Kwanzaa Learnings for People of White Privilege

As a man with White privilege I feel anxiety about offering any comments about a celebration of African/African American history, culture, and wisdom. I do not intend to appropriate the spiritual traditions of other people. However, as I told a friend, “It is not my heritage, but oh my, the wisdom is so powerful, so needed.” 

A bit of personal history is in order. One of the things that happened when I was the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond VA that really makes me proud, is our decision to observe Kwanzaa on the Sunday immediately following Christmas. I do not know for sure which year we began, but I know that by 2007 (I had been pastor since 2003) the local paper ran a story with pictures about our observance.  We had purchased a kinara, a beautiful carved wood holder for the seven candles, as well as the required green, red and black candles (I don’t think I had ever seen, let alone purchased, a black candle before this). 

I was moved to promote this because I was acutely aware that this congregation of 80 people was overwhelmingly white-identified—in a city in which African Americans constituted a majority of the population (of course, the suburban counties were very different!). I admit that my reasoning included appealing to African Americans, especially LGBTQ people, to check out our congregation. This was not the first time White-dominated institutions used Kwanzaa as a marketing ploy (Hallmark cards come to mind). At any rate, I have come to appreciate Kwanzaa over the years, although I admit I have not always actively observed it. With this post, I am committing to active year-round engagement. 

Dr. Maulana Karenga

One of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is Kujichagulia, self-determination. Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, said that he wanted to give Black people an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, not as a subset of or exception to other holidays, but their own self-designed, self-actuating celebration and foundation for personal and communal life, to define and name themselves, as well as to create and speak for themselves. 

That is why I think Kwanzaa is so vital. It can help people with White privilege come to grips with the reality that Black people, as is true of Indigenous, Brown and other people, have not only a vibrant self-defined culture but are agents in their own well-being. It is essential that we with White privilege massively change the ways we have set up, and continue to set up, the world to deny that. 

All of us, and each of us, who benefit from unearned White privilege need to get our collective knee off the backs of BIPoC people, but we also need to realize that even though we continue to victimize them they already have their own dignity, their own values, their own history. That dignity, those values, and that history are a powerful testament to the vibrancy of the human spirit from which we can learn much.  

We, all of us, need the wisdom that is collected and celebrated in Kwanzaa.  People with White privilege could learn so much from the peoples we have devalued, abused, slaughtered—and continue doing that today. At the same time, we who benefit from unearned privilege need to be careful in our own observance of Kwanzaa to avoid bleaching it (an example of bleaching is what is done each January to the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., removing all the edges of his words and work that might upset us, so he becomes a faint caricature of the giant he was and still is). 

I have already mentioned Kujichagulia, self-determination. Let’s look at the other six. 

Umoja (Unity)—To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race. 

Unity is so missing in our nation today, and really around the globe. Let the coming year be one that helps all people come together. A vital way people with White privilege can contribute to this is to give up some of that privilege, and work to eliminate it entirely. We can’t keep clinging to ideas and practices of superiority over others if we really want unity.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.  

Collective work and responsibility is in short supply these days, especially with the number of people who continue to deny the reality of COVID-19, not to mention the Climate Emergency and the continuing scourge of White supremacy, and engage in behavior which endangers not only them but the rest of us, too. You know who you are and you can change if you care enough about the well-being of all. And the rest of us can promote this change.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together. 

Cooperative Economics seems foreign to our capitalistic, monopolistic society. Imagine, encouraging everyone to use their gifts to build their own dreams in ways to benefit all. One small way I am trying to encourage this is to buy as little as possible from the online giants and give my patronage to local and smaller companies and especially to those owned and operated by BIPoC people. 

Nia (Purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. 

Purpose as an expression of collective focus seems foreign to the deep strain, the dominance, of individualism in the United States. This principle raises up the truth of the beauty, wisdom, and power of African cultures so often belittled and degraded by Western supremacist views. That needs to change, of course, and frankly people of White privilege also must think and work to draw upon parts of our heritage that call us to more universal values and behaviors. 

Kuumba (Creativity)—To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. 

Creativity is an aspiration to contribute our fullest potential to the well-being of all. This is not motivated by profit and power for a few but by an awareness of our own innate and developed gifts, and a desire to use those gifts to bless, serve the world. There are people of privilege engaging in philanthropy but this is more than that; this is giving our whole selves, and continually stretching ourselves, to create a better world for all. 

Imani (Faith)—To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. 

