Every late October/early November, my family celebrated Diwali. My mom would draw rangoli patterns on our front steps and light little candles with cotton wicks all over the house. We had friends over, played three-card poker and ate rice, dhal, paneer and alu with cucumber raita and mango chutney.
Christmas is when I get time off, but I don’t overlook Eid, Hanukkah, Nowruz, Juneteenth and the Lunar New Year. I follow the simple rule that just because it’s not a paid holiday, doesn’t mean it’s not worth celebrating. I mentioned this to someone once and got a puzzled look, “Why? You’re in America now.” The message was clear: Give up who you are and become one of us. I don’t want to see this happen in the workplace.
Religious and cultural holidays have meanings. But they can also be a painful time if schools don’t recognize celebrations, libraries don’t carry books and companies don’t understand the need for time off. For some, holidays are practiced silently while we go about business as usual.
So how can we bring religion, culture and work together?
Some parents volunteer to talk about their holidays at schools and some employees plan celebratory lunches in the office, but not everyone has the time or money to do this. In the absence of their efforts, do these conversations still happen?
I think about my son and his Hindu and Muslim roots and ask myself, if I only teach him what I know, where will he learn about the rest?
I don’t want to always tap someone and say, “Hey, I’m here.” I want them to see me, and recognizing my culture is one way of doing that. Some, like my son, have multiple identities passed down from both families. I don’t want anyone to be isolated for a holiday they are or aren’t celebrating.
Workplaces can be a place of inclusion by understanding there is always a dominant narrative and by being inquisitive about what we are and aren’t celebrating, and why.
Ruchika Tulshyan, the Seattle-based author of “The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace” and a former Seattle Times Explore writer, gave me several tips about how to be more inclusive at work.
First, the level of celebration of cultural holidays should be commensurate with the demographic makeup of your organization. If there are no Hindus in your organization, having a Diwali party to wear Indian clothes and eat Indian food without paying homage to the holiday is cultural appropriation. But if there’s good reason for why there should be a celebration, absolutely go ahead — and ensure that there are people from that culture in any planning efforts.
Second, at the very least, acknowledge the celebration through companywide communication and accommodate employees who are celebrating through time off or other ways to reasonably acknowledge the holiday.
Third, when employees do want to share their holidays with the organization, companies should support them with a budget, time to prepare and acknowledgement of the efforts made.
Finally, try to avoid “Westernizing” holidays from other cultures. Tulshyan says she heard of one team in a local company talking about organizing “Diwaloween,” which would mix Diwali with Halloween. “Thankfully, it was voted out, and I believe the company did separate celebrations for each,” she told me.
Religions and cultures represent deeply ingrained values passed down through generations. The future of diversity and inclusion is about bringing these differences into all areas of the workplace. Celebrating religions and cultures at work shares histories, encourages learning, connects communities and develops a sense of true belonging. We all play a role in making this happen.