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)

As Caveat explains, Burning Man is whatever participants bring to the table. Even the world-famous DJs spinning till dawn are entirely sponsored by participant supporters.

Black people who attend report being welcomed into the community, but it’s worth asking whether organizers should care about the event’s diversity. Racial inclusion is one of the 10 principles at the bedrock of the Burning Man ethos. “If Burning Man does not care, it is not living up to its own values,” said Caveat. But the event, he said (not speaking for the organization), is best served by “demonstrating the applicability and usefulness of those values” to minority communities, not by creating a diversity program.

“It has to become relevant to their lives,” he said. “It has to prove itself.”

But before it proves itself, people have to find out about it. When asked, Torri Wells, an officer in an Oakland, Calif.-based black skiers’ club — founded to foster participation in an activity that is stereotypically “nonblack” — said, “This is something that we just didn’t know about.” And this is despite her proximity to the event’s headquarters.

The cost of attending the event — which could be thousands of dollars once the price of the entrance ticket, food, travel and supplies is considered — is also a factor. Folks struggling financially — white or black — are unlikely to attend.

But perhaps the cultural issues are the most complex. “The perception of safety is different amoung white and minority cultures,” Caveat said. “There is a default assumption among white people that you can go out in the middle of the desert with 50,000 people that can charitably be called freaks and nothing really bad will happen to you. Historically, that would not be a safe assumption for minorities in America.”

Bruce Wade, a sociology professor at Spelman University, said blacks are now more free to stray from cultural norms than in the past, but there is still pressure to conform. “When I was growing up,” he said, “we weren’t supposed to listen to hard rock music or country and western, even though they came out of the blues tradition.”

An African-American attendee from Los Angeles agreed with the assessment. “I grew up being made fun of for liking things like this, for skateboarding and listening to rock music,” said Keir, who attended the event with several black friends.

Waleed Blouin, a third-year black “burner” from Los Angeles, would like to see the event become more diverse. “It’s an amazing place for people to visit,” said Blouin. “I would like to see it get browner and browner, but if it doesn’t that is all right.”

Ed Fletcher is a contributor to The Root.