Faith speaks to the fundamental human need to believe in each other. In the context of African and African American history, this is a reclaiming of the beauty and power of the various cultures and movements of the people. For White privileged people, this needs to be understood as a challenge to us to affirm the dignity and value of all people, AND to ongoing critical conversation and action that challenges and changes the people, attitudes, and practices that create and maintain hierarchies of value denying the dignity and value of others. Frankly, I, we, have much work to do in this! 

In case you hadn’t noticed, at the heart of Kwanzaa is community, communal living. May this new year be a time where more and more of us live in ways that acknowledge the truth that we all—of every nation, color, racial identity, religion, language, sexuality, gender, age, tribe, education, economic status, as well as all the non-human creatures of this world—are in this together. 

Indeed, the lessons of Kwanzaa tell us we people of White privilege must change. We can share in celebrations of this special time created and led by others, but if we do not show up to work on our own transformation we are only engaging in making ourselves look and feel good.  

We’ve got a year to show some progress. Let us get to it. 

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Note: As always, I invite you replies as an opportunity for us to continue the conversation. The best way to share in the conversation not with me but with others is to use the comment option on this page. You also can sign up to become a subscriber to this blog. I would be so glad of your continuing participation in the dialogue. 

4 thoughts on “Kwanzaa Learnings for People of White Privilege”

  1. Thanks for the invitation to the conversation. While not being a white person of privilege, I can and do appreciate any efforts that any one has to learn more about the “other”. What ways are we both alike and different and where in holy conversation can we meet with civil discourse? As you see yourself as a theologian, quite naturally you have offered an apt description for what is essentially a spiritual non-religious program. Dr Karenga and others within the cultural landscape of the sixties black power movement were speaking primarily to African people throughout the diaspora who faced a corruption of cultural beliefs and values about who they are.
    As you mentioned candidly in reference to the potential contemporary commercialization of any event, I too as a black woman would agree that :
    “This was not the first time White-dominated institutions used Kwanzaa as a marketing ploy (Hallmark cards come to mind). At any rate, I have come to appreciate Kwanzaa over the years, although I admit I have not always actively observed it. With this post, I am committing to active year-round engagement”.
    As I celebrate 54 years of this cultural observance as a spiritual journey; I still don’t feel I have the luxury to opt in or out. Over the years I have seen an adaptation and evolution of how we form community, who we include and in what ways as Elders we continue to teach and demonstrate the African cultural values we hold dear. While the nuances may change over time; for instance this year I could not find a black candle ANYWHERE!. the black gentlemen in my hardware store in my largely white neighborhood knew all about Kwanzaa and he and I decided I could safely substitute a gold candle for black.
    I am excited to see greeting cards and links to you tube videos , websites, and that Kwanzaa and Dr. Karenga are still alive. The need is still here! Family looks a bit different as we celebrate in ways that are both bold, comforting, and open to all. It seems now these gatherings are more important now than ever.

    Whether good white folks change their beliefs or recognize us as Africans as we appear all over the globe; I envision a world where we all learn and grow and love ourselves and others from a position of strength, clarity, knowing our heritage as best we can.

    1. Thank you, Jackie! I really appreciate the way you share your vantage point, your history, your commitment. It helps me in my journey–and yes, one of the habits of privilege is to be able to opt in and opt out. I am trying to do less of that in several areas of my life, including Kwanzaa and learning from several cultures that are not ordinarily mine. Life is much richer, and will be even richer when I keep my commitments. Again, thanks, and thanks for subscribing!

  2. I very much appreciated this sharing of the Ngozu Saba – the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. My family celebrates Kwanzaa each year, and as our grand children have matured, they have taken over the planning and execution of our family event. Our event includes Black History Trivia games, a film discussion-this year we discussed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. We then reflect upon the principle(s) that we selected the year before as a guide to our community and life actions. This past year was challenging for everyone because of the pandemic and economic downturn. Our family is grateful to be working and still contributing to our communities. However, we also learned that we all need more mindfulness time in order to avoid burnout. One can be used up emotionally and physically where we work if we are not careful to take me time. So, many in our family resolved to review Nia – purpose to ensure work/life balance, and in some cases calm/life balance. Appreciate the sharing and yes, capitalism will always try to appropriate the culture and talents of others to make a buck. The principles are of Kwanzaa are community based and focused on collective support, while American capitalism is about promoting the notion of individualism among working people, while ensuring corporate socialism.

    1. Thank you Lois! Thank you for sharing your own family’s traditions, and in doing so sharing some of the relevance of Kwanzaa in our lives right now, certainly in work/life balance and calm/live balance. That is helpful to me. Your comments about capitalism are right on.

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