Is Burning Man a “White People Thing?”

Is this what Burning Man’s like? Maybe on Wednesday?

A close friend of mine was asking me about Burning Man.  She’s a black woman from Brooklyn.  “Nope,” she said eventually, with some frustration.  “I don’t think I’ll be going to Burning Man!”

“Why not?” I asked.  She should.  She’s magnificent.

“It’s a white people thing!”

Whoa.  I asked her to tell me more about that.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that phrase applied to Burning Man.  My very first burn I was astonished to realize that an event that draws so heavily from the diverse San Francisco Bay would produce a population so colorless.  From camp to camp, end to end, it was a long block of white as far as the eye could see, with only occasional dots of diversity … rare enough to raise comment.  Where were the Asians?  Where were the Hispanics?  Where were the black people?

Shortly after I first asked myself that question I met a black man tending bar at a camp with a slip-n-slide.  I sat down, he gave me a drink, and I said “can I ask you a potentially difficult question?” He said sure.  In hindsight, I’m pretty sure he was expecting me to hit on him.

“I notice there are almost no minorities here,” I told him.  “You’re the first black person I’ve seen.  Any idea why that is?”

The term “white people thing” came up in his answer.

Since that time I’ve met more minorities on the playa – but not nearly as many as I’d expect.  There’s a reason for that:  according to the 2010 Black Rock Census only 13% of event attendees consider themselves to be a person of color – noticeably lower than the national population of 28% (according to 2010 census data – although it’s not entirely comparing apples to apples).

And that doesn’t take into account the fact that Burning Man draws heavily from far more diverse areas like the San Francisco Bay (where only 49% of the population considers itself white) and New York City (45%):  if Burning Man were pulling people in proportionately its 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 a point of asking some of them (when I remember) about this issue, as well as the diverse friends of mine … like my friend in Brooklyn … who I think would make great burners but who say it’s not for them.   Their surprisingly unanimous conclusion:  Burning Man, while it may be great … “I love Burning Man, and I love Burners,” said one minority burner I’ve grown close to, “but these are some crazy ass white people, and this is their thing.”

At the risk of sounding like a Twitter tag:  Why is Burning Man a white people thing

Generally speaking, I’ve been told, there are four reasons:

1)       Burning Man requires a sense of security that is not common in American minority communities.

White people in America have a working assumption that they can go anywhere and be reasonably safe.  Historically, that has not been a realistic assumption for minorities.  For too many of them, for too many generations, it has been essential that they avoid dangerous environments and heed warning signs.

“White people expect that they’re going to be okay,” I was told.  “Black people think that they need to be prepared for something extremely bad to happen.   That means differences in behavior.”

For people who don’t assume everything is going to turn out fine, the idea of going out to the middle of the desert and surrounding yourself with naked people playing with fire has plenty of red flags.

Indeed, the very name “Burning Man” might say “neo-pagan festival” to white people, but not to everyone else.  “Hey, I have relatives from Louisiana to whom the words ‘burning man’ says something very different.  We don’t talk about it much, but they make sure we’re all aware.  That’s not a good image.”

This emphasis on security as a concern is also an issue with Asian American culture, I’ve been told.  “My parents came to this country and worked their whole adult lives to create a secure environment.  That’s always the emphasis they gave to us too:  find security,” one Asian burner told me.  “I love Burning Man, but this is not the kind of environment you go to if you’re determined to find security.  It’s an environment you go to when you’re not worried about it.”

2)       The sexual mores of minority cultures tend to be significantly more conservative than those of Burners

Hispanic, Asian, and Black communities in America are often tied tightly to community churches, and those churches tend to be more conservative.  The result, I was told, was that even among minority non-believers and liberals of faith, the sexual mores can be habitually more buttoned down.

“Are you seriously telling me your friend’s girlfriend kissed you?” I was asked in one conversation with a non-burner I consider a close friend.  “On the lips?  Oh no.  You see … we don’t share.”  This wasn’t a conversation about polyandry … just social norms.  “Somebody says hello like that to my boyfriend?  We’re not okay, and he’d better not be okay either.”

The nudity at Burning Man likewise comes up as an issue – not something that is condemned so much as something that people “just aren’t comfortable with.”

There’s also the disturbing legacy of what happens when minorities get sexually involved with white people (see “security” above).  Historically, it has been wise for minorities to avoid any sexually charged situations involving white men and women.  “It’s something we watch out for that you don’t so much,” I was told.

A black male friend of mine referred to it as “The Emmett Till effect,” after the black man who was abducted and lynched in 1955 – and whose killers were acquitted.  That history’s hard to shake.

“Black men, in particular, are not going to feel comfortable in a sexually charged, public environment with flirty white women and overhyped, anarchic white guys,” he told me.  “If somebody’s white girlfriend starts being affectionate with me in public, I’m immediately on my guard and watching him to see if he took offence, and checking the eyes of every white male around to see if he got pissed. They may be super liberal at Burning Man, but there are racist liberals too, they just hide it better.”

3)      It would be difficult to get acceptance from one’s family and community

“I don’t really talk to my family about what happens out here,” one minority burner told me.  “It’s easier that way.  The reaction is always ‘that’s a white people thing.’  I’m used to doing things my family doesn’t understand or approve of.  It’s harder for other people.”

“There’s really no support for going from my friends,” another said.

This eventually leads to a self-selection phenomenon:  minorities don’t go to Burning Man because they don’t go to Burning Man.

“My relatives, down to my third cousins or whatever, are not part of the route that news of an event of this kind will take,” said a Hispanic friend of mine who would do really, really, really well at Burning Man if I can ever get him to come.  “I’m easily the closest they would come to having access to knowledge of Burning Man, but we are mutually culturally alien enough that this transmission wouldn’t even happen in the first place, say, at family party during the course of hanging out.”

4)       A different history with counter-culture movements

“To me, Burning Man is a flower-power thing,” I was told by a minority non-burner.  “That comes from white history.  In the 60s blacks did civil rights, whites did flower-power.  So Burning Man seems like freedom to you, but nothing about Burning Man seems like freedom to us.”  This is obviously an overgeneralization, but one with a lot of truth to it.

“Minority rebellion in the 60s 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 had that recognition.   They were concerned with expressing their individuality.  It’s completely different.”

You can see it in the slogans.  A civil rights slogan of the 60s:  “I am a Man.”

The flower power slogan of the 60s:  “Let your freak flag fly!”

It’s obvious how Burning Man resembles the second one;  it’s not clear to me how it descends from the first.

Another issue:  without the kind of social safety net many whites take for granted (see “security” above … yet again) the legacy of counter-culture sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll was far more devastating to minority communities.  “You can romanticize getting wild and getting high and not having any limits, but we saw all the people like us who had this kind of lifestyle destroyed in the 70s.  They died or they burned out or they were targeted by the police and the FBI.”

Are these perspectives true?  I have no idea:  but it’s what I’ve been told over the past few years.  I don’t pretend to have any answers.  I also know that these are crass generalizations that don’t necessarily speak to any individual’s experience.

But Burning Man prizes diversity in so many ways – it strikes me as worth trying to understand the ways in which that message fails to come across.  I also think it’s an interesting lens through which to look at American culture as a whole.  I know I’ve learned something.

Finally, I don’t pretend to speak for burners of color.  I hope they’ll speak for themselves in the comments section.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

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