If festivals teach us something, it is that we can find a common humanity

While each celebration has its own meaning, a shared lesson from festivals is the thread of renewal

A child collects Easter eggs during an event to mark the Christian festival in the US city of Kentucky. AP
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A large proportion of the world will be marking different festivals over the coming weeks. It’s hard to talk about joy and celebrations with the war continuing in Gaza, not to mention other conflicts around the world.

This is Easter weekend, and it overlaps with Ramadan. Between the two religions this covers more than half of the world’s population. Then add a further hundreds of millions who have just celebrated festivals such as St Patrick's Day, Holi and Nowruz. Other festivals such as Passover and Vaisakhi are coming up, along with numerous other days that communities all around the world look forward to and enjoy with their loved ones. These celebrations serve as reminders of the richness of human culture and heritage, fostering understanding and appreciation across communities.

The diversity of festivals, however, is also a poignant backdrop to talk about the "hierarchy of racism", which is to say, when one group feels they are treated worse than another. This idea comes around every few years and has been increasingly prevalent in conversations and in some timelines on social media of late. Communities often have their own stories about inequalities and discriminations faced.

The mechanisms of systemic oppression include creating in/out groups, of "model minorities". Which is why a period where many festivals fall close to one another is an opportunity to weave connections between groups often pitted against each other and talk of who benefits from the overall systems or hierarchy – whether that’s via race, religion, national identity or other mechanisms, to keep power, resources and wealth in the hands of a few.

Which means all of us with genuine intent should take this moment to celebrate our festivals – many of which are about seasonal renewal, rather than the spiral down a dark rabbit hole of what some people label "oppression Olympics".

Taking my own example, I’ve seen how hierarchies of racism and discrimination can be damaging. My East African-Indian heritage is a result of people from India making their way to East Africa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They came to build the railways, and as traders, merchants, and sadly sometimes as indentured labourers.

For all but the last of these groups, one of the drivers was the colonial powers wanting intermediaries to govern the local populations. In essence, an establishment of a social and commercial hierarchy of racism.

I have my own faith and perspective, but that doesn’t mean that nobody else has wisdom or teachings worth considering

And as someone of South Asian heritage, I can say this: that some South Asians fell for it. Indoctrinated with a racism that allowed us to feel superior to locals in places in East Africa (but still inferior to the colonisers), many South Asians took social and commercial benefit, but the price to do so was to be the upholders of that hierarchy.

It was only a superficial benefit that was gained, but it upheld inequalities and discriminations. Often I see those hierarchies still in place, at the same time too often an inferiority complex. But perhaps saddest of all, groups that seem to need to be the preferred minority. I see similarities in so many current conflicts and struggles as one minority in the claims for its own self, enacts inequality and oppression on others.

It's understandable that we in our own communities and groups can feel the weight of discrimination and trauma of what is inherited. But seeing the bigger picture and our roles within these inherited structures matters.

While each culture and religion have their own meanings, one lesson from festivals is the common thread of renewal, of beginning and of trying to be better human beings. I always enjoying learning the meaning and stories of the festivals of others, and seeing what I can take from them and apply to my own life.

I have my own faith and perspective, but that doesn’t mean that nobody else has wisdom or teachings worth considering. If anything – and I’m not talking here about key defining principles of faith and the non-negotiables – faith and religion are typically all built on understanding and improving the human condition, and building on wisdoms that have many commonalities.

It's hard to use the word "optimism" at a time of so much death and destruction around the world. But if religion and cultural celebrations teach us something, it is that we can find commonality, at the same time as seeing the long perspective and the hard graft required to build the societies, the equality and the justice we seek. Even in dark hours, we must retain hope, which is another common thread across multiple and beautiful human traditions.

Published: March 29, 2024, 7:00 AM