Holi (/ˈhōlē/): A Colorful Way To Learn About Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation

For a variety of reasons, Holi provides a useful and tangible opportunity for young learners (and their adults) to explore cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation. Read on for more about Holi and some ways to use Holi as an avenue for teaching young learners the principles of appreciation versus appropriation.

As the world becomes more global and people more transient, we have opportunities to be exposed to and experience the cultural celebrations, customs, art, and artifacts of so many different communities of people different from our own families and neighbors. With this exposure, it’s easier to share and participate in customs and traditions from other cultures and groups of people.

This intermixing can be a great opportunity to learn more about different people and cultures and appreciate the unique beauty of each. But unfortunately, it also lends itself to dominant or more powerful groups borrowing from marginalized cultures without due respect or understanding, often called appropriation.

What is cultural appreciation versus appropriation?

Cultural appreciation is learning about, sharing in, and exploring other cultures with intentionality and due respect for the origins and importance of the customs and traditions.

Cultural appropriation is defined by the dictionary as “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.”

While not an official definition, Wikipedia summarizes cultural appropriation as “the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures.”

Cultural appropriation can be a bit trickier to define and identify in everyday life, especially for those in the majority group who wouldn’t feel or experience offensive appropriation of their cultural practices and customs.

Generally, cultural appropriation involves using or borrowing elements of another culture without understanding or appreciating the cultural relevance and importance of such custom, tradition, or artifact. It often involves capitalizing on the use of a significant cultural element out of context and without attribution to its origin. It’s usually most offensive when it benefits the “borrower” without benefiting (and sometimes hurting or offending) members of the culture of origin.

Despite these definitions, there is no exact way to define cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is often interpreted differently by different people. However, certain actions will almost always be appropriation. For example, when non-natives of the culture extract elements of the heritage or holidays strictly for personal profit, this is generally deemed cultural appropriation. 

The line between cultural appropriation and appreciation begins to get blurry with respect to celebrations and events that do honor cultural origin and/or share profits with relevant cultural organizations or communities. While some view borrowing elements from another culture as offensive, others view it as an opportunity to share customs across cultures and develop connections between different groups of people.

We are not cultural appropriation experts, but many agree there is a line where certain types of cultural borrowing are offensive when not done mindfully and respectfully, honoring the culture of origin. This article about cultural appreciation versus appropriation, in general, offers several suggestions about how to navigate the matter and avoid appropriation. This additional article offers a helpful perspective on appropriation versus appreciation through the lens of consumption and tangible goods

Holi: A Colorful Way To Learn About Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation

India’s colorful holiday, Holi, pronounced (/ˈhōlē/), is a great entry point for kids to learn about and discuss cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation.

What is Holi?

Holi is a religious festival, rooted in Hinduism, that celebrates the beginning of spring and the triumph of good over evil. Holi has several ancient origin stories that vary throughout different regions of India. Holi is a celebration that brings people together, breaks down social barriers, and involves throwing bright-colored powders at family, friends, and neighbors.

As a joyous and vibrant holiday, it’s become a popular holiday to celebrate in many parts of the world, sometimes with little reverence for its origins. In certain cases, the practice of throwing colored powder has been co-opted in execution with little to no acknowledgment of the inspiration.

The act of tossing and adorning each other in colored powder, the most appropriated aspect of Holi, is very tangible and easy for kids to see and experience. The celebration ritual is fun, colorful, and engaging for little ones. This makes Holi an effective and relatable basis for a discussion around cultural appreciation versus appropriation for young learners. 

How To Navigate Cultural Appropriation versus Cultural Appreciation

We aren’t the experts on cultural appropriation, and we don’t believe there is one true expert. In many cases, cultural appreciation versus appropriation is in the eye of the beholder. At the very least, however, it’s a discussion best led by those who natively practice the celebration from which the custom or practice originates. Thus, if you’re looking for guidance for Holi, for example, we encourage you to lean on resources from and the perspectives of South Asians.

That being said, we’re sharing some ideas to navigate Holi with children, and we welcome other suggestions or ideas about how parents and caregivers might respectfully navigate learning about, celebrating, and honoring holidays and other elements of cultures and communities to which they don’t belong.

Google It

Before celebrating the holiday, learn a bit about it online. Read about the holiday and its history. 

