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Dye-ing Culture: Color Run, White-washing Holi Since 2012

Dye-ing Culture: Color Run, White-washing Holi Since 2012

by Nadya Agrawal

Co-opt: (v.) 1. divert to or use in a role different from the usual or original one. 2. adopt (an idea or policy) for one’s own use

The Color Run™ and other similar ideas like Run or Dye™ is a great and fun way to run with your friends, come together as a community, get showered in colored powder and not have to deal with all that annoying culture that would come if you went to a Holi celebration.  There are no prayers for spring or messages of rejuvenation before these runs.  You won’t have to drink chai or try Indian food afterwards.  There is absolutely no way you’ll have to even think about the ancient traditions and culture this brand new craze is derived from.  Come uncultured, leave uncultured, that’s the Color Run, promise.

Doubtless you’ve seen posters advertising for Color Runs™ in your neighborhood – they’re the ones sporting happy white college kids covered in color.  You may have even paused for a second to appreciate the clear fun they’re all having as they enjoy a part of the desi culture.  But honestly, the Color Run™ does absolutely nothing to give credit where it’s due.  And to add insult to injury, they’ve trademarked out tradition.

According to the Color Run™ website, there are only two “simple rules”: 1) Wear white at the starting line and 2) Finish plastered in color.  That would’ve been an original idea if Indians hadn’t been doing it for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The race ends with something called a “Color Festival” (actually in quotes on the website as well). Sounds an awful lot like a digestible name for Holi. Sorta like how white people call Diwali the “Festival of Lights” even though this is a major over-simplification—I don’t think we just light a whole bunch of candles and call it a night.  Nope, we tell stories from the Hindu Scripture, the Ramayana, share sweets and gifts, say prayers and welcome the New Year.

And at Holi, we don’t simply throw colors in each other’s faces—it’s a place to play with people you love and revel in the vibrancy of spring.  One of our favorite and most colorful holidays is being, pun intended, white-washed.  And it’s like we’ve been completely eradicated from this event as nowhere on the Color Run™ website is there mention of India, Holi, Krishna, or even spring.  Apparently this is a completely organic creation of the Color Run™ head honchos.  And they’re making loads of money from it.

There is a vague understanding that the Color Run™ pays out money to charities selected by their runners.  I cannot find evidence on the website (or the Yelp reviews) as to where exactly the money raised from the runs and their store goes and I have no idea how much of every dollar donated goes back in the Color Run™ administrative workings.  It seems even the runners, if the reviews are anything to go off of, don’t have a clear idea where their donations are going.  So, our culture is being co-opted to turn a profit, but at least you can buy a pair of super cute shorts that say “Color This!” Hai Ram, if our Dadis saw this, they’d be threatening thuppards all around.

I can bemoan the misuse of Holi, the profiting off our culture and the further sexualization of it, but I think worst of all is that it doesn’t give us the chance to share Holi properly.  Personally, I love it when I can bring my non-Desi friends to the annual campus Holi function.  I can show them a part of my heart and an aspect of my identity as a strong Brown woman. The Color Run™ robs me of that chance because now everyone who participates gets a diluted (and completely wrong) version of desi culture. With this Holi knockoff, they lose the culture and the tradition, but they keep our colors.

Read about the Hindu roots of Holi

Featured Image Source: http://www.allyoursjewels.com/wp-content/uploads/40_1resized___HOLI_LB2012_002.jpg

34 comments

  1. The de-culturalization of Holi is not due to racial reasons universal to white people, it is due to religious reasons from people who feel uncomfortable with “pagan” traditions. Take it up with the Evangelical Christians.

  2. I really don’t think that the fault solely lays with Evangelical Christians or those fearing ‘pagan’ traditions. Holi isn’t simply a ‘pagan’ or religious ceremony because many of the religions present in India (Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism) all participate in the event and all cite different cultural OR religious reasons for doing so. So the focus, even now, doesn’t solely remain religious but rather it’s about maintaing a cultural tradition that brings a community together. Also, even though I cited off-shoots of Hinduism as the religious communities that participate, Holi is easily accessible to all in India and many Muslims and Christians participate because it’s very much about sharing culture and embracing the community rather than simply a religious event. As well, Holi is only one item in a laundry list of cultural misappropriation. Consider even Christmas, which isn’t a ‘pagan’ tradition. Classically Christmas is supposed to focus on the birth of Christ but Western society has shifted the focus to purchasing presents and trees and decorations and having parties and the original Christmas vigil or even Christmas sermons fall to the wayside. This is not about Evangelical Christians shying away from ‘pagan’ traditions or even trying corrupt them. This is completely about Western society co-opting and misusing cultural and religious traditions to turn a profit.

