Diversity in BRC: Census Data Interpreted by a Biracial Burner

By Bianca Ruffin

Diversity has become such a buzzword in recent months that I’m almost sick of it. I say this as a person that checks off a lot of columns defined as minority — I’m female, I’m black, I’m of mixed ethnicity, I speak two languages and I’m not straight. I’ve yet to truly pinpoint why I’m so frustrated with the word “diversity” outside of it often feeling like empty and misaligned rhetoric. It probably taps into some deep-rooted feelings I’ve grown up with as a mixed-race minority. Yet here I am: discussing diversity and Burning Man.

When I lived in Germany, my dad, brother and I were the only non-white people that lived in our town. I was the only black person in my school. I don’t remember feeling like an outsider as a kid because I was too preoccupied with kid stuff like racing my brother through the cow barn next to where we lived. When we moved back to the US, I vividly remember being excited for the impending yellow school buses and other people who looked like me.

The reality of the move hit me harder than I was prepared for. I went to incredibly diverse schools, and while I thought this would be awesome, initially my German accent and broken English put me in a category of outsiders and primed me for ridicule. As my English improved and my accent ebbed, that feeling never quite lifted — once I sounded the part, I still didn’t look the part. I was too white to fit in with the majority of black kids, and I was too black to ever be considered part of the white demographic.

Something felt isolating about this. I wasn’t sure where I fit in, and that lead to years of questioning my existence. In part I think that’s why I decided to go to Burning Man. I was already an outlier. There were big changes I wanted to make in my life but was too afraid to pursue. Why not go join a big group of other outliers doing their best not to succumb to a relatively unforgiving climate?

What I did expect out of Burning Man was a challenge. Boy was it ever a challenge. What I did not expect out of Burning Man was a place of belonging. My skin color didn’t really matter. The work I put into helping my camp run smoothly mattered. Keeping myself alive mattered. Finding new ways to solve the most random problems mattered. My ethnicity? Not so much. It’s quite honestly one of the most liberating feelings I’ve had to date.

When I look at the data about who makes up the Black Rock City population, it gives me pause — so few black people are there, particularly in proportion to the rest of the US where, according to the 2015 US Census, black people make up 12 percent of the population. We only make up  one percent in Black Rock City. I don’t have the slightest clue if this is an issue to be tackled or if it’s just an interesting bit of information to digest — one of Burning Man’s ethos is “Radical Inclusion”, and 44.4 percent of the citizens of Black Rock City rank this principle in their top three when asked which of the 10 Principles was most important to them. Despite the relevance of Radical Inclusion, the population has historically been overwhelmingly white. Burners of all races and colors seem to enjoy this perplexing social experiment in the desert. Let’s take a look at the statistics:

Ethnoracial Diversity in BRC in 2015

Of the approximately 70,000 people that converged in the desert in 2015 to create Black Rock City, 14 percent identify as Hispanic, Asian, Native American, black, or something other than non-Hispanic white. 5.8 percent identify as one or more of the aforementioned as well as non-Hispanic white. This means 80.2 percent of the population self-identify as non-Hispanic white. This is particularly interesting because in the US, 62 percent of the population identifies as non-Hispanic white. Also, one in five citizens of Black Rock City is not from the US, and most of the foreign nationals come from countries with a high percentage of white-identified citizens such as Canada, Australia, UK and the rest of Europe.

Proportion of Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Native American, and Black Respondents

Shifting to the ethnoracial categories outside those identified as white-only, in 2015 it’s compelling to note how these citizens of Black Rock City self-identify. Hispanic people make up 6.5 percent, Asian people make up the next largest group at 5.9 percent, and a sizable chunk of people, 3.9 percent, chose “Other”. The smallest ethnoracial groups are “Multiple” (people that identify as more than one race) at 1.3 percent, Native American people at 1.2 percent and black people at 1 percent. The above graph also indicates how many people also checked white. For example, I’m part of the 0.3 percent in the black column that identifies as both black and white.