Using Holi as an example, this video from the BBC gives a concise and age-appropriate introduction of Holi to young learners. Further, this piece from an India-based family-focused website that details how to teach children about Holi is a great supplement for adults to enhance their understanding of Holi and continue the conversation with young learners beyond the basic introduction provided in the video. 

Also, consider learning about ways the holiday or custom has been appreciated and appropriated in the past. Reading the perspectives of others on the matters, especially those who are members of the culture of origin, will help identify pitfalls that may be offensive appropriation.

We found a few fun ways South Asian families celebrate Holi together that might be a welcome introduction to learning more about the holiday’s roots and practices. 

Keya shared this beautiful Cardamom Almond Holi Loaf Cake made with so many gorgeous colors to reflect the Holi celebration. Consider making this cake with your family and learn why the vibrant colors of Holi are such an integral part of the holiday. Fun Fact: Keya is a friend of Rupa, and they celebrated Holi together this year. 

If arts and crafts are more your style, try making this Holi-inspired melted crayon art project from Mitesh. While Mitesh used new crayons for his creation, don’t forget that your miscellaneous, broken crayons will work for this too. It’s a great low waste craft project that also can help your young learner connect with Holi. 

While working on the project, consider reading one of the picture books aloud that we shared below so your young learners can learn about Holi and connect it to art at the same time. 

If you’re keen to play Holi with colored powder and celebrate the holiday more broadly, check out this guide about Holi Activities For Families from Preethi of Local Passport Family. Among other activities, she includes information about where to find colored powder (called gulal) and what other supplies you might need, traditional snacks to try, and even discussion questions related to the purpose of Holi. Further, she has additional ideas about how to celebrate Holi with kids without stumbling into cultural appropriation. 

Read About It

Head to your local library and check out a book or two on the topic, holiday, or cultural element. You may even be able to find some books in the children’s section to share directly with your young learners. 

To get you started, here are some children’s books about Holi to share with your young learners to set you on the path to cultural appreciation and not appropriation.

A Note On Buying and Borrowing Books

We’ve included affiliate links to each of the books below. If you purchase through one of these links, Raising Global Kidizens earns a very small commission that has no impact on your purchase price.

If you can find the books from your local library, from a friend, at an independent bookstore, or through a used book shop, those sources are ideal. Using the library is zero waste, saves money, and saves space in your home because you can read all the books without storing all the books on your bookshelves. If you’re not sure of the best way to use your local library, check out these tips to make the most of your local library. With a little exposure, your kids will learn to LOVE the library!

If you prefer to listen to audiobooks, we recommend using Libro.fm, our favorite audiobook app. We’ve tried several audiobook apps and love that Libro.fm supports independent bookstores and offers a great user experience.

Holi Hai! by Chitra Soundar

Gauri, a young girl, is excited to splash colors on everyone for Holi. Each person in her family chooses a color to make to prepare for the celebration. But when Gauri doesn’t get her favorite color, she gets mad.

In a delightful and meaningful way, this book describes the significance of Holi through the story of Gauri getting wrapped up in her emotions before finding forgiveness and love through one of Holi’s origin stories.

Ages 4 – 8 | Pages 32

Festival of Colors by Kabir Sehgal & Surishtha Sehgal

This fun and colorful book follows two siblings preparing for and celebrating Holi with their family. It’s simple and accessible for even young children.

Ages 2 – 8 | Pages 32

Amma Tell Me About Holi! by Bhakti Mathur

This book is a part of a series that explores a lot of Hindu festivals. In this book, Amma (mom) answers questions from her kids like:

  • Why do we toss colors on Holi? 
  • Where does Holi get its name from? 
  • Why is there a bonfire?

Ages 2 – 8 | Pages 28

Just Ask

If you have friends or neighbors who celebrate the holiday or cherish the custom as part of their heritage, ask them how to honor the cultural relevance. Some people will answer, and that’s great. Some people won’t care to bear the burden of education. Respect that and head back to the internet and the local library to answer your questions.

Our RGK co-founder, Jess, reached out to her friend, Devanshi, to learn more about how she celebrated the Festival of Colors. Devanshi celebrated Holi with her family growing up and shared the following:

Growing up, Holi has been one of the most joyful and fun festivals we celebrated as a family. The day is meant to celebrate the win of good over evil, and our parents always taught us that no matter what, goodness always wins so never stop being kind and compassionate.

