White Santa, White Jesus, White Christmas

Santa’s not alienating, but white supremacy is.


It all started Tuesday, when Slate’s Aisha Harris suggested replacing the fat-old-white-man version of Santa Claus with a penguin.

Why? Well, she found it confusing to grow up with a black Santa at home and a white Santa everywhere else. Her Dad’s ingenious explanation (that Santa magically changes race to match each household he visits) sounded phony.

I didn’t buy it. I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the “real thing.” … That this genial, jolly man can only be seen as white—and consequently, that a Santa of any other hue is merely a “joke” or a chance to trudge out racist stereotypes—helps perpetuate the whole “white-as-default” notion endemic to American culture

But since Santa is a cultural invention anyway

we can certainly change him however we’d like—and we have, many times over. … Isn’t it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?

You may be charmed by this idea or just find it harmlessly goofy — unless you watch  a lot of Fox News. Then you’d realize that this change-Santa nonsense is a symptom of the political correctness and everything-is-up-for-grabs attitude that’s ruining America. Megyn Kelly laid it out:

For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.

And then she very sympathetically gave black people the bad news.

Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man too. … He was a historical figure. That was a verifiable fact.

Forensic reconstruction of Saint Nicholas

These things are facts, people. In Fox Nation, they’re not up for discussion.

Historical Saint Nicholas. Monica Crowley, a member of Kelly’s all-white panel, elaborated:

Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, who was an actual person, a Greek bishop, and was a white man. … You can’t take facts and then try to change them to try to fit some sort of a political agenda or a sensitivity agenda.

But on Chris Hayes’ MSNBC show, Harris pushed back:

Santa now looks nothing like that Santa [i.e. the historical Saint Nicholas]

So how white was Saint Nicholas, anyway? Kathleen Manning blogged for U.S. Catholic:

15th-century Saint Nicholas icon

In 2008, British anthropologists did a facial reconstruction of Saint Nicholas of Myra, based on his remains. The fourth-century Turkish bishop who signed the Nicene Creed looks less like Clement Clarke Moore’s description and more like the cabbie who drove you to the airport to catch your Christmas flight home.

And unlike Coca-Cola ads, religious icons often portray Saint Nicholas as a dark-skinned man whose race is hard to determine. He’s also skinny. And as I study those smaller panels on the pictured icon, I can’t find reindeer anywhere.

So if we want to stick to the historical facts, rather than “change them to try to fit some sort of a political agenda”, that’s what we get: a skinny, racially ambiguous Santa whose Turkish workshop is far from the land of reindeer.

If not reindeer …

Maybe he could drive a wagon instead of a sleigh, and borrow Thor’s flying goats to pull it.

Yeah, but Jesus was white. Wasn’t he? It depends on your definition of white. Jesus was a first-century Middle Eastern Jew. How white were they?

Probably not very. Religion News Service’s Jeffrey Weiss suggests Yasser Arafat or Osama bin Laden as comparable. Atlantic’s Jonathan Merritt says: “If he were taking the red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York today, Jesus might be profiled for additional security screening by TSA.”

Maybe. As a brownish, outspoken social activist from the Middle East with a Jerusalem police record of assault against money-lenders, I think he’d go straight to the no-fly list.

Would you sit next to this guy on an airplane?

What is “white” anyway? It’s easy to poke fun at people who believe their cultural happenstance represents eternal truth, the kind who will tell you “Where I come from people don’t have an accent.” But Chris Hayes got to the deeper issue:

Jesus wasn’t white because the category white didn’t exist when Jesus was around in the Roman Empire. That is a construction that was made later on for very intense social reasons.

The Romans had a word for white, albus, but it was a color, not a race. The same was probably true in Aramaic. First-century folks were Jews, Romans, Gauls, Egyptians, and so forth. Gauls tended towards blonde and some Egyptians could be very dark. But I believe first-century rabbis would have been quite perplexed by the idea that they belonged to a “white race”. True, a sub-Saharan African would have seemed like someone from another world, but so would a Pict from north of (what would soon become) Hadrian’s wall, and what the rabbis might have made of the central-Asian ancestors of the Rus is anybody’s guess.

Much later, Shakespeare pictured dark-skinned Othello as an outsider in Venice society, but no more so than the Jewish Shylock.

In Learning to be White, Thandeka traces the beginnings of the white-race concept to the late 1600s, when the founders of Virginia’s plantation system needed to discourage their English and Irish indentured servants from making common cause with their African and Native American slaves, as happened during Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. So they divided the underclass by giving a few small rights and privileges to the European servants.

A new multiclass “white race” would emerge from the Virginia laws as one not biologically engineered but socially constructed. … The laws and the racial contempt they generated would sever ties of previous mutual interest and goodwill between European and African servants and workers, provide the ruling elite with a “buffer” of poor whites between themselves and the slaves to keep blacks down, and prevent either group from separately challenging the class interests of the elite.

