Holi Appropriation?

All my life I’ve loved holidays. My mother noted it when I was still pre-school age. I love special decorations, foods and customs. I am maniacal about learning and spreading the wonderful ways that people celebrate all sorts of things all over the world. When the kids were growing we had table cloths and sometimes curtains to match holidays- snowflakes in January, hearts in February, clovers in March, eggs in April (unless in needed to be squashed into March), May sported flag motifs that usually were left alone until September, then into autumn leaves, black cats, pumpkins, and the glorious chaos of Christmas. One of my kids commented (as teens) it was like growing up in a gift shop.
Eventually, the more I discovered, I realised that I couldn’t celebrate every holiday (although I still feel it’s appropriate to feel and show gratitude for just about everything). I didn’t need to do as much research into old books as I did, in popular magazines Martha Stuart and others were sharing how to add Luminaria, or Phillipine lanterns, and ideas from all over the world to our modern American celebrations. While Mexican piñatas, and Swedish Lucia, Austrian Krampus, English Crackers, and Pennsylvanian Putzes are all cool, there isn’t time, space or money to do everything. Sometimes I think I tried, at least to try all the Lucia buns, krumkakes, plum pudding, buñuelos- that are available. …and that’s not even getting into the pagan “innovations”.

But yesterday I saw an image from an American college campus of a Holi celebration. I will admit that I have wondered since I first discovered this marvelous holiday where they toss colored powder and water at each other how this would play out in New England when we are often buried under a late snowfall. I think it would be really cool to see those colored powder all over the snow! But seeing the image of all those white bread kids enjoying this celebration made me wonder a bit about cultural appropriation. This is a very cool thing. Is it wrong to use it to have fun when it didn’t come from our background?holi2014-3
I haven’t yet figured out how I feel about it. It may be like piñatas, which while we “Anglos” may have associated them with Christmas, in Mexico (unless I’ve got it wrong) they were simply a party thing, used for birthdays and other occasions- as they have started being used these days. (I’ll admit that sometimes my perceptions get stuck in what I saw decades ago.) Heck, there are piñatas in Walmart in superhero themes! Is tossing colored cornstarch something that is only done within the context of a religious celebration, or is it a fun activity with no religious attachment? Water balloons used to be a big thing, would it be like that?
It’s sometimes hard to tell. Some of the things we associate with our own holidays- certain cookies, or other foods, certain tableclothes, etc.- aren’t intrinsically religious, but have become culturally associated.
I’ve seen people object to the use of the “broken armed cross” by both First Nation and Hindu Indians because the person who objected didn’t know that there was any other association with this ancient symbol except as it was used in the 20th century by the Nazi party.
I am sure that no one has a right to restrict other people’s actions based on their own ignorance. But this cuts both ways. A Hindu in Jaipur may not know what trauma the Swastika raises in a Jew whose parents fled the Shoah, and can’t tell them to deny that reaction. But one culture also mustn’t tell people of another not to use their own symbols because they mean something different to them.
I believe that we should try to make ourselves aware of some of the things that have been done (and continue) that cause unintended distress. Native American tribes should be known by what they call themselves, not what white people became used to calling them, especially when those names were often what an enemy tribe (who happened to be translating) called them. At the same time, while the traditional “blackface” of minstrel shows may have been done innocently enough in the mid 20th century, I think by the 21st we know that it is disrespectful to negros, morris-dancers-04and we can let that pass into history the way we don’t make prostitutes or jews or gays wear some sort of clothing to identify them. Acknowledge that our ancestors make some terrible mistakes, and try not to do it. But people promoting black respect also need to recognize that the soot blackened faces worn by some morris teams had nothing to do with trying to look like Africans, but it was a cheap, available disguise from that time and place. If they are wearing it along with knee britches or other historical dress, that’s very different from mocking “blacks”. (This is further complicated because writers of different periods will always see things through the filter of their own experience, and may have added suggestions of using a blackamoor as a devil equivalent.)  It’s good to be sensitive, but not good to be paranoid. I think the litmus test is respect.
Which brings us back to the throwing powder for a Holi celebration. It would be cool to say: “We’re celebrating [spring equinox], they’re celebrating the [spring equinox], and that thing they do looks fun. Let’s try it here.”  (or whatever holiday you care to use)  I think where we have to go is to check how it’s used in the original religious festival:

“Baby Krishna transitioned into his characteristic dark blue skin colour because a she demon Putana poisoned him with her breast milk.

In his youth, Krishna despairs whether fair skinned Radha and other Gopikas (girls) will like him because of his skin colour. His mother, tired of the desperation, asks him to approach Radha and colour her face in any colour he wanted. This he does, and Radha and Krishna became a couple. The playful colouring of the face of Radha has henceforth been commemorated as Holi. (Source:Wikipedia)”

In the global marketplace, “Holi” powder has become available and is used for other reasons- from various secular celebrations to (I think this is clever) long distance races where the runners are dowsed with it as they pass checkpoints. I think it may be simply a fun celebratory thing, but I would need to speak to several people who grew up with it to see how they felt about it. Given the range of human response, the chances are some would think it offensive and some not. I still would love to see a colored powder event in the snow. But the older I get, the more I want to be sure that, like Beau Brummel said of gentlemen, that I never insult someone by accident.


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