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:
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.
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.
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.
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.