In the North in the 1800s, the construction of the “white race” became the key to socializing America’s non-English-speaking European immigrants. They arrived identifying themselves as Polish, Russian, Irish, Italian, or some other ethnicity with its own distinctive language, history, and practices. In America they were homogenized as “whites” and their native xenophobia channeled against Africans and other people of color.

So Hayes is absolutely correct. Jesus would have been puzzled by any Roman who welcomed him as a member of the gens alba. He was a Jew, not a Roman, and being “white” didn’t mean anything at all until many centuries later.

Who’s a racist? In a follow-up segment, Megyn Kelly realized she needed a black on the panel, so she invited frequent Fox News contributor Zerlina Maxwell. Maxwell more-or-less agreed with Harris, which led Kelly to challenge her:

Why is white skin alienating? And why is that not racist?

This is the color-blind, flat-playing-field view of race currently popular among white conservatives: Since white supremacy is built into the cultural infrastructure, I (as a white) can live without thinking about race. If non-whites try to make me think about race, well then, that’s them being racist.

I mean, Santa and Jesus and Batman and all the other cultural icons just are white, so I don’t have to think about their race at all. When I look at pictures of Santa, I don’t see white Santa, I just see Santa. If it bothers you that all the cultural icons are white … whatta you, racist or something? What’s wrong with being white?

It comes down to two very different views of what American culture is. Is it the culture of all the people who live here? Or is it a historically white culture that some non-whites have been allowed to join, on the condition that they accept it the way it is and change themselves rather than seek to change the culture? Post-Martin-Luther-King, the public position of white conservatives (never mind what they say behind closed doors) is to treat people of all races as honorary whites. Isn’t that good enough? Or are you saying there’s something wrong with being white?

So Megyn Kelly is perfectly content to let your black children imagine that her white Santa is bringing presents to your black home. Isn’t that good enough? Or are you hostile to Santa because he’s white? “And why is that not racist?”

Untwisting Kelly’s pretzel takes more time than TV’s sound-bite culture allows, so Maxwell just had to dodge the reverse-racism charge. You can’t have a discussion about the particulars until you challenge several background assumptions.

First, there is no flat playing field. The privilege of ignoring race in America belongs to whites. Non-whites are confronted with race every day, no matter how much they might want to ignore it. The let’s-just-ignore-race notion really means: Let’s ignore the white supremacy built into everything.

Second, focusing on the whiteness of just Santa (or any other individual icon) misses the point. Because there is nothing wrong with Santa being white in isolation. By changing Santa, Harris was addressing her sense of encirclement, of growing up in a culture where all the major icons are white, and blackness seems like an aberration, even when you see it in the mirror.

To make a gender analogy: There’s nothing wrong with Barack Obama being a man. What’s wrong is that the 44 presidents have all been men. If a girl examines that line of portraits and feels alienated from the presidency, she’s not being sexist; she’s recognizing her country’s built-in male supremacy.

Life in the Garden of Sweden

And finally, Santa and Jesus and all the other icons aren’t white because of historical facts. They became white through a long social process. Coca-Cola’s Santa is considerably whiter than Saint Nicholas. The portrait of Jesus on the wall of my Lutheran grade school was much whiter than any first-century Palestinian Jew. In White Like Me, Tim Wise recalls growing up with picture-books — I had them too — that presented a white Adam and Eve, who frolicked in what Wise now calls “the Garden of Sweden”.

To say that this process is now at an end, that whiteness is now baked into our cultural icons and can’t be changed, is to say that white supremacy is baked into American culture and can’t be changed.

That’s what’s alienating, Megyn Kelly. And no, feeling alienated by white supremacy is not racist.

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Comments

  • Souma Mondal (@itmustbeSouma)  On December 16, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    Bravo! Every week I’m astounded at your ability to clearly and concisely organize all the thought and feelings churning around in my head into readable discourse. I knew what Kelly was saying on national television was fraught with faulty logic but I struggled to put why into words.

    This is one of my favorite lines:
    “This is the color-blind, flat-playing-field view of race currently popular among white conservatives: Since white supremacy is built into the cultural infrastructure, I (as a white) can live without thinking about race. If non-whites try to make me think about race, well then, that’s them being racist.”

    Superb.

  • Abby Hafer  On December 16, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Black africans were not unknown to dwellers around the Mediterranean in ancient times. For instance, the Ethiopeans.

  • Ahsina  On December 20, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    In the eyes of Jesus, there is niether jew nor Greek bond nor free hence there’s niether black nor white therefore it shud be abt love however becuz of the lack of if thereof.Hence the wheat and tares must grow together until the day of harvest.

Trackbacks

  • By Constructs | The Weekly Sift on December 16, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    […] posts this week are “White Santa, White Jesus, White Christmas” and “Mandela’s Memorial Service Was All About […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2013 | The Weekly Sift on December 30, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    […] and why borrowing from ethnic cultures not your own is or isn’t legit), an argument about whether Santa has to be white — and we just ended the year talking about Duck […]

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