  3. People enjoy the notion of being colored with chalk. Since it isn’t traditional in America, it costs money to get the ball rolling. It’s necessary to buy the chalk, get the permit, put up the advertising, organize the race, security, rental fees, etc. Overall, most events don’t happen without the conquest for profit or there would be no events at all. Sad fact. If the race was a scam, shame on them. But just because India came up with the idea first does not mean that other groups should not even mimic a single part unless they convert to Hinduism (I’m assuming if they practiced the whole celebration under the name of a different faith it would be just as bad in your eyes). I would accept your concern as legit if they implied: “this is just how the Indians do it”. But it’s not, it doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes or prejudges, it’s meant to strengthen the community by helping people bond and enjoy themselves in a healthy manner; something America needs to do more of. Yes, it is important for the world to know and understand India with eyes unclouded by stereotypes and trivialized cultural elements, but the Color Run isn’t the issue as long as it stays separate from the Indian culture.

  4. I thinks it ok that people do the color runs however i think its equally important that people know a little background on where the idea for the color runs was derived. Its not to say that we need to celebrate the holiday in the same manner but having them go on without people knowing it comes from a long tradition seems wrong. I feel like too many thing have been taking from other cultures and have been used as entertainment without trying to understand why they were started. Thanks for writing this article!

  5. Or you can look at this the other way … I’ve known of Color Run for a year or so but only when I started researching how to protect my camera for the one I’m taking part in later this month did I learn of Holi…
    So I think it could be argued that it works both ways Color Run has educated me a little in return for stealing idea of getting covered in pretty colours… x

  6. I’ve seen the throwing of the colors in movies. It always looked fun and like something I would want to be a part of. I’m not Indian, I can’t afford to go to India, and even if I could I don’t know enough about the culture to know if it would be acceptable for me to participate in these festivities, when or where they take place, what I would need to do, etc., I was so excited to participate in the color run because it did remind me of this thing that I always wanted to be a part of. That’s actually how I explained it to friends, “You know how in the movies in India they throw colored powder at each other and everywhere? The run is like that.” Would it be acceptable to you if there was a mention of the festival or tradition on the webpages for these runs? Or if there was a booth at the run with info about India etc.,? I felt that I was just having fun doing something that I would not get to experience more authentically because of circumstances outside my control. There was no malice. Please respond to my email if you care to respond so that I am sure to see it. Thank you.

  7. I know of Holi. Like other responders, I don’t feel like I will ever get to India to celebrate it in the way that could really do it justice. If there were a Holi festival in my area, I would totally attend. I feel like I would actually enjoy it more if it had a more complex background other than “give us your money and we will throw chalk at you.” Alas, I do not have a community in my area that does a traditional Holi festival. So, I am stuck. I appreciate everything about the Holi festival as I have read and seen (Diwalli, as well!). Just wanted you to know that there are some people out there who know the background and do appreciate it! We may be few and far between but, there nonetheless! :-)

  8. oh fucking please. I expect you to stop using/doing anything invented by white people. that appropriation shitlord.

  9. Thanks for posting this. I am living in Western Europe and a similar trend has popped up in many of the big metropolitan areas here. There is a group of event organizers who have organized a “Holi Festival” and are renting fairgrounds to have it. I was really excited to go with my friends because I had a number of friends growing up from an Indian background and I had heard a lot about Holi and really wanted to experience it for myself. Unfortunately, it seems the only thing in common this had with a real Holi celebration was the colored powder. Otherwise it was just an electronic music festival that hired some Indian DJs to do the lineup and that had one Indian dancer onstage for part of the time. Even the music didn’t have any resemblance to what my Indian friends used to play me. I hope someday I will get to experience a real Holi festival. It is truly a pity that these events are exploiting wonderful cultural traditions for quick cash. I feel like just as many people would have flocked to the festival if it had had the traditional food and music.

