balance of promoting diversity while maintaining decentralization exists across burner culture, not just in Africa. Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey once said that enacting racial quotas would itself be condescension. “We’re not going to set up a Marxist state,” he told The Guardian . “We see culture as a self-organizing thing. And we’re unwilling to impose and mandate behavior from the outside, we want to generate change from the inside.”
Schiess expands on the paradox of inclusivity and decentralization. “It’s a difficult thing to work out where the sweet spot is between allowing the self-organizing principle to remain true to the social experiment that are burns; not be too interventionist or socially engineer the thing, yet not falling into the trap of myopia and specifically white myopia and worse, complacency.”
The way AfrikaBurn has engaged with this issue so far is to focus on the question: What are the barriers to entry to this event? Is it knowing that AfrikaBurn exists, the financial challenges, the perception of inaccessibility, or just plain old fear of the unknown? This is more straightforward than dealing with the thornier question of race itself. “We have been practicing the ‘let’s start with ourselves’ principle,” Schiess told me. “And [we] have been doing diversity training internally in the org to try and see how to roll it out beyond us. One sure thing is that we cannot be passive about integration. In our mission statement we say that we are here to imagine the world anew. And the best iteration of that would be that anyone could get access to the event and participate on their own terms.”
My Home is Your Home
How does an event that is defined by its participants become more integrated? A commercial festival outside of Cape Town called Rocking the Daisies included a hip-hop stage for the first time last year and saw a major demographic shift because of it. But at AfrikaBurn the onus largely rests on individual camps which are themselves overwhelmingly white. There are some theme camps which endeavor to include non-white participants as well as bring Burning Man art and culture into the townships to create opportunities there.
Ubuhlanti (“My Home is Your Home”) is a theme camp associated with the non profit Bridges for Music which has brought famous electronic artists to South Africa townships and township artists to major festivals around the world like Glastonbury and Ultra . Their flagship project is building a music and entrepreneurship school in the Langa Township. This year Ubuhlanti used camp dues to sponsor nine artists from the Langa Township to participate in AfrikaBurn.
One of the artists, photographer Olwethu Singama , shared his AfrikaBurn experience with me after the event which I have included in full:
“AfrikaBurn began in a great way as we were welcomed at the gate by great people who were friendly and assisted us in all that we needed. Most of them were black as they were wearing their purple T’s like soldiers to war. When I got to camp I was welcomed by the Wonky Willy’s camp and we shared our stories, what do we do in our daily lives, what we were there to do and expect from the whole Burn. As it was my first burn ever and first festival like that I did not know what to expect. Coming from the township and not always going out to other places and meeting new people it was kind of a bit new for me.
“At the beginning of the week when people started arriving in my camp I kept to myself not introducing and talking to them. Only those that came with me were the ones I talked to and as time went by I had to eventually open up to all these people. I did not know how to approach some of them as they seemed to be people who have their lives organized and knew one another. I hid myself behind the camera not knowing that would draw more attention to me as everyone was wondering about this black guy in our camp taking pictures of us during our luxurious time of relaxation.
“Going outside my camp was more of a challenge. As I had the camera people saw that I was a photographer because I tried to keep a professional image. But as I walked through the tents I felt like a white person walking through the corners of the township and praying not to be mugged or shouted racist chants with the stare I kept on getting from people. Gracefully none of that happened as everyone that I met along the road were very friendly and helpful to me even though I could see some of them kept a distance when walking next or towards me.
“As time went on and days passed I started to get more comfortable with the atmosphere around with the way people were dressed and how they partied all night. I became more at ease when one of my camp mates Luis Canuto Baraja who is a good friend of (camp lead) Valentino Barrioseta advised me to take this as a trial run for when I go back home. I should start going out more to other places and meeting people in order to expand my brand and get used to that kind of lifestyle. And two of my friends Alex Revers and Cynthia Schippers came to my tent and actually explained to me that AfrikaBurn is a celebration for people when they get the time to express themselves and get out of their normal corporate lives to unwind and be free from day to day basis.
“All in all my AfrikaBurn experience was a life changing one. That gave me a different view to what the world can be like if we could just let go and be ourselves and live freely. From all of this I will take all that I have learned and yet to learn back to my colleagues and those close to me. And thanks to all the campmates that I had at Ubuhlanti for being a unit, loving and supporting, Most of all everyone that made my trip to AfrikaBurn possible: Bridges for Music and Project I.AM.”
Each One Teach One
Burning Man is about getting out of our comfort zones to expand our authentic experience of being alive. The remoteness, harsh climate and lack of provided infrastructure exist to pierce our personal bubbles. What could be more uncomfortable than taking a hard look at the very privilege that allows us to spend a week roughing it in the desert at enormous cost? As Lyle shared about burner culture, “Everything will become a perpetuation of its stereotype unless the center holds and the only way the center holds is if frank and honest conversations are had.”
As I learned about whiteness and AfrikaBurn, my own privilege was reflected back at me. There’s nothing wrong with Americans burning in Africa. However, carrying a bubble around limits the transformational possibilities of the event. My American whiteness is not only about the privilege to come to Africa to find myself, but also my immediate, oversimplified critique of the lack of nonwhite participation there. AfrikaBurn has a lack of diversity, but then again so does Burning Man. My country’s civil rights movement happened well before the end of apartheid but it is certainly an unfinished project; perhaps it will never be finished. There’s no razor wire around my home in San Francisco but white privilege is part of why I have one.
Thankfully the transformational nature of a burn isn’t limited to time in the desert. Visiting Langa, reading South African history and all my conversations with people of various backgrounds has given me a richer experience of this place and a better understanding of my own privilege. I don’t know if I would have pursued this exploration of South Africa so vigorously if it weren’t for the failures of my burn.
In “My Traitor’s Heart,” Afrikaner Rian Malan speaks of the South African jol, the kamikaze debauchery which could unite his countrymen. Either we are partying in power or we are partying with a purpose. Either inclusion is passive or it is radical. My first step is to get uncomfortable with the privilege required for me to go on this dusty pilgrimage. And AfrikaBurn? “AfrikaBurn will change its complexion in time, at a pace and substance determined not by tokenism,” Schiess told me. “But by the crucible of the real relationships forged by doing epic shit together.” The unique 11th principle of AfrikaBurn is “Each One Teach One.” In that spirit, I offer my experience as a gift which hopefully leaves more questions than answers and stimulates meaningful discussion about what we mean by radical inclusivity and why we burn.
Since publication, this article has generated some dynamic feedback from within the international burner community. For this I am grateful and I have learned a great deal. There are two comments that stood out for me enough to include them for the reader to consider. The first from my friend Paul Lloyd Robson who felt that there was a missed opportunity by focusing narrowly on race without a deeper exploration of class in South Africa. The second from Peter Tanczos, highlighting the oversimplified analysis of a racial binary without including the perspectives of those classified as “coloured” under apartheid who have their own separate experience. I agree that a deeper dive into both of these aspects would have created a more complete offering.
Originally published at www.everfest.com.