With our bodies and clothes covered in a layer of dust, my five campmates and I shuffle exhaustedly into a Reno hotel at 11 p.m. After spending the entire day in a car, we crave only showers and sleep. The heavy overnight bags we carry are nothing compared to the bags under our eyes.
“You all went to that Burning Man thing, huh?” an older black man, standing in the lobby, says with a cheeky grin. “I don’t get you kids.”
Then, eyebrows raised, he looks directly at me. “And you went, too? But you’re black!”
The look on his face is one that’s familiar to me: I’m a conundrum—a young black woman who willingly attended the annual Burning Man festival on her own volition.
“Yes, I am black,” I respond with a nod and polite smile. “Thank you. Have a great day.”
I dodge the man’s question because the answer to why I proudly call Black Rock City “home” is more complex than most are prepared to hear.
It’s difficult to describe Burning Man, a temporary community erected in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, to someone who’s never been. Beyond being transformational, I can best describe it as a planet of fantasy come to life for one week each year.
As a human being, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to attend and keep attending—but as a black person, I feel that much more privileged. Why? Because there aren’t many of us who are able to make the canyon-sized leap to go and experience the Burning Man spirit.
Since its founding in 1986, radical inclusion has always been one of the festival’s core principles, but statistically, only a small percentage of people of color attend every year. Although blacks make up nearly 12% of the total U.S. population, the Black Rock City census reported that only 1.3% of Burners (some 900 out of 70,000 attendees in 2015) described themselves as “black.”
As someone who’s been to the festival three years in a row, I can attest to its need for more diversity. Racially, Burning Man is very “vanilla” when it comes to the shades of its attendees. In my first year, I ran into more white people visiting the Burn from Australia than blacks from America or elsewhere, combined. I rejoice when I see POC out on the playa, and will stop what I’m doing to embrace other beautiful brown-skinned people when we cross paths—because I know what they’ve overcome to get there.
So why isn’t Burning Man more diverse? Last year, founder Larry Harvey said he thought it was because black people don’t like camping, but this explanation feels glib. Sure, camping isn’t a common black activity, but more and more of us are trying it.
Besides, Burning Man is a lot more than just camping. Attendees spend an entire week in a barren desert with hundreds of thousands of strangers from around the world. We’re completely removed from the “default world,” and immersed in a new society with entirely different expectations. It’s a heavy financial (my first Burn costed a total of $1,000), physical (you navigate a maze of a city and deal with the elements, like oppressive heat and dust storms), and emotional (you create a temporary home alongside tons of other people doing all sorts of activities) investment that requires a high level of trust in the self and community. Relentlessly intense and demanding, it’s not easy to back out after you cross the gate into Black Rock City.
I believe there aren’t more Burners of color because they’re either unable to overcome said obstacles, or unable to see the value in overcoming them.
After my lifelong friend, who is Jewish, invited me to attend in 2014, I bombarded him with questions: Are there other black people there? Is it dangerous? What do you do all day? Why is it worth all the effort? He repeatedly assured me that Burning Man would help me find what I was seeking—a break from an existence that was breaking me, and to figure out what I truly wanted out of life—if I just opened myself up to the experience.
During my first Burn, I attended a workshop called “I’m black and on the playa,” which attracted more than 100 people of color and their allies calling for greater diversity at the festival. Lack of physical comfort was a commonly cited reason by first-time black attendees for why POC avoid Burning Man: “No showering means a no for me,” “I like sleeping in my own bed,” “I don’t like all that techno music,” and “What do I do about my hair?” (a serious concern for black women).
But other answers delved deeper into the socio-economic difficulties that prevent marginalized groups from experiencing a Burn. Some expressed concern that white Burners might be racist. One mentioned a fear of being around white people burning things, harkening back to a dark time in American history when the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on his family’s lawn. These are valid worries, but I’m thankful that I’ve only encountered rare instances of racism on the playa. Mostly, what I've witnessed is the casual cultural appropriation that happens at many festivals, such as white people wearing dreadlocks or Native American headdresses for show. Fortunately, much of the greater Burning Man community condemns these actions.
Another factor that can turn off a potential Burner of color is the overwhelming number of rich white people at the festival. As The Guardian reported, “The temporary city is home to twice as many people who earn $300,000 a year as it is to black people." This year, the luxury camp “White Ocean” was vandalized, reportedly in protest against its elitism. Such camps are exclusive to wealthy attendees, and directly contradict Burner philosophy of radical inclusion.
Not everyone can sacrifice the time or money needed to attend Burning Man. Planning leading up to the festival is intense, and involves weeks of meal prep, buying goods, and requesting time off of work. Without help and my friend’s insistence that the experience was worth it, I wouldn’t have bothered.
So why, as a black person, is it worth going?
Because Burning Man is like a pressure cooker for your soul, curing you and daring you and inspiring you. “Try this, you might love it” the playa whispers from every dusty corner, tempting attendees with adventure and emotional growth. The level of human creativity, connectivity, and elevated consciousness at Burning Man is like nothing I have ever encountered before. I entered my first Burn as a complete mess of a person, emotionally—I was near giving up. But on that first night, after walking out on a playa glowing with neon lights and rainbows, my inner child woke up from near death ready for adventure.
I’m confident that it was my time at Burning Man—not psychoanalysis, not prescription medication, not group therapy, not prayer (all of which I've tried)—that cured my decade of depression. There, I felt seen, accepted, and loved for who I truly am. The societal expectation of being a “strong black woman who can do it all” melted away. The real me soared and grew from my weeks on the playa, something that would’ve taken decades of searching out in the real world.
Black people who attend Burning Man are aware that we’re in the minority, and I know I’ll continue getting “that look” when strangers discover I’m a Burner, but joining the community has brought out the best in me. That’s more than worth the hardships.
I’d love to see more POC out on the playa, especially black people from the U.S., as I know how desperately some of us need an escape from the weight we’re constantly holding in our hearts. Where can we breathe in a society that’s constantly devaluing our lives? How can we create in a culture that suppresses or appropriates everything we produce? The burden of being black in America is profound, and only at Burning Man can I escape that.
“Just because we're magic, does not mean we're not real,” actor Jesse Williams aptly said of the black American struggle. I never felt both magic and real anywhere other than Burning Man. Black Rock City is a world removed from this world—it’s not easy to describe, but it’s a privilege to experience.
Yodassa Williams is a humor and fantasy writer based in the California Bay Area. She works freelance in fashion, is a performing storyteller, and hosts a video blog on YouTube in addition to her writing endeavors.