Do You Consider Yourself To Be a Person of Color? (Respondents Selecting a Single Ethnicity)

Do You Consider Yourself To Be a Person of Color? (Respondents Selecting More Than One Ethnicity)

Things take a different turn when Census respondents were asked if they consider themselves “A person of color”. Looking at the the 6.3 percent of respondents who identify as more than one race/ethnicity, the figures truly range from one ethnoracial category to another. A relatively high number of Native Americans and Hispanic people who are also white did not self-identify as a person of color. A relatively equal number of black people who are also white selected “Yes” or “Sometimes”. In contrast, out of the respondents that checked a single race/ethnicity, black and Asian people most often said that they identify as a person of color.

BRC Population Proportions from 2012-2015

Trend graphs are also relevant, as they provide insight on how things have shifted over the years. While the trends show that white-only identified Burners made up the majority of the population from 2012 to 2015, the proportion slightly decreased from approximately 84 percent to 80 percent, suggesting that there was a gradual increase in ethnoracial diversity in Black Rock City from 2012 to 2015. That said, the proportion of white-only identified Burners still seems higher than expected compared to elsewhere in the US where, according to the 2015 US Census, the same demographic makes up 62 percent of the population.

In conclusion, it’s refreshing to see that diversity in Black Rock City has indeed increased. Only time will tell how this will continue to change, if it changes at all. As a community that purposefully focuses on Radical Inclusion, it’s a good thing to look at the actual numbers to see where we stand. From my vantage point, it seems like more people who self-identify as one of the minority ethnoracial categories are showing up on the playa. Perhaps someone else out there also realized that our differences in race pale in comparison to the shared experiences and bonds we form while surviving out in the dust.

Top photo by Mario Covic

About the author: Census Team

Census Team

The Census Lab is a volunteer team of information geeks, academic researchers, students, and general data nerds who have surveyed Black Rock City (BRC) residents since 2002.

29 Comments on “Diversity in BRC: Census Data Interpreted by a Biracial Burner

  • Kimberly Nicole says:

    The amount of individuals outside of the burner community that are not informed not have any knowledge whatsoever of Burning Man is astounding to me. Our diversity would I feel increase if we attempted to reach a more diverse demographic of millenials and gen x crowds. Maybe those of us that attend should be more outwardly verbal about it and share it more with our network. The burner principals could be applied in so many areas of our society and ultimately change the world for the better. We as the family of current burners all hold the desire to make a change, to influence our world the way that each of our unique qualities, knowledge and creativity will allow. I feel we would all benefit from a broader spectrum of burners and an increase in those numbers would be welcomed with loving open and accepting arms ✌️❤️☀️

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  • Gordo Shumway says:

    A small sample of the actual Black Rock City population fill out the census.

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  • Mike says:

    If B.M. were truly inclusive it would not ask questions
    about race and skin color,( or shoe size for that matter) I note that Bianca did not feel like an outsider when the
    diversity crowd judged that she was.I think all this attention to ethnic diversity is actually is a big mistake and to a certain extent focuses attention and creates situations that are that are less than desirable.I am an immigrant and proud to call myself American not Irish/American or Italian/American but American.Ethnic labels do not belong at B.M. or anywhere else for that matter.

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    • Peter says:

      Mike, I think you are on the right track. Thankfully Burning Man Founders listed radical inclusion, and not diversity, as one of the 10 principles. Too many times it is the “racial” diversity aspect that is highlighted/discussed .. maybe because it is fairly easy to gather data on? … compared to other flavors of diversity such as thinking style, religion, culture, physical abilities, etc. I did not hit the playa until I was 60 years old .. which puts me in the minority … age wise … but hell if I care! Thankfully radical inclusion welcomed me with open arms and I have been having a blast the last 5 years!

