When asked in a recent interview why Burning Man, the annual drug-fueled “crucible of creativity,” attracts such an overwhelmingly white crowd, the festival’s co-founder offered up his opinion: “I don’t think black folks like to camp as much as white folks,” Larry Harvey said.
In an interview with the Guardian, Harvey pushed back on the idea that the festival had become laden with white Silicon Valley types who were willing to pay upwards of $1,000 for a ticket on the secondary market, and that he wasn’t going to “set racial quotas.”
“My family is half black,” Harvey told the Guardian, pointing out that his ex-wife was from Jamaica and he related to hearing about a black burner feeling isolated because his son was biracial. “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.’ … There are some historic reasons for that, especially in the United States.”
“Remember a group that was enslaved and made to work,” he continued. “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.”
Indeed, outdoorsiness has been dominated by white people, from travel writing to marketing of gear. And other writers have made the connection to the historical reasons black people may not find camping so appealing.
Harvey was responding to allegations that a “black and lesbian” diversity consultant the festival hired called him a “son of a bitch” over his comment about black people not liking to camp. As the Guardian reported:
“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.”
The Guardian pointed to a Black Rock City census, which discovered that 87 percent of Burning Man attendees identified as white. Just 1.3 percent of attendees identified as black.
When the Guardian pushed him on these numbers, Harvey said that the very act of racial quotas was “condescending.”
“We’re not going to set up a Marxist state. … We see culture as a self-organizing thing. And we’re unwilling to impose and mandate behavior from the outside, we want to generate change from the inside,” he said.