Growing up, I never really cared for Christmas.
We sometimes had a tree in our home and got presents, but I suppose my parents, first generation immigrants from India, did not understand the American fascination with the holiday, and their lack of enthusiasm carried over to me. However, there was one day of the year I would anticipate for months, one day of unadulterated joy.
That was Holi, the traditional celebration of the coming of spring. My family friends and I would throw colored powder at each other for hours, eventually leaving each covered in a mélange of red, green and blue. It seemed like the perfect way to spend a day for a little boy. Years later, when I got to college, I was amazed to find a Holi celebration that featured participants of all different races and backgrounds, having fun the same way I did as a young child.
Of course, white people being involved in a traditionally minority practice brings about the inevitable cries of “cultural appropriation.” There are some legitimate concerns to be found here. One issue that is discussed in conversations about cultural appropriation is cultural awareness, or knowing the ethnic origin of practices like Holi.
Understanding the roots of certain practices is essential to forming greater cross-cultural understanding. It’s important to note that Elvis Presley drew significant influence from black rock musicians before him. Without this kind of cultural awareness, rock music appears to be a white invention and minority musicians are effectively written out of the history books.
If we do not take into account the influence that Chuck Berry and other black artists had, we make it seem as if musical accomplishments are limited to white people. Using this standard of cultural awareness, it is clear that UCSB’s Holi celebration is not “cultural appropriation.” The event is put on by Indus Club and features contemporary Indian music playing on the speakers during the festivities. The influence of Indian culture is clearly on display for people all races to enjoy and appreciate.
But some observers take a more radical stand on cultural appropriation. An article from Hessian Magazine defines cultural appropriation as an event “where members of the dominant culture (usually white people) take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” By this standard, Holi celebrations in the United States may fall under the umbrella of cultural appropriation.
However, this definition of cultural appropriation is fundamentally flawed. A common example used to illustrate it is white people wearing dreadlocks. The idea is that they can do so freely while black people who do so are labeled “ghetto” or “ratchet,” which reveals how white people do not face the same negative consequences as minorities for participating in the same activity.
Although this double standard reflects a societal failure, black people with dreadlocks would face this same scrutiny even if there were no white people in the world with the same hairstyle. Restricting white people from wearing dreadlocks or participating in Holi does not accomplish anything other than to punish individuals for something beyond their control.
In addition, restricting certain practices to certain peoples only helps to emphasize racial division. Evidence of this can be seen in author Kamila Shamsie defense of white authors writing as minority characters. “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.”
Shamsie would instead have white authors engage minority characters and show the innate humanity in all of them, showing the commonalities between people all around the world. In the same way, restricting Holi to certain racial groups would only make it seem as if whites and Indians are fundamentally different. Indians would be an enigmatic “Other,” as if white people can’t understand the simple joy of throwing a fistful of powder at a friend.
It’s important that people are aware of the cultural origins of Holi, but there’s no reason why certain people should be excluded from participation. It makes me happy to see a multiracial Holi, to see people whose ancestors came from all around the globe to engage each other on the common human grounds of having a good time.