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      • Aran says:

        I think Peter makes a good point in that it is necessary to celebrate and name all experiences, origins, and identities; including race, gender, sexuality, ability, body size, etc. I do, however, disagree with Mike that asking questions about race and skin color is inherently non-inclusive. The whole “color blind” approach to race conversations effectively erases the experiences of people of color, and does nothing to help raise awareness about the experiences and issues faced by these communities. By stating that being inclusive would mean NOT asking questions about people’s identities/experiences/bodies/ only serves to normalize one type of person and render every one else invisible. In this case at Burning Man: white (and I would also argue straight, cis-gendered, young, thing, and male). It’s important to have these conversations about the demographics of any community to understand why Burning Man is predominantly white, even if it initially might feel uncomfortable to some. Without honoring and acknowledging the range of people who enjoy the Burning Man event, community and culture, it actually does a disservice to participants because it doesn’t provide opportunity to learn or grow. Not to mention to understand why people should stop mis-appropriating from other cultures (yes, every single Burner who has ever worn a Native American headdress, please for the love of god knock it off). As a mixed-race, trans-person, it’s often difficult for me to be at Burning Man because, for the most part, I do not see myself reflected in 90% of the other Burners. I really appreciated this article and give my thanks to the author (Bianca) and the Census Team for understanding how important these conversations are. Nothing but love for all who comment – thank you for advancing the dialogue. <3

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    • .j says:


      I couldn’t agree more. The whole idea of “race” is an abomination and has been proposed as such for quite a while now. Although I know it is meant with good intentions, I am somewhat disappointed that B.M. leadership would entertain this kind of thinking at all. The American Anthropological Association made this statement about race: http://www.americananthro.org/ConnectWithAAA/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2583 . I think it is high time we burn the ideologies that separate us and allow ourselves to be phoenixed as a unified species.


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      • Countess says:

        It is fascinating to see .j post a link to the AAA statement on race. I am an anthropologist, a member of the AAA, and I coauthored this post on diversity at Burning Man. This AAA statement on race explains that there is no biological foundation for our notion of race. This does not mean that there are no differences between people of different races or similarities within racial groups, only that these differences and similarities are a product of history and culture, social and economic forces, educational and childrearing practices. These, not genes, are the determinants of people’s differences and different experiences. I think it is important to recognize these differences and learn how to talk about diversity and inclusivity, as it pertains to our Burning Man community and the communities where we reside year-round.

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  • What efforts are we, as BMORG, and as the community and citizens of Black Rock City, taking to encourage diverse participation in our event? And if we aren’t doing anything, how do we do something?

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    • Jon Mitchell says:

      Great questions, Emily. In case you didn’t see it, there’s another post up on the Journal that highlights some amazing work on that front: http://journal.burningman.org/2016/04/philosophical-center/tenprinciples/glc-2016-burning-man-a-hueman-experience-explores-diversity-in-brc/

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      • Kay says:

        Shouldn’t BM attendance just be up to whoever finds out about it and is interested in attending? Myself — am more interested in how to afford it than i am in who else looks like (or doesn’t look like) me. And I am multi-ethnic, over 50 yrs old –doesn’t matter who else fits that description at BM.

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      • Thank you! That’s helpful, and, I’m connecting to those groups to see what else I can do. I am also wondering what kind of committee or outreach BMORG is doing? Is there a diversity director, or other HR focus?

        As a corporate recruiter for a global IT company in the default world, I know firsthand that actively recruiting diverse candidates or people who would not otherwise know of, be interested in and get the opportunity to go/apply to something…is important. To say that “everyone has equal opportunity” is absolutely not true. Why do you think so many companies have diversity campaigns, teams and positions? Because there IS unequal access.

        Thanks for the quick reply – I appreciate it!

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    • Timeless says:

      One thing we can do to increase diversity is to provide alternatives to Honorarium grants. For this reason I’ve been developing such a funding vehicle and I call it, ironically “Fundiversify”. (Click my name to learn more, including insightful comments from our own Larry Harvey.)

      Our art is the historic record and communication device of a great global culture, both on–playa and in Default. Yet this playa sculptor has been turned down for community funding, I think largely because my Liberty-themed installations are not only considered “political” but the wrong politics — republican. Ridiculous, especially because I mostly identify as Libertarian… Regardless, I recall reading an early version of the consensus data on-playa and political persuasion is far from diverse in BRC… So why isn’t that being discussed?

