Why Black Santa actually matters

black santaThis last week America has been embroiled in what appears, on its face, to be a typically stupid — maybe STUPID, with capital letters is called for here — discussion of race.

A black author, writing in Slate, suggested that Saint Nick needs his “long overdue makeover.”

In her article, Aisha Harris argues that it’s time to acknowledge that for many people of color, the public iconography doesn’t match the private experience.

“When I was a kid, I knew two different Santa Clauses,” Harris writes, the first being the one you see almost everywhere, with “skin as pink as bubble gum.”

“Then there was the Santa in my family’s household, in the form of ornaments, cards, and holiday figurines. A near-carbon copy of the first one—big belly, rosy cheeks, long white beard: check, check, check. But his skin was as dark as mine.”

Megyn Kelly, a high-profile anchor on Fox News, countered that “Santa just is white,” adding that “Santa is what he is.”

She went on to argue that Jesus, too, is white, suggesting that anyone who argues otherwise is part of the goofy, oversensitive PC-race police.

In the days since, Kelly has walked that back a bit.  She’s suggested that she was only joking and even made what amounts to a fairly sophisticated analysis of the way that race and public iconography work in America.

She acknowledged, in a later broadcast, that her own view of Santa is shaped by a “lifetime of exposure to the very same ‘commercials, mall casting calls, and movies’ that Harris references in her piece.

Kelly points to various Hollywood movies and public events, all portraying Santa as white.  “We continuously see St. Nick as a white man in modern day America.  Should that change?”

The Fox host suggests that “that debate got lost” because people we’re accusing her of race-baiting.  But actually, that’s what this is.  This is that debate.

You have a black woman suggesting that in an increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial America, it’s time to rethink how we portray the imaginary figures and symbols that are meant to give us a shared experience.

And you have a white woman initially recoiling, suggesting that the very idea is ludicrous — but then taking a step back, drawing a deep breath, and engaging the conversation.

It’s worth pointing out that these symbols matter.  That’s why societies place so much emphasis on finding images that capture our shared imagination, our common ideals, even our shared sense of fun and play.

And that’s why this conversation feels so scary.  For a lot of us, it really does matter that the “jolly old elf” has skin of a certain color.

And we need to acknowledge that in 2013, from Uncle Sam to the Statue of Liberty to Mt. Rushmore to Santa, it’s hard for non-white Americans to find their faces in our shared popular narrative.

A discussion of whether this needs to change really is long overdue.

It’s not hard to imagine a future America that is truly multi-racial — with whites only one of a constellation of “minorities” — but where our shared popular images remain sort of blindly, weirdly Caucasian.

(We already live in a largely urban America — 83% urban — where much of our iconography remains rural.  That’s weird and disorienting enough.)

But it’s also important to point out that, clumsy and belated as this discussion has been — any time Fox News is shaping a national debate, hold onto your hats — it’s still revolutionary.

Kelly and her co-hosts at Fox clearly view themselves as defenders of largely unquestioned white privilege, of the notion that traditional American racial dynamic are the norm.  Anyone questioning them is guilty of “race-baiting.”

But just by grappling with the question, by attempting to articulate an argument for the status quo, she’s doing something fairly radical.

In Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden — all sophisticated modern democracies — a discussion of this kind remains largely taboo, despite fast-changing racial demographics.

(France has toyed with the idea of re-imagining “Marianne,” the national female symbol of the Republic to reflect that nation’s growing immigrant population.)

Hopefully, at the end of the day, some of Kelly’s viewers — and some of Harris’s readers — will come away asking what are still for many of us uncomfortable questions.

What happens when our complex perceptions of race collide with familiar, popular images?  And what does our reaction say about our eagerness (or reluctance) to expand the definition of what normal America looks like?

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28 Comments on “Why Black Santa actually matters”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Historically, Jesus was not a Scandinavian blue eyed, blond and probably looked pretty much like all the Jews living in the area of his birth, meaning he was not Lilly white.
    Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and simply “Santa”, is a fantasy figure developed over time in Europe.
    Whatever “normal America looks like,” it should have nothing to do with what Santa, Jesus or George Washington look like.
    St. Martin de Porres and St. Augustine are but two of the many black people recognized as saints by the Catholic Church.

  2. myown says:

    As Pete points out, today’s Santa is the result of evolution :-)

    http://dailyinfographic.com/the-origin-and-evolution-of-santa-claus-infographic

  3. mervel says:

    Well it depends on how you want to go with it.

