Burning Man at 20

'Inclusive' is illusive for burners

San Francisco Chronicle/September 3, 2005
By Vanessa Marlin

Black Rock City, Nevada -- The absence of people of color at an event touted by founder Larry Harvey as "radically inclusive'' is a popular topic of discussion among burners.

"We're f -- ing here this year, and I'm a happy bastard," says Black Light, who would not give his real name. He is from Brooklyn and founded the Land of Califa camp, made up exclusively of African Americans. Members of the camp perform tribal music and create "meals of cultural delight" such as jerk chicken and collard greens.

Observant veterans say the number of minority burners, as those who attend Burning Man call themselves, is slowly expanding, pointing to camps like Roller Disco, lorded over by the "Godfather of Skate," David D. Miles, who is African American and runs Friday Night Skate in San Francisco. His assistants, who teach people to skate with secondhand skates, are Latino, African American and Asian.

Although diversity is being addressed in creative ways by some burners, Burning Man spokeswoman "Maid" Marian Goodell dismisses the topic as irrelevant in a short discussion laced with expletives.

"This isn't a white-Euro bunch," she says. "We're totally mixed."

But that's hard to tell on the playa.

Harvey acknowledges the lack of diversity, although he says no statistical studies have been done.

Burning Man's official census purposely does not collect information on race or ethnicity. The form simply asks whether the person filling it out considers himself white or not, and "Does this question offend you?"

Harvey says the race question comes up every year, but it's not right to put Burning Man in the position of fixing historical racial injustice.

Juke Mackey of Oregon, whose ancestry is Norwegian and African American, has been coming to Burning Man for 11 years and brought his 12-year-old daughter Sofi this year.

He says the inclusive dynamics of Burning Man unite people of all ages, ethnicities and economic backgrounds. "From corporate lawyers to a step above homeless, people you would never put together are here like it's our family reunion."

Harvey says as the father of a mixed-race child, diversity is important to him. He says the absence of minorities reflects the larger issue of social injustice.

"There is a justifiable fear among minorities about leaving their tight- knit communities," he says. "Not to mention the enormous cost."

Harvey says he doesn't want Burning Man to get a reputation as a redneck, lily-white festival. But he understands why Burning Man is attractive for white people who lack tight-knit cultural communities.

"Whites are radically isolated from their families and each other," he said. "It's easy to get lost in a life where no one is connected."

Harvey hopes word of mouth will bring more minorities to Burning Man, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Burning Man's arms are open to everyone, he said.

Black Light, the burner from Brooklyn, is doing his best to spread the word. He's recruiting his friends of color to come to Burning Man and hopes his Land of Califa camp is an inspiration to others. "What I get out of Burning Man is freedom of expression and a sense of common bond beyond racial lines," he said.

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