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. 

If you want to learn more, you can visit https://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwanzaa

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. 

More Dark, Less Light

Hanukkah party Mishkan Torah 2015
Hanukkah party at Mishkan Torah, Greenbelt MD, 2015. Author photo

We celebrated Hanukkah these past days, including a party offered by the religious school at Congregation Mishkan Torah last evening (the final night of this eight-day feast). I say we celebrated it for past days, but not eight because I could not find our menorah until time to light the third candle at home!

Christmas tree
heart.co.uk

In ten days, we will fly to Michigan to celebrate Christmas with our extended family. In between, we will observe the winter solstice on December 22. Muslims will observe Mawlid, the birth of the prophet Mohammed on December 23 to 28 (depending on the branch of Islam). Then there is Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) and of course New Year’s Day.

This is a time of year marked by celebration.

Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights because of the centrality of lighting menorah candles each night (beginning with one the first night and then adding another each evening). And Christmas is marked by bright lights as well, on Christmas trees and on the exterior of many homes and other buildings. This surely is a reflection on the star that guided the magi from the East to the stable in Bethlehem. Both of these holy times are dear to me, and I know to many others as well.

winter_night_snowflakes_merry_christmas_sky_hd-wallpaper-1613250
imagesbot.com

But light is not central to two other celebrations, namely the winter solstice and Kwanzaa. In fact, they are really celebrations of darkness.

I cherish darkness–skin tones to be sure–but more, too. I value the dark of night, I value being in the dark, meaning not being sure of exactly where I am or where I am going or what is around me. I have a feeling this is not how many, probably most, people feel.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes

I cannot remember the last time I heard someone use “dark” to describe something good. Fear of the dark has been sanctified in so many people’s minds . . . without constant reminders that darkness is not a synonym for mortal or spiritual danger, most people I know revert to the equation without even thinking about it. (Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 54)

I don’t meant to suggest, any more than Taylor does, that there is never danger in the dark. But in a world where terrorists randomly kill and behead people and fly planes into tall buildings, police shoot people even as they lay dying,  and people drive cars into crowds to express their frustration–all in broad daylight or on well-lighted sidewalks and streets–I am not convinced that being in the light is all that much safer than being in the dark.

fire in darkness
myinnermystic.wordpress.com

We can learn from the dark. Do you realize that if you are outside at night and you shine a light on something that you will see it in some ways better than without the light, but at the same time that the light will block out what is around the object and around you? Light actually limits the range of your vision.

That limited vision is reflected in white racism and white privilege, too–many of us are conditioned to not really see the darker-skinned people in our midst as full members of the human race. If white, or light, is the norm, is the preferred coloration, we devalue our siblings and all the richness, truth, and beauty of their divinely created humanity.

starry night sky in winter
vi.sualize.us

And at this time of the year, in the northern half of the globe, we are given the opportunity to slow down, as the plants and trees and many of our fellow animals are doing, and rest, letting go of our need to see everything and be everywhere. I am not a big fan of cold weather–and really dislike snow–but I do value the opportunity to burrow into the cocoon that is our home and feel enveloped by darkness that is longer each day.

Of course, we have moved into a more urbanized area than our former neighborhood in Richmond, and the porch lights of neighbors, perhaps 100 feet away, seem perpetually on–but still I have the great joy of taking Cocoa out for a dark walk at 10 pm or so (most people do not leave their exterior lights on and the tree-covered walkways of our two-hundred-plus acre co-op are wonderful for walking). I also cherish going out before sunrise to walk with him. If you do this, perhaps you too notice how much more clearly the bare trees stand out against the night sky. They are a great joy to my soul.

Close-up of a family celebrating Kwanzaa
kunm.org

I don’t want to stop celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, but I want to put more emphasis on the Solstice and Kwanzaa–I want more balance in my life, and that means more dark, less light.

Spiritually speaking, I take my cue from the Hebrew writers of Genesis. Creation started out as void and darkness, and then was given more shape by the creation of light. But the light did not erase the darkness, and both were judged to be good.

May it be so in my life, and yours.