That’s not the first time I’ve heard that term used in reference to Burning Man. My first ever burn I was surprised that an event that draws so extensively from the varied San Francisco Bay would create such a monochromatic population. From camp to camp, end to end, there was a vast stretch of white as far as the eye could reach, with just a few specks of color here and there… uncommon enough to draw attention. Where had all the Asians gone? Where had all the Hispanics gone? Where had all the black folks gone?
I met a black guy tending bar at a camp with a slip-and-slide not long after I initially asked myself that question. I took a seat, he poured me a drink, and I said, “May I ask you a potentially difficult question?” Sure, he said. In retrospect, I believe he was expecting me to hit on him.
“I notice there aren’t many minorities here,” I observed. “You’re the first black person I’ve encountered.” “Do you know why?”
In his response, he used the phrase “white people thing.”
I’ve encountered more minorities on the playa since then, but not nearly as many as I’d think. There’s a reason for this: according to the 2010 Black Rock Census, just 13% of event attendees identify as people of color, which is much lower than the national population of 28% (according to 2010 census statistics – but it’s not totally apples to apples).
That doesn’t account for the fact that Burning Man draws heavily from far more diverse areas such as San Francisco Bay (where only 49% of the population considers itself white) and New York City (45%): if Burning Man drew people in proportionately, the level of racial diversity would be higher, not lower.
So what’s the deal?
As I’ve met more minority burners over the years, I’ve made it a point to question them about it (when I remember), as well as my varied friends… like my buddy in Brooklyn… who I believe would make amazing burners but claim it’s not for them.Their remarkably united conclusion: Burning Man, although fantastic… “I love Burning Man and I love Burners,” one minority burner told me, “but these are some crazy ass white people, and this is their thing.”
At the risk of sounding like a Twitter hashtag, why is Burning Man just for white people?
According to what I’ve been taught, there are four reasons:
1) Burning Man necessitates a level of protection that is uncommon in American minority communities.
In America, white people have a working assumption that they can travel wherever and be pretty secure. Historically, minorities have not been able to make that assumption. For far too many of them, for far too many generations, it has been critical that they avoid hazardous surroundings and pay attention to warning indications.
“White people believe they will be fine,” I was informed. “Black people believe that they must be prepared for anything truly horrible to occur. That implies behavioral differences.”
Going out to the middle of the desert and surrounding yourself with nude individuals playing with fire raises a lot of warning lights for folks who don’t think everything will come out OK.
To white people, the word “Burning Man” may imply a “neo-pagan festival,” but not to everyone else. “Hey, I have cousins from Louisiana that interpret the phrase ‘burning guy’ rather differently. We don’t speak much about it, but they make sure we’re all aware of it. That’s hardly a favorable impression.”
This focus on security as a worry, I’ve been informed, is also a problem in Asian American society. “My parents immigrated to this country and spent their entire adult lives working to create a safe environment.” “That was always the emphasis they put on us as well: find security,” one Asian burner told me. “I enjoy Burning Man, but this is not the kind of place to go if you’re looking for security.” It’s a place you go when you’re not bothered about anything.”
2) Minority cultures’ sexual mores are much more conservative than those of Burners.
Hispanic, Asian, and Black communities in America are often inextricably linked to community churches, which tend to be more conservative. As a consequence, I was informed, even among minority non-believers and religious liberals, sexual norms may be more conservative.
“Are you telling me that your friend’s girlfriend kissed you?” In one chat with a non-burner I consider a good friend, I was asked. “On your lips?” Oh no. We don’t share, you see.” This was not a discussion on polyandry… Simply social norms. “Someone greets my boyfriend like that?” We’re not OK, and he best not be either.”
Nudity at Burning Man is also mentioned as a concern – not so much as something to be denounced as something that people “just aren’t comfortable with.”
There’s also the unsettling history of what occurs when minorities have sexual relationships with white people (see “security” above). Minorities have historically avoided sexually charged settings involving white men and women. “It’s something we keep an eye out for that you don’t,” I was informed.
My black male buddy dubbed it “The Emmett Till effect,” after the black man who was kidnapped and killed in 1955 – and whose assailants were acquitted. That history is difficult to shake.
“Black men, in particular, will not feel at ease in a sexually charged, public environment with flirty white women and overhyped, anarchic white guys,” he said. “If someone’s white girlfriend begins to be affectionate with me in public, I’m immediately on guard, watching him to see if he took offense, and checking the eyes of every white male around to see if he got pissed.” They may be really liberal at Burning Man, but there are racist liberals there as well, they just disguise it better.”
3) Gaining approval from one’s family and community would be challenging.
“I don’t really talk to my family about what’s going on out here,” one minority burner said. “It’s just easier that way.” ‘That’s a white people thing,’ they constantly say. I’m accustomed to doing things that my family either doesn’t understand or approves of. It’s more difficult for others.”
“There’s really no support from my friends for going,” another added.
This ultimately leads to self-selection: minorities do not attend Burning Man because they do not attend Burning Man.
“My relatives, down to third cousins or whatever, are not part of the route that news of an event of this kind will take,” commented a Hispanic friend of mine who would do really well at Burning Man if I could ever convince him to join. “I’m easily the closest they’d come to knowing about Burning Man, but we’re mutually culturally alien enough that this transmission wouldn’t even happen in the first place, say, at a family party while hanging out.”
4) A distinct past marked by counter-culture movements
“To me, Burning Man is a flower-power thing,” a minority non-burner told me. “That is a product of white history.” In the 1960s, blacks marched for civil rights, while whites marched for flower power. So Burning Man represents freedom to you, but nothing about it represents freedom to us.” This is definitely an oversimplification, yet it contains a lot of truth.
“In the 1960s, minority rebellion saw itself as engaged in a project of claiming and reclaiming recognition as persons and as a People,” another minority non-burner said. “White rebellion didn’t need to do that: whites already knew that.” They were preoccupied with displaying their uniqueness. It’s entirely different.”
It’s clear from the slogans. “I am a Man,” a 1960s civil rights slogan.
“Let your freak flag fly!” was a flower power slogan from the 1960s.
Burning Man clearly resembles the second, but I’m not sure how it descended from the first.
Another issue: given the absence of the type of social safety net that many whites take for granted (see “security” above… once again), the legacy of counter-culture sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll was considerably more detrimental to minority communities. “You can romanticize getting wild and high and not having any limits, but in the 1970s, we saw all the people like us who had this kind of lifestyle destroyed.” They perished, burnt out, or were targeted by the police and FBI.”
Are these points of view correct? I’m not sure, but that’s what I’ve been taught throughout the years. I’m not claiming to have any solutions. I’m also aware that these are broad generalizations that don’t necessarily apply to any one person’s experience.
But, since Burning Man values variety in so many ways, it seems worthwhile to investigate the ways in which that message is lost. I also believe it’s an intriguing perspective through which to see American society in general. I’m certain I’ve learnt something.
Finally, I make no claim to speak for color burners. I’m hoping they’ll speak out in the comments area.
Caveat is the Media Mecca Volunteer Coordinator at Burning Man. You may reach him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com.