The Line Between Appreciation and Appropriation

Over the past year, I’ve been asked several times if I think that campus events modeled after The Color Run are an appropriation of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors. While I don’t necessarily know if there is an answer, I’m really glad that people are asking the question. I’m a big fan of interfaith literacy as a vehicle for appreciation. But sometimes appreciation can turn into appropriation, and it’s important to know the difference.

If you aren’t familiar, The Color Run is a 5K race, produced by a for-profit event management company, where participants are doused with colored powder as they run. And Holi is a Hindu festival that honors the triumph of good over evil. It is best known because of how it is celebrated—by throwing colored powder or water all over friends, family, neighbors, and strangers.

So what is appropriation? In a lot of ways, it’s tough to put your finger on it, but I think of it as something that has crossed the line of appreciation and starts to feel disrespectful. When something feels like appropriation, it’s often because something that has deep meaning has been taken out of context and used for another purpose that doesn’t acknowledge the origin. Something that may have started out as appreciation and borrowing can become appropriation when the borrower doesn’t talk about the history, reason, or general awesomeness of whatever it is they are trying to replicate.

One example of this was a performance given by Katy Perry at the American Music Awards in 2013. It was clear from the symbolism of cherry blossoms and The Great Wave off Kanagawa that she was trying to evoke a Japanese motif, but her dress was actually a Chinese cheongsam. What may have started off as a well-intended borrowing of Japanese culture turned into something that offended many people. In America, there is a long history of lumping all Asian cultures into one bucket without acknowledging their uniqueness, and it was clear that she had just taken the parts of several cultures that she felt looked good together without considering the meanings or sharing their significance with her audience.

The Color Run does involve throwing colored powder, like Holi. But does that make it appropriation? On their website, they do say The Color Run “was inspired by several awesome events … and festivals throughout the world such as Holi.” So the borrowing is definitely there. But is the appreciation? When people go to The Color Run, do they learn about the story behind Holi? Do they learn about how this festival brings people together across faith, class, and other social lines? Do they walk away appreciating that Holi is a significant celebration for Hindus around the world? Do they know about Holi’s influence on the event at all?

If you’ve thought about hosting an event similar to The Color Run on your campus, it’s important to ask yourself two questions:

1. Why do I want to do this?

Are you interested in learning more about Hinduism and one of the most celebrated festivals in the world? Do you want to have a conversation about the victory of good above evil as a shared value across religious and nonreligious traditions? If so, having a Color Run style event might be a good way to engage your campus! But if you want to host a Color Run to capitalize on a popular trend, it may rub people the wrong way, which gets to my next question.

 2. How will the Hindus in my community feel?

If you don’t know, ask them! As with any other group of people, you may encounter a diversity of opinions, but it’s important to find out. Check in with the students in the Hindu Student Association or the South Asian Student Association on your campus. If you don’t have these groups, talk to the folks at the closest Hindu temple. If they think it’s a great opportunity for literacy about Hinduism, go for it and, better yet, involve them. If they are hesitant, make sure that you are respecting their feelings.

In the end, I do think that The Color Run is appropriation. They admit that they’ve borrowed the idea from Holi, but they don’t widely acknowledge that and make no effort to help people learn about it. But it is possible to take this trend and leverage its popularity to create a similar event that serves as a learning experience for your campus. With respect and literacy in mind, this can end up being a great form of appreciation.

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