      No matter, follow the money… In keeping with the current philanthropic drive, I’m seeking not donations, but investment to drive this summer’s Timeless installation and string of Decomps. In the process, I hope Fundiversify can forge new funding territory and lead to more radically diverse expressions.

      Privately owned, publicly shared monuments will carry a more “diverse” message, so thanks for sharing my link in your posts and blogs!

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  • ToMmY says:

    It’s my belief that there is radical inclusion, but that message doesn’t reach some important constituencies– and part of it is the sheer cost of participating. People of colour are statistically impoverished monetarily, but certainly not of talent and a chance to contribute. In a more perfect Burn, funds might be available to gift a pool of tickets, even monetary subsidy, to permit the opportunity to participate and enrich the event and its lack of ethnic diversity. One day, perhaps.

    Already the event exceeds the realistic participation by population caps and by its sheer costs and logistical needs, which are both real, and daunting. If it’s really a community, it must reflect the default world. In reality, the composite population isn’t meeting this worthy goal and until a consensus realises the worthyness of mindful inclusion, we will suffer.

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  • kyle says:

    I just want to say I am tri-racial, san-gendered and asexual. no one knows whether to include or exclude me. I feel uncomfortable all the time and its not my fault. I agree with your anti-white rhetoric. once I was having fun when suddenly a white appeared and then all the bubbles left my mimosa… sad. maybe tickets should be sold through social media that way we could ensure the correct ratio of diversity in our radical inclusivity. also since burning man is kinda global we don’t even need sixty whatever percent of white people since on this planet whites are a minority. just trying to help.

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  • Bansheeghost says:

    I like thought provoking conversations like this one. I also would like us to have deeper ones such as like what is “America” really? Is it really great? Was it ever great? if so for whom? As for Burningman, I’ve been to burning man 12 years (10 in a row). I even considered myself a “burner” until it became too difficult to get tickets. I got tickets last year because a sister burner bought extras -through connections, I bought them from her. “Radical Inclusion” sounds great, but in reality if you make all of the sales to the general public exclusively on-line, well you will leave some of the public and would be attendees totally out! Unfortunately, the Burner organizers need to re-think how they reach out to the rest of the global world! They are still thinking “first come, first served” Burning man is really a fun camp that draws some pretty amazing thinkers to it, but thousands of other thinkers can’t get in under this system… my beautiful creative self included!

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  • Bansheeghost says:

    Also, I think Burning man is predominantly “white” because it was started by “white” people. No offense intended…calling people colors is a throw-back from the early history of America, during the days of slavery and conquering the native peoples. Before America, people used to identify themselves by tribes, countries, etc…. then came this slavery thing where people were divided into white, red and black people because of those three only the whites were considered American citizens.

    Burning man evolved out of a community event between like-minded people. Its culture evolved as well as the personal small community event, blossomed into one of the most unique festivals. Larry and the founders, added the “art” component and the industrial displays made by many who might otherwise have ever displayed their monumental sized installalations found an artistic venue… remember the two curved 18 wheelers welded together? Now the man stands on art structures instead of the bales of hay… if we stick to the truth of things all of the answers are there, the problem in planning for the future of the event with a broader vision doesn’t seem to be happening. Burning man and “regional networks” seem to be developing (at this stage) as spin-offs of sorts. Again… the vision isn’t big enough to include diversity!

    What is happening is that culturally similar types “white culture” are gathering together and no thought seems to be given to: What would make the event germane to other cultures? The themes are not as diverse as they could be! I am not criticizing because the event is PERFECT as it is, but if you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep attracting the same people. I am sharing a different perspective. A little bit of law of attraction happening there at BM.

    For those who may be curious…. If I had taken the census last year I would have checked the “black” box.

    Hey everyone, Be well and peace – out!

