So, the big Judeo-Christian holiday season has come and gone, but for many POCs our holidays are just revving up! Within our mixed race household we have both the Lunar New Year and Persian New Year celebrations, which individually span a one to two week period each and occur within a month of each other. Both holidays are deeply meaningful to our identities and hold a long lineage of tradition and history within them. We love to share these traditions with friends and family and often field the question of how they can create their own celebration around holidays that aren’t part of their racial, religious, or cultural identities.
First, let us learn from Cinco de Mayo as the perfect example of what not to do. Every year, when May 5th rolls around, we see an uptick in sombrero and Corona sales, along with incredibly racist caricatures of Mexican/latinx identities. People gobble up tacos and get day drunk, without seeking to understand the true history of this holiday, let alone the daily oppression that the Mexican community experiences.
If that didn’t lay it out for you well enough, here’s a quick guide to the dos & don’ts of celebrating holidays outside your identities:
Don’t: invent a your own version of the holiday under the guise of honoring tradition. There’s a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation (see video for differentiation) and it’s often drawn by the pencil of power. As Rosanna Deerchild explains in the video, “cultural exchange [is] based in mutual respect. The key is consent and participation. If it is about us, then it must include us.” If you’re cherry picking the “fun and festive” parts of a holiday without leadership from someone who’s identity is deeply impacted by that celebration or without cultural exchange, it is cultural appropriation. Case in point, a Hanukkah party without any Jewish folks would be very strange and problematic.
Do: wait to be invited. Instead of creating your own thing, look to your community to see if a holiday celebration that you can participate in already exists. This not only a great way to be a learner, rather than a leader, but also a wonderful way to build community with identity groups outside your own. If you don’t have access to a celebration through friends or a community event, then that raises a bigger question of why you’re not in community with these folks and whether it’s appropriate for you to take the good parts of an identity if you haven’t invested the time to understand the more difficult or complex parts.
Don’t: Hit and run. Your celebration cannot be the only touch point with the cultural identity from which you’re honoring. If you’re not queer and the only time you’re “in communuity” with LGBTQ identities is when you can whip out your rainbow tutu for pride parade then it’s time to turn right around and re-evaluate your intentions. For the oppressed, public holidays and celebrations are an opportunity for us to build self-love, honor the good in our life, and resist the daily struggle of identity erasure. If you wish to share in that positive experience then you must also make an concerted, long-term effort to cultivate relationships built on allyship (another must watch vid), trust, and mutual respect.
Do: seek to understand. Many POC holidays are deeply rooted in history, tradition, and customs. Before whipping out your chopsticks and paper lanterns, do. your. research. Find out how and why people celebrate this holiday, what the meaning of each dish has, and ask what the nuances are that may not be visible in mainstream presentation. Also, honor that one person’s style of celebrating can be very different from the next. Within my family’s Lunar New Year celebration, there is intention in every action–from cleaning our home, to cutting our hair, and methodically assembling our meals over the ten day period. Furthermore, go beyond the holiday and try to be a learner of the lived experiences that aren’t your own. To truly understand my celebration you must also understand my experience with power and oppression, as they are intricately tied to each other.
Don’t: center your experience as an outsider. If your version of the holiday is all about congratulating yourself on how culturally aware you are (whether subtle or not) then you run the risk of completely alienating the identities whose celebration this belongs to. This should not be your visible form of allyship. Rather, this is an opportunity to center marginalized identities and give them the space to tell their stories and traditions.
Do: carefully examine why you’re celebrating a holiday that’s not your own. Riffing off that last don’t about self-congratulation, it’s imperative that before you even dream of holding your own celebration you critically question what you’re trying to get out of it. If, after that reflection, the answer is void of community building, cultural exchange, and (most importantly) deconstruction of oppression then I suggest finding another way to appreciate the identities you’re trying to connect with.
Don’t: take shortcuts. Holidays and food are some of the easiest access points to cultures outside our own, but they are only one small part of identity and, as mentioned before, are interconnected with politics and oppression. If celebrating a holiday as an outsider is your attempt to understand identity or if it’s the start and end point then you’re shortcutting. Take the time to read about history, current events, and intersections between your identity and theirs. Chances are, this is the real work that needs to be done to understand culture, not eating a meal outside of your dietary pattern once a year.
Do: support the communities who live this identity 24/7, 365. So you’ve decided that after carefully reading through my previous do’s and don’t’s you’re vetted and cleared to hold this celebration that’s outside your identity. Great! Well then, make sure you’re doing everything you can to support the identities who also celebrate this holiday. This comes in many forms. Purchase food from the mom & pop businesses, regularly, not just for your celebration. Attend direct actions or get engaged in organizing around issues that affect these communities. Educate yourself around the power dynamics between your identities and theirs. And most importantly (which I’ve echoed throughout this article) build meaningful relationships.
This is one of the most joyful times of the year for me and my family and I wish you all the love and care as we all seek to understand each other on a deeper level.