Sandra Lee’s Kwanzaa Cake and the problem with being inclusive

By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said

Respecting and honoring all persons and their cultures is hard work in a society that privileges the majority culture. It requires honest acknowledgement that privilege allows some Americans to be knowledgeable and care only about their own beliefs and rituals. It requires dedication to learning about traditions beyond your own. And it requires resisting the temptation to see other cultures only within the context of your own. (i.e. believing Hanukkah is Jewish Christmas)

This all takes work. And, frankly, I don’t think most Americans wish to work hard at understanding other cultures. This time of year, the War on Christmasers balk at “Happy Holidays”–just a gentle acknowledgement that some Americans celebrate winter holidays other than or in addition to Christmas. But even the more evolved among us stumble, because rather than learning, say, what Winter Solstice or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa really are and what they mean to those who celebrate them, we prefer to simply be “inclusive.” And by “inclusive” I mean folks throw in a mention of these holidays from time to time during the season, usually conflating them with Christmas. Shove a Kinara or Menorah in the background of a talk show set or on a holiday graphic. Include other winter holidays in the consumerist frenzy that Christmas has become. And indiscriminately shout “Happy Kwanzaa” long before December 26.

I give you semi-homemade goddess Sandra Lee’s Kwanzaa Cake:

There. Are you happy Kwanzaa-celebrating black folks? You have been “included” in a holiday baking segment on a popular cooking show. Never mind that Kwanzaa is not traditionally celebrated with loads of baking and that there is no such thing as a Kwanzaa Cake. Never mind that Kwanzaa was specifically designed to celebrate African American culture and that nothing about this cake , save the red, black and green candles, has anything to do with the traditions of the African diaspora. What exactly does this cake have to do with Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba or Imani? And lastly, never mind that the cake looks hella nasty. Inclusiveness, baby!

Controversy surrounding the Kwanzaa cake was reignited on Dec. 16, when recipe-writer Denise Vivaldo disavowed the dreaded thing and claimed on Huffington Post that she was strong armed into creating the recipe for it. (The post has since been removed.) Vivaldo’s post prompted Salon to ask “Just how offensive is Sandra Lee’s Kwanzaa cake?” Of course that question prompted Salon’s usual parade of hideous commenters to chime in, including cib, who offered:

Kwanzaa was made up out of thin air. So I suppose you could make up anything and say it’s a Kwanzaa cake. Sandra Lee is annoying but at least she made an effort to acknowledge this fake “holiday”.

When will we ever be happy? (Read Spark in Darkness’ great post on this sentiment at Womanist Musings.)

Sigh.

First, someone needs to do some reading up on the origins of Christmas. Second, note the implication that those who celebrate Kwanzaa should be happy to have their (lesser) holiday included. Sandra Lee’s cake isn’t so much offensive as silly, but this idea–that being included is enough and that being asked to do more is mere “political correctness”–is problematic.

“Inclusive” has become the mantra of people wishing to be sensitive to people of all races, ethnicities, religions, etc. (And even some, like cib, who really don’t give a damn.) But being inclusive, I think, is the wrong object of focus. Or, at least, it is not enough of a focus on its own. It is not enough to include. Indeed, inclusiveness without thought or knowledge demonstrates a lack of caring and a display of privilege that is offensive.

Photo courtesy of Pete Campbell