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Saturday, June 10, 2023

Guest Commentary

UH should celebrate holiday diversity

The University of Houston is the second most diverse university in the nation, behind only Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. UH is justly proud of our student, faculty and staff diversity in terms of race/ethnicity, religion, country of origin, and sexual and gender identities. However, as the Fall 2011 semester winds to a close, signs of acknowledgement of religious diversity on campus are in short supply as Christmas trees are displayed as holiday decorations with no other representations of the variety of winter religious and cultural celebrations as practiced by our diverse campus community.

In many ways the University of Houston is fortunate to have such diversity on campus, for it enriches us all. However, many in the campus community take credit for the diversity that exists here, which seems analogous to taking credit for the air we breathe or the stars we see. Oxygen, stars and student diversity exist independently of the university and yet credit is often misappropriated. However, the diversity issues we could take credit for as a campus community, that is, how we work with diverse groups, educate diverse groups or celebrate diverse groups is largely lacking. The Christmas tree debacle is merely the annual representation of this deficiency.

Christmas trees are a representation of a singular religion — Christianity. Although some would argue that Christmas trees actually represent pre-Christian pagan traditions, Christmas trees are largely associated with Christianity today.  So when Christmas trees are the only religious or cultural symbols displayed on campus, one religion or culture is elevated above all others, in our public, taxpayer-supported institution.

One solution to this problematic situation would be to ban all displays of religious or cultural celebrations on campus. That solution certainly answers the situation of elevating one religion above all others and would respect the fact that some of our students, faculty and staff identify as agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, or humanists. However, eliminating all displays as to not elevate one is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A better solution might be to expand our repertoire of the recognition of religious, nonreligious and cultural celebrations instead.  In general, people seem to enjoy colorful displays and decorations that enrich our daily lives and enable us learn about the traditions of people of diverse faiths and practices. Such displays serve not to validate one religion over another or proselytize a certain religion, but rather fulfill a broader goal of educating our students about diverse cultures and practices to further cross cultural knowledge and understanding, better preparing our students to live and work in the global community.

For instance, at this time of year in the Women’s Resource Center, we have holiday displays that recognize not only Christmas, but Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the Day of ‘Ashura. During the appropriate times of the year we also have displays for the Lunar New Year, Ramadan and Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights). This is not to say that the Women’s Resource Center always gets it right. In fact, in our attempt to recognize diverse cultures and traditions we sometimes make missteps, which happens in an active engagement with and celebration of diversity. But I would rather err in that regard than to have a myopic view, represented by the singular holiday display of a Christmas tree.

Beverly A. McPhail, Ph.D., is the director of the Women’s Resource Center and may be reached at [email protected].

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