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    • Mars says:

      Thanks, BansheeGhost. I agree that there are cultural reasons that Burning Man remains predominantly White. And if it weren’t so large of a movement I wouldn’t care. But we (Black folks and other people of color) need more exposure to (and opportunity for) alternative gatherings that are not consumer-driven and strictly based upon cultural stereotypes — even when those stereotypes are of “our” own making.

      Frankly I find AfroPunk to be the closest there is to what I’m looking for. Burning Man is so white that we either disappear within it (which is my experience since I’m light-skinned) or get romanticized as Exotic (which again leads one to a degree of Outsider Status to be gawked at, instead of simple acceptance.)

      Lastly, to anyone thinking it doesn’t matter what sections of people turn up at Burning Man, I guess you are totally okay with AfricaBurn in South Africa being for all practical purposes totally white. Nelson Mandela would roll over in his grave if he saw white people from around the world flocking to Johannesburg to party with only white South Africans — and insisting that it is about celebration of the individual and their art.

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      • Bansheeghost says:

        Mars thanks for your post! Now as for being included in some else’ private party… that gives pause for thought because that is what Burning man has evolved from. However if the event is to live up to what it is now boasting to be… then it can’t reflect only the ideas of its founders.. It’s founders were all about their own radical self-expression….

        Although I love going to burning man, I have not enjoyed the themes as I have found them to be limited to “American” traditions and ideas… if you know the experience of America, then you know that it doesn’t have a good beginning because it exterminated the natives and brought in slaves….. etc. While I am not seeking any apologies, I am also not willing to pretend that the “values” of this nation were great! Ther were great only for certain people and definitely NOT GREAT for the native peoples or the slaves that were brought in…. But like they say… that is water unde the bridge…. and for those like me who believe in reincarnation…. an the fact that we are all spirits donning our character costumes…. I don’t want to be so judgemental that I cannot see the spirit in the individuals who face me at buringman… like Larry Harvey, my former campmates all of whom were “white” and all the other burners who are just trying to find a sense of freedom.

        But I am not a leader at burning man and so the other idea is to congratulate those founders who created something so wonderful that others want to be part of it.

        Nothing can stop anyone else…including myself from creating a new event…. perhaps based on water!

        Again… be well all, great conversation allows for reflection. Be EXCELLLENT and Party on forever!

        I do think that the founders, especially the leadership should really consider, the future of the event in a way that expands it from the private beach experience to the private (only those on the cacophony – in the know- circuit) in Black Rock dessert to a genuine festival of art and inclusion. If I were running burning man, I would reserve 50 percent of the ticket sales (it is limited because only so many people can be on the lake bed at one time – according to “government”) to first time burners and conduct outreach to diverse groups…. what would a group of Balinese burners bring to the event? What would a group of Japanese Sumo wrestlers bring to the event in terms of helping others to find their inner sumo – Deathguild (Mad Max beyond Thunderdome) is great but Mad Max as an exclusive friendly combat doesn’t have to be the norm.

        I would change the themes to reflect experiences and cultures of the world… for example…. One theme could be “Rain Forests: the breath of life” Another could be “The DEEP BLUE SEA: a look at Cetaceans and other beings” The Themes could be used to educate people about the planet….

        Another theme might be Headresses of the world… where the all types of head gear would be presented…

        Artists would be invited to address these themes through their own perspectives and insights…..

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  • Jessica says:

    We humans have different ideas of what constitutes our identity, internally and externally. I believe that race is a lie. It is a descriptor that exists because a majority of people have bought into the lie that the color of our skin defines who and what we are. Thus, if you are “white”, you can be quantified as X,Y and Z. If you are “black”, you can be quantified as X,Y and Z”, and so on and so forth with all colors of skin.

    I do think that census data is important because it can give us a picture of demographics. This data can gauge the diversity of a group. Reading the article and the comments, it seems we all agree on the value of diversity. Thus, only by tracking the participation of different populations of people is it possible to know whether more or less work needs to be done to support diversity initiatives. Race, albeit a lie, is presumably used because it does identify folks who identify with different cultures.

