Blacks at Burning Man

The eclectic annual desert festival has never attracted many revelers of color. Is that changing?

Black burners Cynthia S., Keir, Pamala Crawford and Chris R. at Burning Man 2012 (Ed Fletcher)
Black burners Cynthia S., Keir, Pamala Crawford and Chris R. at Burning Man 2012 (Ed Fletcher)

(The Root) — Joe, an ebony queen in braids and a teal bikini top, stood out like an oasis in a sea of whiteness as she poured drinks and dispatched sass at the Ministry of Misinformation, one of hundreds of makeshift free “bars” at Burning Man.

Her presence refuted the notion that black people don’t take part in the annual counterculture event — running from Aug. 27 to Sept. 3 this year — which is expected to draw more than 50,000 people to a barren Nevada desert lake bed 100 miles north of Reno.

Black people do “burn,” a colloquial term for participating in the event, just not that many of them.

“I’m home,” Joe announced to the dozen or so people vying for her attention and waiting their turn to play the camp’s super-sized truth-or-dare jinga. New friends are fast in this alternate universe, where first names or a made-up “playa name” suffice.

While Burning Man is by no means exclusively white, seeing another person of color is worthy of a head nod or a hug. The relatively low numbers hold true for Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans.

“It’s not a secret that Burning Man doesn’t represent a very diverse population at least racially or ethnically,” said Caveat, a white event volunteer. But he wondered why Burning Man didn’t better reflect the demographics of the city in which it was born — San Francisco. He recently posed the question, “Is Burning Man a White People Thing?” in a blog post.

The answer? Not entirely. Still, African-American attendee Pamala Crawford, of Los Angeles, has been on a mission to bring more friends since she was introduced to the event three years ago. Like most people she learned about it through people she knew.

“What attracted me was the energy they brought back,” said Crawford. “There is something for everyone.”

By most accounts, more and more people of color agree with Crawford’s assessment. In 2011, a nonscientific survey conducted by the Burning Man organization found that 12 percent of participants reported being a person of color. Another 12 percent reported “sometimes” considering themselves a person of color.

In its 26th year, Burning Man has grown from a beach bonfire into a world event populated with generator-powered dance clubs, ambitious art projects and whatever participants dream up — from rope bridges, to a plywood roller skating rink, to empowerment lectures.

Burning Man grew, literally, by word of mouth. The event does not market itself to the outside world and has no advertising. Until the age of the Internet, images of the event were not easy to find. Even now, organizers tightly control their media exposure.