    From the perspective of Santa, Saint Nicholas was a Greek Bishop in the 4th century, most icon images of him from the Orthodox tradition portray him as not blue eyed or fair skinned.

    The Santa of popular mythology certainly would seem to be however, but as a current mythological figure we can portray him however we want.

    Historically Christ is a Jewish man born in Palistine 2000 years ago; is that white? Certainly not in the way he is often portrayed or the way Ms. Kelly means that is likely certain. The earliest depictions of Christ through icons are not of a fair skinned man.

    As a Christian I would prefer Marcus Garvey’s description and I think there is scriptural support for it; that the blood of every single race and people flowed through the veins of our Savior.

  4. Brian Mann says:

    It is interesting – setting Santa and Jesus aside for a moment — to reflect on how few iconic imagined figures in our culture are “of color.” There have been a few. Remember that powerful advertisement in the 60s or 60s showing a native American by the roadside, with garbage being thrown at his feet? I think that image rose to an almost mythical status. But it’s remarkably rare. I think it might be a healthy thing for our culture if a few of our “Uncle Sam” or “Statue of Liberty” or the like were non-white.

    –Brian, NCPR

  5. The Original Larry says:

    People of color should have their own cultural icons , not those determined by white folks.

  6. Peter Hahn says:

    Santa and Jesus look just the same as the person imagining them.

  7. Peter Hahn says:

    In Megan Kelly’s case, they are both white.

  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Jesus was Jewish. Jews are caucasian or “white” just as Arabs, Iranians/Persians (who are not Arabs though they play them on TV), Kurds, Armenians, Turks, Greeks, Berbers, Chechens….
    So, Megan Kelly was perfectly correct. Jesus was white; that is, if he wasn’t a mythical figure like Santa Claus in which case he would be whatever Coca Cola portrayed him as.

  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Interesting Siena pol shows that 30% of people believe in Santa.
    http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/news/story/23474/20131213/hundreds-of-adults-say-they-believe-in-santa

    Which makes me wonder what the average percentage is of people who lie to pollsters? 30%? Or do some of them actually believe in Santa? And do some who believe in Santa lie to the pollster and say “no” because they don’t want to admit to believing in Santa. Finally, how is it possible that 70% of people can be so wrong about someone we all see every year and the military tracks on radar so that there isn’t a nuclear annihilation due to some misunderstanding?

  10. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    On the urban thing. Did anyone else catch Scott Simon this morning talking about “urban radio” which used to be called “black radio” before we were politically correct?

    I get very confused by PC discussions. Does that mean that black people are supposed to be called Urbanites now?
    Don’t people of other races listen to urban radio or live in cities? And what about black people who don’t live in cities; do they listen to country music? And is country music only for white people?

  11. Mervel says:

    Jesus was not mythical and you know that knuckle. It’s interesting that Kelly conflated them though, which is pretty sacrilegious from a Christian viewpoint.

  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I have to amend my comment from 9:11. Most ethnic Jews were Semites, as are Palestinians, which really becomes confusing when some are called anti-Semitic because it isn’t PC to say anti-Jew even though they may be anti-Jew but not anti-Palestinian.

    But that isn’t my point. To be correct I should point out that there are other strains of Jews such as the Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews and so on. And even though various groups of Jews around the world seem trace genetically back to a single origin it is still possible that Jesus could have been black or Indian (of course many Indians – that is Indians from India – are Caucasian/white) or who knows, even Oriental for all I know – which isn’t really much.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_ethnic_divisions

  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Mervel, it doesn’t really matter if I believe Jesus was real or not. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all seem to believe he existed and to get all of them to agree on something it is either true or a miracle, and if Jesus only existed because of a miracle, well then…

  14. Pete Klein says:

    Speaking of Country & Western, Charlie Pride was and is black.
    In Rap we have a few white dudes such as Eminen.
    My point is – people are people. They are what they are.
    The Statue of Liberty is a bit green due to being made of copper.
    Probably, most people are not pure anything and over time it is even more probably won’t be a pure anything.
    Maybe then we can get down to being human and end all of this color nonsense.

  15. Brian Mann says:

    A

  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    _men?

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    If you stop and think about it for a minute it seems logical that Santa is probably Inuit and Canadian, since the Canadians have claimed the North Pole.