    Since race is a lie, the BM census data creators could consider using a system that allows people to identify themselves based on their cultural identity. That doesn’t entirely solve the problem. Consider people who identify as “World Citizens”. That is a perplexing identity for census takers who wish to check off specific boxes. Identifying as a world citizen doesn’t reveal one’s skin color. It doesn’t reveal whether one identifies with all or no cultures. What if you are like me, whose cultural identity would be something like, “liberal-atheist-mother-wife-student-global-culture-lover-of-European-descent-who-resides-in-America”?

    Does insisting that burners check off a list of skin colors perpetuate the lie of racism? Does it serve the role of identifying the diversity index of a group? Yes and yes. We need a better way.

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    • Jessica says:

      * I mean to say “lie of race” in the last paragraph. There is no question that racism is real.

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    • Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost (aka Hunter), analyst at the BRC Census says:

      Hi Jessica, you suggests that “the BM census data creators could consider using a system that allows people to identify themselves based on their cultural identity”, and I would like to address that. I am part of the Census Lab and I am involved in the design of the online survey since 2012. In my default world life, I work as a social scientist and I do research with population surveys (among other things).
      Race is indeed a social construct and it is also partly USA-centric. Because of that, it provides useful but partial information. There is no question for me that the concept of race is socially constructed and context-dependant. That social construct is used in population surveys and in the Census in the USA to describe what could be called ethnocultural diversity. However, most other countries assess ethnocultural diversity without considering race as a relevant construct. It was thus decided, at the BRC Census Lab, to include in our yearly online survey both (a) a question that frames ethnoracial identity in a way that is compatible with the USA census to allow comparisons with the USA population, and (b) other questions that would allow us to assess other important dimensions of that ethnocultural diversity. To name only a few of these other aspects of ethnocultural diversity also assessed in our yearly online survey, I would at least mention: country of residence, first language, religious affiliation and identifying as a person of color.
      This blog post by Bianca focuses on the “race issue” because of it’s social relevance to the USA context. However, you can go read our general 2015 report for more information about the other aspects of ethnocultural diversity at BRC (http://burningman.org/culture/history/brc-history/afterburn/2015-afterburn-report/brc-2015-census/).
      Best regards.

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  • Buena Chica says:

    Radical Inclusion is not about bringing more black people, or Latinos…. or asking Burning Man to allocate tickets for minorities… it is about YOU as a regular Burner being more RADiCAL INCLUSiVE in YOUR OWN LiFE in the default world!!! It is a very simple thing: If you have more diverse friends in the default world, of course more minorities would come to Burning Man! SO what kinds of friends DO YOU have in the default world? Are you AWARE of your own biases?? ITIS SUCH A SIMPLE REFLECTiON. But most people are afraid to do this introspection for themselves and instead want to turn this into a political argument. But it isn’t. It is a case for humanity! TAKE TiME TO REFLECT!! )'(

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  • Somebody says:

    Can the disparity in the percentage of whites in BRC compared to whites in the general population of the US be explained by the numbers of majority-white citizens of other countries participating in Burning Man?

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    • Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost (aka Hunter), analyst at the BRC Census says:

      Dear somebody,
      the short answer is no. You are correct in saying that most BRC citizens who do not reside in the USA reside in a country in which most citizens self-identify as “white/caucasian” (e.g., Canada, UK, Australia, European countries). However, even when we run the analyses exclusively with the BRC citizen who reside in the USA, we still see proportionally less people who self-identify as black or as Hispanic/Latino than what could be expected from the USA demographics.

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  • Victor Stevens says:

    Nice piece of writing Bianca.
    I have attended Burning Man many times and have met enthusiastic attendees of every shade of skin color, and a dazzling array of ethnic identities. One evening at our camp bar, I asked everyone who came by where they lived off playa, and they reported more than 20 countries. Last year the languages spoken at our bar included Engllish, Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, and a couple of languages I could not identify.
    I am not sure what “radical inclusion” means, but my goal is to make my camp in particular, and the event in general, welcoming for attendees from all ethic backgrounds.

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