  10. Maybe people are uncomfortable with the whole religious aspect of it. I really would rather be doused in color than pray to imaginary skyfriends for spring. Science makes such things unnecessary. And the color run has nothing to do with spring or any of the things surrounding the tradition, so maybe the originators don’t even know its roots?

  11. What is the inspiration behind The Color Run™?
    The Color Run 5k is the first paint race of its kind and was inspired by several awesome events, including Disney’s World of Color, Paint Parties, Mud Runs, and Festivals throughout the world such as Holi. We wanted to create a less stressful and untimed running environment that is more about health and happiness!

    http://thecolorrun.com/faqs/

    Just FYI Thanks for the article. By the way, Evangelical Christians likely have no clue what they are participating in and in my opinion should participate in it precisely because it has connections with Holi.

  12. Last I checked, there’s plenty of Indians who celebrate Christmas here in the US without any regard to religious context of it. It’s just another example of the secularization of religious holidays, and no one cares. Get off your soap box and move along.

  13. Nadya, great column. You might be interested in this Sacramento Bee story on where the proceeds for the recent Color Run in Sacramento went. Much less to charity than most people think. http://www.sacbee.com/2013/08/14/5648558/novelty-runs-prove-popular-with.html

  14. What are you shit disturbing for? The Color Run has nothing to do with Holi, go find something else to write about. You can’t get butthurt about this for no reason whatsoever. Since when did we own celebrations with coloured powder?

    I’m more upset at myself for letting this article get to me than your feeble-minded grasp of when to pull the race card.

  15. Here’s pizza, here’s coke, buy this, buy that….

  16. Wouldn’t it be just as offensive if a bunch of white college kids were re-creating indian culture and heaven forbid got some kind of detail wrong, completely disrespecting its culture? Maybe some people can’t travel to India to get covered in bright colors and have fun. Maybe it’d be a dick move to make an american ceremony. Or maybe it’d just be fun to have a secular celebration with colored powder and not have to worry about offending cultures. I guess you’re screwed either way, but honestly, why is life so serious in your eyes? It’s just a fun run that copied the idea of using bright colored powder!

  17. Seriously, lighten up. The Color Run does not market anything like “do what they do in India on Holi”, or anything like this. Their objective is to have a fun event – not reference, mock or co-opt any religious tradition. While Holi is a traditional Spring festival associated with the worship of Vishnu, how many Indians do you think are aware of this as they throw powder? When I lived there, many of my neighbors had no clue. While throwing powder and interacting with members of the opposite sex is a part of this holiday, Indian culture does not have the mandate on this practice. By your logic, Thai people should be upset every time they see a water fight, as this occurs during the festival of Songkran. Think about it, throwing colored powder on one another is just fun!

  18. Christmas is a Christian usurpation of winter solstice celebrations. Using Christmas to justify Color Runs is like using Color Runs to justify the next cultural appropriation by white people.

  19. “Christmas is a Christian usurpation of winter solstice celebrations.”

    Sigh. One of these days, people will actually read some decent history on Christmas and abandon this silly position.

  20. “Sorta like how white people call Diwali the “Festival of Lights…’”

    I know, right!? Gah! White people! Certainly no “brown people” ever refer to Diwali as “the Festival of Lights,” and definitely not the “red,” “yellow,” or “black” people. And just because deepavali translates to “row of lamps” and is a highly festive occasion, it doesn’t mean “white” people should refer to it as the “Festival of Lights.” That just makes no sense at all!

  21. Thank you for this article, Nadya. I think the pictures I’ve seen of Holi are beautiful. I’m sorry that you’re encountering a misrepresentation and appropriation of something that is so dear to you. And I think you’ve hit on a beautiful relational aspect of this whole cultural appropriation issue: yes, I love colors and think Holi looks like fun–which is why I won’t be a part of a group of white kids throwing powder on each other in a shallow imitation of what Holi is all about. I don’t understand why it’s so unappealing to people to actually engage with people from other cultures in fair, respectful ways rather than crossing cultural boundaries without considering significance.

  22. I love how people are saying “It’s just a fun event / But globalisation / But CHRISTMAS and so you should just chill out!!!”

