Can White People Celebrate Kwanzaa And Other Questions You Were Too Afraid To Ask

Akilah Bolden-Monifa
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Kwanzaa Candles (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Kwanzaa Candles (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Many questions surround Kwanzaa, a holiday celebrating the roots of African-American history. Here are some answers.

10. Kwanzaa. Isn’t that the African-American Christmas?

A lot of people assume that Kwanzaa was intended to replace Christmas. But the celebration has nothing to do with Christmas. Its purpose is to promote unity among African-Americans, as well as an understanding of our cultural roots. It was started in 1966 by Dr. Maulena Karenga, professor and chairman of black studies at California State University at Long Beach. The holiday is based on the cultures of Yorubas, Ibos, Ashantis, Zulus and other African tribes.

9. How long is Kwanzaa?

The celebration runs for seven days, from December 26 to January 1, and focuses on one principle each day: unity, self-determination, collective work, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

8. What religion do you have to be to celebrate Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday. It is celebrated by people of many faiths, as well as those who do not embrace any religion.

7. Why do people celebrate Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is sometimes criticized because it is a new holiday and lacks the historic roots of Hanukkah and Christmas, two prominent December holidays. But African-Americans’ history in this country is relatively short–particularly our history as a free people. People celebrate Kwanzaa for a variety of reasons: to pay homage to our ancestors, for hope and faith, and for renewal and pride.

6. Doesn’t Kwanzaa use a menorah or candelabrum?

A kinara (seven-branched candleholder) is used in Kwanzaa celebrations. Some confuse it with a menorah, which is used in Hanukkah celebrations. “Candelabrum” is a generic name for a branched candlestick. Menorah and kinara are two types of candelabra.

5. What colors are associated with Kwanzaa?

Red, for the blood of our people, not shed in vain; green, representing hope; and black, for the faces of our people.

4. Is celebrating Kwanzaa tantamount to supporting black nationalism or separatism?

None of Kwanzaa’s principles calls for nationalism or separatism. This myth probably originated because Karenga, the holiday’s founder, was a militant activist in the 1960s.

3. Is Kwanzaa recognized as a state holiday anywhere?

No. But the United States Postal Service regularly honors Kwanzaa with holiday postage stamps, with the last being issued in 2011.

2. How many people celebrate Kwanzaa?

About 18 million people celebrate Kwanzaa according to some sources, but exact polling data is not available.

And the number-one question folks want answered about Kwanzaa but are afraid to ask:

1. Can white people who are not of African descent participate in a Kwanzaa celebration?

The short answer is yes. American society is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. But cultural sensitivity is always appropriate. More and more of us have mixed ethnic backgrounds. It is important, though, to remember that a big part of the holiday is creating community among African-Americans.

When invited, I go to cultural and religious celebrations that are not part of my cultural or religious heritage. I participate in a way that is comfortable for my host and for me. It would be arrogant of me, a non-Jew, to dominate a Seder or Hanukkah celebration, for example. People who are not of African descent should approach Kwanzaa with the same attitude.

A proverb often quoted during Kwanzaa reads: “I am because we are; because we are, I am.” Harambee! (Let’s pull together!)

Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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