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Posted Sep 8th, 2015 (3:07 pm) by Kyle Hiller
Image by Scott Beale/ Laughing Squid

Larry Harvey, founder of Burning Man, made some questionable comments about the lack of black attendants to the yearly festival. His comments, albeit clumsy and stirring, were partly correct. Partly.

Growing up in West Philadelphia, a neighborhood that was homogeneously black until the late 2000s, I'd never heard of Burning Man Festival. Taking place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, it's far away from home. But even if the festival took place in central Pennsylvania, I doubt that word would travel through the pipeline into conversations taking place on the corner streets around my way. But according to Larry Harvey, the reason for the lack of diversity at Burning Man, is that black folks don't like to camp as much as white folks.

His statements made in an interview with The Guardian weren't well received. I cringed when I first read about it. But you know what? He's sort of right.

What he said isn't the problem. Harvey, who lives in a historically black neighborhood in San Francisco, and has an ex-wife and children that are of Jamaican descent, isn't playing a game. He's not looking to meet a racial quota with the festival. Nearly 90% of the 'burners' were white. Only 1.3% were black. If these are the numbers the festival draws, then so be it, right?

The problem is that the week-long event is labeled as an open invitation, for people to gather around and share an experience in a temporary metropolis. The first of Burning Man's 10 Principles, Radical Inclusion, cites that "anyone can be part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community." But with the amount of power Harvey has, he's deliberately chosen not to make any difference about the lack of diversity at Burning Man.

This is where the next problem stems, and it's bigger than Burning Man. Radical inclusion, outside of the festival's own 10 Principles, rarely exists in America. Culturally diverse people aren't showing up to festivals like this because the education and the awareness of the events aren't showing up in their community. The dialogue isn't being had, whether it be from a brochure or an experience someone in the community is discussing. No one in West Philadelphia is talking about Burning Man. No one has heard of it. If no quota is being sought, then this is never going to change.

We weren't the only ones balking at his comments. Harvey initially had a conversation with a consultant (who was black and a lesbian) that touched on the issue. When he told her about black folks not liking to camp as much as white folks, the thought didn't sit well. But the consultant was also from an affluent white community; she likely didn't have much of a connection with the black community. Harvey went on to make an analogy that resonated with me: “Remember a group that was enslaved and made to work. Slavishly, you know in the fields...And, so, there’s that background, that agrarian poverty associated with things. Maybe your first move isn’t to go camping.”

Subconsciously, yes, there could be a connection there, but I don't know how much that bodes with the current generation of black people. Generally, we just don't like the idea of camping. The bugs, the heat, living without electricity, sleeping on the ground, fear of bears, the threat of the unknown. The reasons are often exaggerated and based in ignorance of what it's really like. But maybe we don't like trying new things, neither. What are we so afraid of as black people? And why do we get so sensitive when someone with lighter skin tells us a general truth about our culture? And who is anyone to say what a culture of people does or doesn't typically do? For me to say that black folks don't like to camp as much as white folks is as potentially offensive as someone who isn't black to say it.

Slow down with the stereotypes. And slow down with the angle of being black, or using blacks in your family as leverage in making cumbersome commentary. Harvey's son was recently arrested for DWB (Driving While Black). Harvey has also been vocal against white liberals who advocate diversity but also will call the cops on the same people. His experience is vicarious, but Harvey has gotten a close-to-home glimpse at what it's like to be black in America. It's only a glimpse, though. But it's enough to see that there is parity, and if he wants people like his son to be radically included, then Harvey should consider more carefully about what comes out of his mouth next when talking about it, even if he is speaking in general truths.

Change isn't easy for either side. I remember once in 2006 getting discriminated against by other black people because a friend and I had skateboards. We were on a late night bus ride out of a bad neighborhood and the group, probably in their early 20s, vulgarly hackled us about being nerds and called us oreos, amongst other things. It's a huge problem in the black community: when you try something different, you will be scrutinized for it. Yet, fastforward to 2015 and I see black skateboarders everywhere now, even in the area where I experienced the discrimination. If someone brought up the idea of going to Burning Man in 2016, I would go. It's an experience, and I'm not going to rule it out because of some clumsy commentary from Harvey or some ignorant ridicule from within my own community. Change can happen, albeit slowly. Cultures can merge and adopt, even if reluctantly. It happens. It's possible. But change is always a rocky road. Both Harvey and people of diversity would have to travel the same path if radical inclusion is to become a conventional thing.

The lack of diversity in events and communities like Burning Man will continue to exist until everyone--white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, all of us--start thinking for ourselves and forming our own opinions as opposed to perpetuating and conforming to what we've retrieved from the internet.

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