It seems as though the poverty- and filth-ridden image of India most people have in their minds has given way to a new stereotype that paints the entire subcontinent as a unidimensional group of people whose only contribution to society is plastic sacks of colored powder. Instead of being a rich way to appreciate and take part in Indian culture, Rice has made Holi (and its affiliates of “color war” or “powder fight,” which may not explicitly use the name and thus falsely deny any tie to Holi) a shell of its actual glory, an undervalued and decontextualized caricature that promotes colorblind disrespect.
The Rice community by and large can intuitively understand that incorporating a tradition from the Abrahamic religions, like baptisms or lighting a menorah for Hanukkah, into Beer Bike would be completely unnecessary at best and insensitive and hurtful at worst to many of that religion. Yet, the incorporation of a “color war” as a part of Beer Bike, where it is completely taken out of its religious and cultural context, passes largely unquestioned. Yes, Holi is an outwardly “fun” tradition, but that does not mean it is yours for the taking. We should not have to explain why incorporating Holi into Beer Bike is insensitive, yet we must do so because it is consistently the burden of minority religions to justify that their religious traditions are legitimate and deserve respectful, mindful recognition.A similar burden falls upon the South Asian Society when it comes to securing funding from campus resources for its annual Holi, as the club must justify why its Holi celebration deserves sponsorship more than other similar events.
As we move toward an increasingly globalized world, how can people engage religious and cultural celebrations from around the world without being disrespectful? Rice students must reflect on the events around them and take care to be thoughtful participants. Those who host events like “color war” must ask themselves: What is the purpose of incorporating Holi into this event? In what ways are the cultural roots of Holi being honored? Is the event educational or is it simply to have fun? As a consumer, do you use the nonreligious name of the event to deny its roots and rationalize your participation? If those are tough or uncomfortable questions to answer, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the way you are using Holi for your event.
Holi celebrations at Rice that ignore the centuries of tradition behind the festival not only encourage stereotyped homogeneity of minority cultures, they erase narratives of real students at Rice who have grown up reconciling their multiethnic identities. As with any issue, nuance must be acknowledged. This sentiment does not represent the feeling of all South Asian students at Rice, and many are comfortable participating in color wars. However, in a school that prides itself on being inclusive, it is important to try to empathize with all opinions. As we move forward to make Rice a more welcome environment for all, students must stop to ponder the difference between “taking part in” and simply “taking” and actively work toward creating a place that everyone feels proud to call home.
Shankar has previously written on the topic of Holi for the Huffington Post.