(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.
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.