Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 31: Kwanzaa


Before we forget, here’s our website of past newsletters, here’s a link to subscribe to our Patreon, here’s an anonymous question bank for anyone who wants to keep their questions private, here’s a fund tracker that breaks down how we spend our money, and here’s the link to sign up to receive these newsletters if someone forwarded them to you. 

Hi friends,

Happy weird week in the no-person’s-land time between Christmas and New Years! We were asked to clarify a few questions about Kwanzaa this week and, in researching the holiday and its origins, we have learned so much ourselves! Before we begin, we want to clarify that we do not celebrate Kwanzaa (it feels like it toes the line of cultural appropriation for us, personally) but we do deeply appreciate what this holiday means for many Black Americans and people of African descent. We also think that the principles of Kwanzaa are ethical ideals for which we can all learn to strive in this moment. 


After the 1965 Watts Riots, Black activist and scholar Maulana Karenga, drew from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits,” to create a specifically Black holiday to draw on seven principles of African culture (despite the use of the African language and principles from which it drew inspiration, Kwanzaa did not exist in any African nation). 

Following the Watts Riots and creation of Kwanzaa as a holiday, Karenga founded an organization called Us – meaning, Black people – promoting broader understanding of and pride for Black culture. The purpose of the organization was to provide a broader platform through which to rebuild the Los Angeles Watts neighborhood through a strong organization rooted in African culture.

Karenga wished to point African-Americans to greater knowledge of their African heritage and past, calling the creation of both Us and Kwanzaa an act of cultural discovery.

Kwanzaa and its celebrations are rooted in the struggles and the triumphs of the civil rights and Black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s. As Keith Mayes, a scholar of African-American history, notes in his book of the holiday’s name, “for Black power activists, Kwanzaa was just as important as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kwanzaa was the answer tothe ubiquity of white cultural practices, which were oppressive . Put simply, Kwanzaa was a way to create a collective Black identity for people of African descent across the United States. 


There are seven principles of Kwanzaa that coincide with the seven days of the holiday’s celebration. Today, the 29th and the fourth day of Kwanzaa, the principle is Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics).

Unity: Umoja
To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Self-determination: Kujichagulia
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima
To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.

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

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

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

Faith: Imani
To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.


Kwanzaa is a celebration of Black history, present, and future. It is an annual affirmation of the power of Black communities, who have survived through so much abject oppression. It is celebrated with drum beating, libations, music (particularly, the African American National Anthem), candle-lighting, a Feast of Faith (Karamu Ya Imani) and recitation of history and the Principles of Kwanzaa.

The greeting for Kwanzaa between fellow Black people is usually “Habari Gani?” – Swahili for “How are you?”


(White) friends, this is not our holiday. Please do not assume every Black person celebrates Kwanzaa (some don’t! That’s okay too!) and (please, we beg of you) do not don a Kente cloth in “solidarity.” Do not make this about you.

We include this in our newsletter series because we want to be informed, respectful, and appreciative of the holiday. Kwanzaa does not need white people to celebrate it to make it “more mainstream,” we can appreciate, support, and acknowledge it without centering ourselves

Still looking to plug-in in an appropriate way to celebrate Kwanzaa? We’re donating to the Okra Project, providing meals for Black trans people this winter. If you’re interested in more local mutual aid efforts for you, shoot us an email and we’ll help you find a person or place with whom you can share!


We won’t be in your inbox again on Friday (we have some semblance of NYE/NYD plans that do NOT include sending emails, sorry!) but here are the headlines that wowed us this past week if you’re interested in what we’re reading!

  • READ: False Conviction – How fingerprint and firearm experts use misleading math to appear infallible.
  • READ: How Trump Made a Tiny Christian College the Biggest Prison Educator  – this story is bonkers in a way that makes you scratch your head? Still processing. 
  • READ: Sixty-nine Percent of Undocumented Workers have Essential Jobs – !!!!!! 
  • LISTEN: Radiolab’s Ashes on the Lawn – before Dr. Fauci was known as a COVID hero, he was an HIV/AIDS enemy. This podcast is incredible (Tracie Hunte, we love you!!) and a nice break from COVID news while still COVID-adjacent (another pandemic, another group of families learning how to grieve, similar researchers leading the fight). 
  • LISTEN: Earhustle’s The Bells – this absolutely wrecked Emily. A story embedded with other stories about COVID-19 hitting CA’s prisons, love, and how we preserve memories. 
  • READ: How does unaffordable money bail affect families? – powerful, devastating overview of the ways that money bail keeps families separated through major life events, and the ways its impacts are disproportionately divvied out along lines of race and class.

Happy holidays, stay safe and healthy, please get tested if you spent Christmas in a big group, etc. We will be back in your inbox next Monday with our (personal and Unlearning Racism-specific) Anti-Racist Resolutions! If you have suggestions or your own anti-racist resolution you want to share, shoot us an email here or a DM at @unlearning.racism.

In solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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