    Not only are they displaying blatant ignorance about power politics (and how Christmas is really the worst example you can give; do the words DOMINANT RELIGION WORLDWIDE and WESTERNIZED MEDIA help that rotted pumpkin you call a brain), but at the same time they obviously don’t understand the basic point: you can borrow from my culture when you face the same discrimination for being a part of it as I do. Simple.

  23. Where is the proof that this idea was dirived from said cultural events? Does EVERYTHING have to be torn apart and analized by paranoid, insecure and jelous people? I would like to believe this event is getting more people off thier sofas and more fit. <——- period!

  24. I just did the color run in Dubai, UAE…lots of Indians ran. Yes, it was mentioned that Holi uses the same colored Chalk. End of similarities. The Muslim/Christian/Hindi/Buddist/atheists in attendance all had a good time. I do believe the author of the article is race-centric.

  25. “bork: oh fucking please. I expect you to stop using/doing anything invented by white people. that appropriation shitlord.”
    Even though I believe all human beings are the same, however, if you do want to make a difference on color:

    Half the time you guys are laying false claims on other people’s and other countries inventions, calling them your own and marketing / selling them to your customer base. Second, most of your modern inventions are based on concepts like the zero, algebra and calculus, that came from India. The reason your mother’s so hot is because of plastic surgery, which was also invented in India. So go eff yourself.

  26. Agreed

    Its so wrong. And its another example of vile, empty westerners hijacking other cultures and passing it off as their own !

    Just like those ugly villains did with yoga

  27. when I lived in Arlington, VA, I saw an advertisement for this and I was actually pretty offended by it. The moment I saw it, I knew it was an imitation of Holi, which only made me angry because it is an appropriation of a very important Hindu holiday. It has meaning to us and I find these comments typical of a bunch of people who are just here to imitate. So now they are imitating Hindus: pretending Holi is a “color run” just as yoga is about a bunch of downward dogs not actually about enlightenment and meditation. We shouldn’t be too mad because imitation is the greatest form of flattery. We should be on edge though because the first people they imitated were the Jews by taking their religion and changing it’s name…eeke….How did that turn out… Anyway, as Hindus let us be flattered: I can’t turn anyway these days without someone doing yoga, saying om, talking about moguls (lol) and talking about karma…Our slogan should be “we don’t imitate; others imitate us.”

  28. the spiritual part/practice of Holi should stay with the event. If you or anyone is uncomfortable with the religious aspect of it…. DON’T DO IT! It’s that simple. I how much the dominant white culture likes to cherry pick the world for the cools stuff and leave out anything that suggests they are not the shining center of the universe. It is incredibly disrespectful.

  29. Some of this is does make me laugh. While I am Hindu and feel disrespected by some of these appropriations I largely don’t mind for most of them. The Colour Run? OK fine whatever. But to the person that said “I see plenty of Indians enjoying Christmas without a care for the religious reasons” – how about we move Christmas to June? Fancy that? Why not?
    As some one else mentioned, in Western Europe there is now a “Holi:Festival of Colour” with absolutely no respect for the religion, Holi is in March and they run this music festival in June. This pisses me off. As a festival goer and DJ I love the idea of the festival, but to call it Holi is an absolute joke. Let’s move Easter? Eid? Vaisakhi? I like chocolate eggs, but I’d prefer them in Winter, they’re comforting, let’s move Easter to then. It’s a christian holiday you say? So what? It makes people happy.
    At Christmas do the Indians in America burn crosses and portray Mary as a stripper? Hindu’s don’t drink or eat meat during religious festivals, but these festivals are becoming associated with drinking, burgers and sex.

    This is not cool. They actually call it Holi. What do you guys think about this one then?

  30. Though I have never participated in a Color Run event, I feel that the participants should know where the idea came from. If the Holi festival was trademarked by Hindus there is no way The Color Run organizers would be able to justify not stealing it. Just give them their props and maybe the average young American will learn a little more about another culture.

  31. A friend invited me to a Holi celebration at the end of this month. I was googling ‘celebrating Holi responsibly’ as I am an outsider to it and came across your article. Thank you for writing it! I want to make sure that I am responsibly accepting my friend’s kind invitation and that I don’t make obnoxious missteps when I participate. I thought there was something familiar about the Color Run. I haven’t ever participated in one of those, but I know those who do. It does seem appropriative.

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