How You Can Avoid Sanitizing Cultural Holidays In Your Campus Programming

As student affairs professionals, it’s important for us to accept, embrace, and celebrate culturally important individuals, groups, and events. 

These celebrations include months like Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, and LGBT History Month, as well as individual events and days like Pride and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Cultural celebrations have rightfully become commonplace on most campuses, and student affairs professionals are typically tasked with leading the way with programming. 

In the approaching weeks, many students, faculty, and staff on campuses across the country will collaborate to create programming for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Yet, such celebrations often miss the mark, as attempts to avoid controversy lead to sanitization. 

Here are three ways to make sure that your cultural celebrations are true to their intent and not sanitized.

1. Keep history at the forefront

Cultural celebrations are important because they highlight the histories of important people, places, and events that have influenced our society. 

…Or at least they’re meant to. When programming, make sure that the history you’re telling provides attendees with in-depth learning rather than simple feel-good moments.

For instance, in your planning for MLK Jr. Day, highlight more than just the March on Washington when Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech or the Selma to Montgomery marches.

Talk about other historical events (such as The Albany Movement in 1961) that represent missteps and allowed important movements to grow. Dr. King acknowledged that he failed at Albany, but he also cites this movement as instrumental to his later success. 

Additionally, it’s important to educate students on historical events that clarify or change the common perceptions of well-known movements. For instance, many people think of Dr. King working solely in the South. However, he aimed to pursue justice in the Midwest and North, too, notably Chicago in 1966, to address housing and other issues.

The response he received in Chicago was worse than in the South. It also provided him and the rest of the country with more insight into the fact that racism was just as insidious in the North.

2. Embrace the radicalism of those we celebrate

The term “radical” is often used negatively. Yet, much of the cultural change we celebrate should be credited to radicals. Simply put, a radical is a person who “[favors] extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions.”

During Pride in June, we should celebrate the radicals of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who represented the most marginalized groups in the LGBTQIA+ community. 

When we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15th through October 15th, we should celebrate radical people like Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta who organized strikes and protests for workers’ rights and immigrants. 

When we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, we should celebrate radical feminists like Ida B. Wells, bell hooks, and Kimberle Crenshaw, who embrace(d) a movement defined through intersectionality.

Celebrate these individuals through events that emphasize awareness, acknowledgment, and accountability. You can hold forums or discussions on campus where you talk about these individuals, have public readings of their speeches and other works, show documentaries that feature them, and create visual displays accompanied with biographies.

It is also important to provide students with context for where these radicals and their efforts fit into their respective movements. In many cases, radical activists, such as transgender activists of color, were ostracized from mainstream movements. Yet, much of their activism was so influential that it redefined what we now view as mainstream.

Awareness and acknowledgment should serve as catalysts for accountability. The best way to embrace and celebrate radicals is to hold ourselves and others accountable for carrying on their legacy and continuing their fights for change. 

To do so, consider separating your programs into two parts. The first part can be a forum, a discussion, or an activity that focuses on awareness and acknowledgment. The second part can provide training for activism, create a plan for activism, and establish a timeline to put those plans into action. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations are perfect examples of why awareness, acknowledgment, and accountability should be emphasized. Celebrations of Dr. King’s life often ignore his radicalism, leaving many unaware of the complexities of his philosophy and views and unable to be held accountable for creating the change he wanted.

Dr. King is almost always celebrated for his peacefulness, but he should also be celebrated for the radical measures he took. He wanted to change society and was willing to enact extreme measures to see that change happen — including boycotts, marches, and imprisonment. 

Dr. King was also known for his opposition to war, calling the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He also said, “We can’t solve our problems unless there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” 

In 1968, Dr. King helped organize the “Poor People’s Campaign” to create a “multiracial army of the poor” in order to encourage the US government to establish an economic bill of rights. 

Dr. King was a radical who wanted substantive change through extreme measures. 

As student affairs professionals, we need to discuss how the term radical can have a positive connotation, and we need to encourage students to be revolutionary and radical in order to promote fairness and justice. 

We respect these important figures and groups because of their radical views and the radical measures they took. So, our celebrations should reflect their radicalism.

3. Encourage activism and tangible goals

To better understand what we are celebrating, we need to prioritize history and the radicalism of cultural movements. We also need to embrace the role of activism and its tangible goals in our programming to encourage students to play a personal role in creating social change.

We need to honor the legacy of important groups and figures, but these celebrations should also serve as ways to expand upon and carry on their legacies.

For instance, programming for Pride celebrations can include fun, social events. But they should also explore how to support the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly homeless youth and individuals of color, as well as non-binary, intersex, and trans folx

We need to ask if programming held for Pride will lead to more awareness of both the historical and current experiences of LGBTQIA+ folx. Will the programming raise money or serve organizations that support folx in need? Will the events that are held center and elevate the voices of the subsections within the LGBTQIA+ community that are frequently alienated?

Many institutions support LGBTQIA+ folks in their community far beyond Pride celebrations. Macalester College, for instance, provides ally training, online communities, all-gender communities, mentoring programs, and support for transgender folx. Macalester also provides on-campus resources that include faculty/staff/alumni connections, student organizations, and identity collectives.

In January, celebrations of Dr. King will occur around the country. They will include marches and discussions aimed at carrying on his legacy, but these events need to go beyond a surface-level understanding of his stances. He cared deeply about political and economic equity and justice for the most marginalized people, so that’s what the events should focus on.

Students, staff, faculty, and administration are welcome to create programming and lead discussions highlighting Dr. King’s desire for peace, nonviolent, and coexistence, but their celebration of Dr. King should also highlight and discuss the complexities of his goals. 

Dr. King wanted everyone to acknowledge the historical oppression of Black Americans and other people of color. He wanted there to be an emphasis on living wages, secure and adequate income, access to land and capital, and the ability for ordinary people to play a role in government. Programming for Dr. King’s holiday should reflect that emphasis and not shy away from the radical measures he pursued to obtain them.

Cultural celebrations can be powerful opportunities for awareness and action. To make them powerful, we cannot overlook history, radicalism, and activism. Failure to honor the fullness and complexities of cultural celebrations means being complicit in their dilution and sanitization.

How have you fully embraced the complexities of cultural celebrations on campus? We’d love to learn from you! Tweet us at @themoderncampus and @MarceliusB.

Marcelius Braxton

About the author: Marcelius Braxton (he/him) has a law degree and a master's degree in philosophy, yet he found his home in student affairs and couldn't be happier. He is passionate about issues related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice, and loves UNC sports. Learn how we can help get your students involved.