B urning Man founder Larry Harvey has countered criticism of the lack of racial diversity at the festival by saying that part of the reason there are so few black attendees (known as burners) is that “I don’t think black folks like to camp as much as white folks”.
In an interview with the Guardian, Harvey vowed that “we’re not going to set racial quotas”, defended the presence of rich Silicon Valley executives at the festival, and said he will personally go undercover this week to investigate the luxurious camps of ultra-wealthy tech bosses said by the New York Times to boast chefs, air conditioning and servants.
According to the most recent Black Rock city census , complied yearly by a team of academic demographers and anthropologists to determine the makeup of the festival, 87% of burners identified as white; 6% identified as Hispanic, 6% as Asian, and 2% as Native Americans (figures rounded) – on the latter of whose ancestral lands the event occurs. The smallest demographic of burners – 1.3% – identified as black. According to the census, which also measures income, this means that the temporary city is home to twice as many people who earn $300,000 a year as it is to black people.
So given that the first of the festival’s 10 principles is “racial inclusion” , what does it mean that the festival’s vision of a utopian society is 90% white?
“This has never been, imagined by us, as a utopian society,” Harvey answered. “I’ll believe in utopia when I meet my first perfect person, and this community is made up of 70,000 imperfect persons.
“That being the case,” he continued, “I think it’s a little much to expect the organisation to solve the problem of racial parity. We do see a fast-increasing influx of Asians, black folks. I actually see black folks out here, unlike some of our liberal critics.”
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Dan Drahos dances at the Robot Heart during the morning hours at Burning Man. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters
Black burners are not an abstract concept for Harvey: “My family is half black,” he said. “I see black people! And they’re here. Though I got a lot of criticism for once saying, ‘Well I don’t think black people like to camp’.” Harvey’s comment drew nervous laughter from other Burning Man staff and members of international media at a press conference before the Guardian’s interview. “There are some historic reasons for that, especially in the United States.”
Asked later to expand on this, Harvey told the Guardian: “Remember a group that was enslaved and made to work. Slavishly, you know in the fields. This goes all the way back to the Caribbean scene, when the average life of a slave in the fields was very short. And, so, there’s that background, that agrarian poverty associated with things. Maybe your first move isn’t to go camping. Seriously.”
The rest of the year, Harvey lives in the historically black Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco. “My wife is from Jamaica. My ex-wife. My stepchildren – and then there’s my son. So, it’s a biracial family.
“In my neighbourhood,” he added, “the thing to do was to get a good-looking car, and people would sit on stoops, and you’d stop your car in the middle of the street and you’d start talking. That was society. And that involved a lot of display, a lot of dress, a lot of attention to style. But the idea of getting down in the dirt? Not particularly popular.”
“You think I am full of crap?” Harvey asked the Guardian. Not entirely: his responses are not entirely out of line with what some (though not all) black burners have told me.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Participants gather to watch the flames from the art car El Popo Mechanico during Burning Man. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters
But Harvey had harsh words for a diversity consultant the organisation hired who “was black, and lesbian, and she had a niche in the nonprofit world, because they’re always trying to check off those boxes, in terms of quotas, so they can say [they are diverse].
“At a certain point, she made a speech which was pro forma, which I didn’t know was the speech she always made, about the racial question. I said ‘Well, I don’t think black folks like to camp as much as white folks!’ And she said ‘You son of a bitch!’ And then there was a guy, who did a sort of white man shuffle in response, and said,” – Harvey dropped his voice – “‘We understand.’”
Afterwards, Harvey went to the consultant. “I took it seriously, and I said, ‘Listen. You’ve got to have connections with all these black arts or community groups. And I will go anywhere and talk to anyone you direct me to.’ She never got back to me. And it’s only later I realised I had never seen her with a black person. She lived in a white nonprofit world. She didn’t really represent the black community. She wasn’t asking us to do anything. It was just this pose she had to strike.”
Harvey believes that more black people will come to Burning Man, following his family’s example. “I have contributed. Because, my stepson and my stepdaughter and my ex-wife are here.”
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Deby Dai dances before sunrise. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters
Early in Burning Man’s history, Harvey was upset to hear about a black burner who felt isolated. “I know how she felt. My son is biracial, if that term makes any sense, but he’s considered black because it’s a touch of the brush [which] brands you black anywhere. So I’ve encountered that, in reactions to my family.”
His stepson, he says, was arrested in Marin County, the wealthy suburban county north of the Golden Gate bridge “more than once, where he lived, of DWB: which is driving while black. [White people] seem to think if you drive past their homes, you’re reducing their property values, and the cops act like they’re some kind of mall security force. It’s pretty racist.”
Such experiences have confirmed Harvey’s disdain for “white liberal circles,” who he says preach diversity while calling the cops on someone like his son. “Don’t tell me all this chest-thumping about the racial question is without hypocrisy.”
Meanwhile he is defensive about allegations of Burning Man and wealth – both that of the organisation, and of its campers: “We’re not going to judge people in terms of the amount of wealth they bring to the event.” He downplayed how much profit the festival makes, and denied the timing (though not interest) of a potential purchase of nearby land for future festivals recently reported by New York magazine . He said Silicon Valley “had always been well represented” at Burning Man, and dismissed recent stories about tech titans here as “the story of the day”.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Participants compete in the Carnival of Death race. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters
Harvey said the problem with luxurious “plug and play camps” was not that they were made of wealthy people, but that they were violating Burning Man’s community spirit as gated communities with no connection to their neighbors. He said reforms had been instigated, and that he was personally going undercover to investigate all of those camps to see if a stranger was welcomed.
But if he’s going to personally look at the role of the super-wealthy, how aggressively to address race and Burning Man? Harvey said an attempt to conjure appropriate amount of racial diversity involving quotas “in itself would be an act of condescension, wouldn’t it?”
“We’re not going to set up a Marxist state,” he said. “We see culture as a self-organising thing. And we’re unwilling to impose and mandate behavior from the outside, we want to generate change from the inside.”
Change from the inside of a population that is disproportionately white compared to the demographics of Nevada, the United States, and the globe? “I hope I haven’t said anything too incendiary,” Harvey concluded.