Our community would get together, play with rainbow colors, dance under sprinklers, and eat home-cooked snacks. We would put aside all our ego, anger, and remorse and lovingly rub some color on each others faces and wish ‘Happy Holi’ and hug after. The festival always brings a smile to my face.

– Devanshi

As Jen (RGK co-founder and co-author of this article) set out to write this post, she began discussing Holi with Rupa, a friend and the editorial assistant for Honestly Modern. Rupa graciously offered to co-author this article and share more about her family celebrations and experience with Holi, including some photos and a video from her celebration.

This was actually our first year celebrating Holi, as neither my husband nor I grew up celebrating it though we’ve known about the colors! Not all South Asians celebrate Holi, due to where their family is from and/or their family just not choosing to participate. 

I am from Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India, and was raised in the Hindu faith. My husband’s family is from Punjab, a northern state in India, and he was raised in the Sikh faith.

Because both our families had never celebrated Holi, the first thing we did was learn about Holi so we could appreciate and understand the underpinnings of the celebration. We listened to stories, read books, questioned friends and family who had celebrated before, and watched videos.

We came to the Holi party dressed in our secondhand white clothes. As most of us who attended the party are Indian Americans and combine both of our identities, we shared a mashup of traditional and non-traditional food. 

Playing Holi was so much fun! Getting yellow color smeared on my face, dumping blue color all over my husband’s head, and splashing purple and pink onto our white backdrops was glorious! The rainbow of colors radiating from everyone’s bodies could only bring joy to you. Afterward, the colors transferred to whatever you touched. It was like adding a bit of magic, my color to you and yours to me.  

It was a beautiful day to celebrate the coming of spring, love, and goodness with friends and family. On the car ride home, my kids said it’s their favorite holiday. No doubt the colors ruled, but they also repeated the stories that Holi stems from and we all reveled in the time spent absorbing our culture.

– Rupa
Rupa celebrating Holi with friends
Bhel Puri Cakes Rupa made to share with friends using this recipe from Love Laugh Mirch
Rupa and her family at their Holi celebration event
Video of Rupa and her family and friends celebrating Holi taken by Linzy George

After you’ve learned a bit about the custom or tradition, share the information with your children in an age-appropriate way.

Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation Regarding Holi

We can’t tell you exactly how to celebrate Holi in a way that either appropriates or appreciates Holi with due respect. And we think people will have different perspectives on where to draw the line between the two. Even among South Asians, there are varying perspectives on which types of activities appreciate or appropriate Holi.

If a South Asian friend invites you to celebrate with them, you learn about the origins and importance of the holiday, and you follow their lead, it is probably a great way to honor and appreciate the tradition.

Participating in an event like The Color Run, however, which mimics the Holi paint powder throwing ritual for profit and with next to no acknowledgment of Holi or its cultural significance, more likely appropriates Holi and undermines its religious significance. 

Many South Asian people have shared their feelings about the cultural appropriation of Holi by The Color Run and other similar events. These pieces from Nadya Agrawal, Tisya Singh, and Ruchira Sharma offer three examples of such perspectives, and they reflect a larger opinion about appropriation by The Color Run often shared on outlets like blog posts and op-ed articles. It is worth noting, however, that these three perspectives won’t represent all South Asians. No cultural community is a monolith.

Generally, if you celebrate Holi in an inclusive way to share it with others, understand the cultural importance, and acknowledge its roots, you’ll be far closer to appreciating and learning from the holiday than appropriating it for enjoyment without adequate appreciation.

About The Author

Rupa Singh

Rupa Singh is an ex-social entrepreneur and mom of three kids connecting them to their South Asian (Indian) roots + sustainability. Organizational wife to an altruistic architect.  Advocate for low waste + thoughtful consumption. Continually unlearning + learning. Her bullet journal + audiobooks + morning ritual feed her spirit.

About The Author

Jen Panaro

Jen Panaro, a co-founder of Raising Global Kidizens, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and an advocate for sustainable living for modern families. She’s also a serial library book borrower and a messy gardener.

As a mom to two boys, she is passionate about helping families be more responsible stewards to their communities and the planet. She also owns Honestly Modern, an online space focused on eco-friendly living for modern families.

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