Last year I wrote about the absence of people of color at Burning Man but this year it seemed that more black and brown festivalgoers were drawn to the Playa
In the summer of 2015, during last years Burning Man, festival founder Larry Harvey told me that black folks dont like to camp as much as white folks. That week, I interviewed about 30 black people and some other people of color at Burning Man (pretty much all the people of color I could find who would talk to me) about why they came to a festival that was so overwhelmingly white. According to the Black Rock City census, black people at Burning Man make up only about 1% of attendees.
When I returned this year, there was a burning question on many peoples minds: did I think there were more black people at Burning Man a year later?
In a word: yes.
But to qualify that: there still werent nearly enough, and whiteness ran rampant. Its funny. When I asked Harvey about the lack of diversity last year, he bluntly said were not going to set racial quotas and as an organization, Burning Man seems to be doing little creatively and systematically to address the lack of diversity. The funny thing is that you can see people go to the ends of the earth to address the Burning Man principle of radical self-expression, while doing almost nothing to address its principle of radical inclusion.
People say well anyone can go to Burning Man, and anyone can try to buy tickets through the lottery. But its really expensive, which segregates in one way, especially for people who havent invested in all the camping infrastructure.
Also, Burning Man distributes tickets to theme camps outside of the lottery to give preference to groups with a history with the festival. This is understandable. But those camps are almost all overwhelmingly white. So except for a handful of camps, Burning Man invests in the presence of hundreds of majority white theme camps, who will distribute their tickets almost exclusively to white people. And unless Burning Man consciously interrupts this, the population will just repeat itself like any other ongoing segregated population. It would take a sense of radical, not passive, inclusion.
My observations are anecdotal but not uncritical. In 2015, I was constantly looking out for black people, and kept seeing the same folks over and over again. This year, I saw new black faces all week. Sometimes when Id talk to black Burners, Id hear it was their first time, and theyd tell me theyd come because of our article. Also, several longtime black burners told me about their joy at seeing more black folks.
At the same time, the camp I stayed in (Que Viva) was a racial and social justice camp, set up right next to the People of Color Camp. And people would come home to our camps after a day of exploring and say things like, Its so white out there. And it was! The whiteness could be exhausting like when a white guy wandered in to look at our Black Lives Matter altar, only to lecture me about the black people in our camp likely not being authentic enough for his tastes.
True, sometimes youd hear drums or see feathers, and when youd get closer, youd see they were being utilized by people of color to reflect their cultures in beautiful ways. But more often, it would be clueless white people dancing around in headdresses or appropriating cultures in other tacky and offensive manners.
But Im just one person. I decided to ask some other POC burners whether they thought there was more color this year at the blindingly white Burning Man. Here are some of our answers, edited from conversations by phone, email, Facebook message and text.
Vernon Andrews (AKA Uncle Vern)
Though I dont have census statistics to back me up (yet), my educated guess is the numbers might increase slightly this year for African American attendance at Burning Man. Before I became a member of the Black Rock Census team two years ago, Id chase down every black person I saw on Playa for my research. In the past, that was doable. This year I was exhausted even counting visually the black folks I saw. No way I could have kept up my hydration and chased down my potential research subjects. I think numbers have gone up. Nice trend!
I feel like I saw more people of color at Burning Man this year than I have the past three years, but it still doesnt feel like a space that genuinely champions diversity. Camping with a group of predominantly POC folk made the rest of Burning Mans overwhelming whiteness even more glaring. That said, Burning Man is an experience that has been really joyful and transformative for me, and Im excited to see more folks of color sharing in that.
Nicholas Powers (aka Honey Shot)
Is it wishful thinking or did I truly see more people of color at Burning Man this year? Bicycling from camp to camp, I said hi, hugged, kissed, gave dap and the ever-useful keep-it-cool head nod to black Burners. It was like a racial relay race in the desert where we could pass glances back and forth, making a network of double consciousness across the city.
Our presence was a degree above tokenism but far, far, far below the tipping point that would revitalize Burning Man. It helped that there were two camps dedicated to melanin. Que Viva camp, a powerful social justice camp, and my People of Color camp, where POC came by to enjoy the knowing ways of shared references, winks above smiles, laughter after pulling off the scab of racism, dancing late into the night until our skin was black as space, filled with stars.
Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano
I walked away from my first burn in 2014 believing that Burning Man held great potential for people of color to explore, create and play. Three burns later, that belief became a conviction. Yet my experiences are not without context as this was also the first year I camped with Que Viva camp, which neighbored People of Color camp. Both camps, by virtue of their demographic composition and explicit social justice politics, language, and workshop and dialogue spaces, became black and brown oases for people of color and white allies seeking shelter from the heat and the disingenuously color-blind and selectively apolitical culture of white liberalism and libertarianism.
Sadly, 2016 was not without white people walking around with native headdresses and dreadlocks, wealthy plug-and-play camps, or the proportionally dismal number of people of color Burning Man is known for. It was, however, where I had the rare opportunity to think, laugh, cry, play and create among people of color and white allies who are about creating a larger antiracist world where more of us can fit, a world that neither begins nor ends in Black Rock City. Thanks to the people and the content of the experiences we co-created, 2016 set a high bar for what a people-of-color and social justicecentered burn can and should look like.
It definitely felt like there were black people this year. When I saw a person of color, it wasnt as novel or as freakish as it usually is. I usually do a count of black people. In the past, my count was in the low 70s, and in a high year it was 105. This year, I think being with a pregnant lady, my brain was in baby mode and I didnt do the count. But I did feel like there were more black folks, and that folks were more comfortable.
I was a Black Rock Ranger this year [rangers are participants who volunteer a portion of their time at Burning Man in service of the safety and well-being of the Burning Man community, who often mediate in situations before law enforcement gets involved]. When I went to my ranger training, there was a moment with the woman who managed us. Shes a black woman, and most of the people in training were people of color, and there was this instant camaraderie between us. She said, We want you to do great, because we want to have more people who look like us, particularly as we can occupy the space between the Burning Man community and law enforcement. And I had this idea. In this past year, weve seen all these negative interactions between people of color and law enforcement. Of course people of color would flock not to a law enforcement place, but to be protectors of a community to say to ourselves, What can I do to be someone standing in this space between this community and the outside world? It was very healing.
- It you want to share your story of being a person of color at Burning Man, please email email@example.com