    And then there is the Bill Cosby image. When I was a kid I kind of thought of Bill Cosby being sort of a father figure. Being a hick living in the boonies I never met a black person until 6th grade when one black family moved to town and the son was in my grade, but not my class. We had gym together 3times a week. He was the only black person who knew me by name until I went to college. It always seemed really odd to me that other kids in my school who didn’t know any more black people than I did said racist things. But I guess you learn from your parents, both good and bad.

  18. Peter Hahn says:

    We allow (freedom of religion) doctrinal differences in important points about the relationship between Jesus, Mary, and God etc. Why can’t we allow people to have different images of them? Both Santa and Jesus were very likely originally based on real people, but once they are in the realm of miracles then anything goes.

  19. TomL says:

    Brian, interesting in this regard is the supposed Native American in those iconic ads you mention. The actor was Iron Eyes Cody, born Espera DeCorti. He was a son of Italian immigrants who assumed a Native American persona – see http://www.snopes.com/movies/actors/ironeyes.asp

  20. Kent Gregson says:

    It don’t matter what color it is or he is or she is. Anybody ever get a glimpse of the color of the tooth angel? I’ll bet it varies.

  21. Will Doolittle says:

    Reading funny comments like KHL’s gives you a feeling for the whole false scaffolding of race we’ve constructed. It’s like talking about what Santa Claus looks like — when you’re discussing a fictional creation, talking seriously about its actual characteristics carries a flavor of the absurd.

  22. Mervel says:

    Santa is not fictional, he is indeed based on a real historical documented guy, Saint Nicholas, we do know a little about him. He was not a fat German.

    The same goes for Jesus, who was a historical figure albeit in antiquity. But we have a guess of what His human form probably looked like. There is more historical evidence that Jesus existed than there is many other figures from that period of time, far far from a myth unless you are just trying for shock value to discredit His existence. I think it is a sideline to go down this path of calling Him a mythical figure.

    Santa is a little different as our concept of him is a mythical figure.

    The issue with Jesus to me is both historical and spiritual. Historically He was from the Middle East and born a Jewish man. We do know that many of His earliest followers were from Ethiopia etc. However as the Savior within Christianity, there is certainly no way that one skin pigmentation could claim Christ; thus showing Christ as being very dark skinned or very light skinned I think is fine. The early Icons I have portray Christ as very Dark skinned. No doubt there has been a push over the centuries to re-create His portrayal as Northern European, which of course is factually not correct, but if Northern Europeans feel better about doing that spiritually it is fine as long as it is not forced as the only way to represent Him.

  23. Pat Nelson says:

    I am perfectly comfortable with a black Santa or, for that matter, a multi-racial Santa. What bothers me about this story is the image of Santa smoking a cigar. Is that really the image we want children to have? To me, showing an icon smoking is encouraging children to take up smoking. ‘Be just like Santa — be kind, be generous and smoke’?

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    But doesn’t Santa smoke a pipe? And what is he smoking anyway? Magic Dust?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XoSyCtD0WO4

  25. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    One thing about Jesus that I don’t understand. He was a carpenter, right? Well, where is all the stuff he made? And what would it be worth on Antiques Road Show?

  26. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    More from the War on Santa:
    NORAD denies it has been endangering Santa with fighter jets.

    http://poststar.com/news/national/as-norad-tracks-santa-critics-track-norad/article_9a5206c7-5029-5ff3-8513-3d70322c27d5.html
    .
    “U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a NORAD spokesman, said he understands the critics’ point of view but disagrees….

    And he insisted the fighters in the video are unarmed: They’re Canadian Air Force CF-18s, with a large external fuel tank under the belly that might look like a bomb. The wing racks that would carry bombs or missiles are empty, he explained.”

    So, there it is. Santa is obviously Canadian, as I surmised above, otherwise it wouldn’t be our Friends from the North providing military escort.

  27. Paul says:

    Thanks. I forgot all about the crying native American getting the trash thrown at him. That was a classic commercial. What was that for, I can’t remember?

    Knuck, I thought that it is because he(/she) enters North America in Canadian air space That is why they are the escort? But why not other escorts? And how can they see him since nobody can? He also has that problem where he has to go back to places like Russia where they don’t celebrate Christmas for a few weeks.

    With the exception of that one guy in the Night Before Christmas nobody has ever seen Santa. And since I am sure he is dead by now we will never know. He did say something about his cheeks being rosy?

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