Upholding Tolerance is not only the Majority’s Resposibility: The Debate over the Color of Santa Claus

The penguin Santa proposed by Aisha Harris (Illustration by Mark Stamaty)

The penguin Santa proposed by Aisha Harris (Illustration by Mark Stamaty)

Recently a huge debate has spread all over the internet and mass media concerning the identity and color of Santa Claus: is he essentially a white character? I’m sure many of you have come across this debate on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network.

The debate started when Aisha Harris wrote a piece in which she recounts her confusion when she was a child over the color of Santa Claus. She, as an African American, had a black Santa Claus at home, but outside she saw a white Santa everywhere. Her father’s answer that Santa could be of any color didn’t satisfy her. She felt insecure and ashamed, because she thought her black Santa wasn’t the “real thing.” In order to “spare millions of nonwhite kids” feelings of insecurity and shame, she suggests that Santa is transformed into a Penguin. She thinks that a penguin can appeal to all people regardless of color and at the same time preserves as much as possible of the characteristics of the traditional Santa (such as coming from a snowy cold land).

However, it wasn’t that piece that actually triggered the media uproar, but the response by Fox News’s anchor Megyn Kelly to Alisha’s article. Megyn claimed that Santa is white, and this is a fact, as much as Jesus is white, and this is a fact in her opinion too. Countless responses and satires of Megyn’s ill-informed remarks about Santa and Jesus have filled the internet including an entertaining segment by John Stewart in the Daily Show and an informative article by David Kyle Johnson in Plato on Pop that deals with the issue from a historical and philosophical perspective.

I don’t have anything to add to the criticisms expressed all over the social media to Megyn’s comments. What she said is simply stupid and racist. However, what I’m here concerned with is not the criticisms of Megyn’s views, but the lack of any criticism of Aisha’s views. I haven’t seen anyone discussing whether what Aisha says in her article is right or acceptable. Is it an implicit agreement with her? Or has the naiveté of Megyn’s comments directed attention away from Aisha’s article? I don’t deny that Aisha was more sophisticated than Megyn in her treatment of the subject, but does that make it right or justify glossing over it?

It seems that public opinion places, explicitly or implicitly, the responsibility of tolerating or accepting the “Other” on the majority (or the stronger side), which is in this case the white majority in the USA or other Western countries. The “Other” is being presented as a passive side that is waiting to be accepted, and hence we shouldn’t expect any move from it. I think this view is ultimately false. The responsibility of upholding and adopting the values of pluralism, diversity, and tolerance lies on all sides regardless of their position on the scale of social and political power. Making society more equal and just requires all sides to be open toward their “Other.”

Aisha’s inability to accept a white Santa is essentially not very different from Megyn’s inability to accept a non-white Santa; both are expressions of intolerance and a lack of appreciation for difference. What is the problem if Santa was depicted as white, as he has traditionally been portrayed? (I realize that Santa, as David Kyle Johnson has pointed out in his article, has a complex history in which he assumed different colors and forms, but I think we can agree that since Santa became an iconic figure in popular culture, he has been depicted as a white old man with rosy cheeks.)

I’m not denying the right of any social group, family, or child to imagine or portray Santa in the way they find it suitable to them, but what is the legitimate justification for turning him into a penguin? Is it because non-white children feel uncomfortable when Santa has a different color than them? I don’t know whether the experience of Aisha as a child with white Santa is really common or unique, but I don’t think it is impossible or difficult to teach children to accept Santa regardless of his color. The problem lies not in the child’s cognitive inability to recognize that Santa can have many colors or a different color, but in the values on which he or she being brought up. I think her father’s answer that Santa may assume any color reflects a genuine commitment to diversity. Maybe he wasn’t able to communicate this view to her effectively, but this shouldn’t turn parents away from teaching children to appreciate any figure of popular culture regardless of color, ethnicity, or religion.

I might not be aware enough of racial sensitivities in American society, but, again, the rational and practical means to overcome these sensitivities is not by turning every character around into an animal. What about Jesus for example? Should we turn Jesus into a penguin too, so that people do not feel uncomfortable if he had a different color than them? (I’m not assuming by any means that Jesus was white. If he had really existed as a historical figure, he would have been most probably a Middle-Easterner). What if a white person declared that he doesn’t appreciate rap music or basketball, because most of the people involved are black? You might say that Santa is fictional so it’s OK to change him into an animal, whereas rap musicians and basketball players are real, so there is no way to change that. However, in today’s popular culture the line between fiction and reality is very blurred and any argument for not accepting a fictional character of a different color can easily been transferred to real characters. The real danger lies in intolerance of the “Other,” whether it is in the world of fiction or reality.

And by the way, do you seriously believe that a penguin can solve the problem? What about gender? A Santa Claus in the form of a penguin still has a gender: He is male! Aisha makes it clear in her article that her cute all-embracing penguin Santa is male. She uses the masculine pronoun “he” to refer to him. So, what about girls? Wouldn’t they feel uncomfortable if the generous, loving person who brings them presents at Christmas is male? I’m pretty sure that scores of feminists have already written loads of articles and books about the “patriarchal,” “oppressive-to-women” nature of the Santa character. What about religion? Is it impossible for children of different faiths (or no faith) to embrace the character of Santa given his Christian (or pagan) origins?

I’m not arguing here against challenging white hegemony in Western countries or changing characters and images that may carry racist stereotypes. Mere difference in color, however, does not justify in my opinion changing a human character into an animal, which, no matter how cute and adorable, cannot possibly be as close to children’s imagination as a human figure that has existed in popular culture and collective imagination for decades if not hundreds of years. I don’t think that the figure of Santa carries any racist connotations or is associated with any form of white domination over other races (as in the case of the so-called “blackface” in minstrel shows, for example). I think the best practice is to teach children to accept both fictional and real characters regardless of color, race, religion, language, culture, class, gender or any other form of social differentiation. Important too, to address Megyn’s racist remarks, not to exclusively claim iconic figures for one’s own race. Santa, Jesus, and all other good historical or fictional characters in popular imagination are not copy-righted for white people!

African American Santa Claus Langston Patterson (L), 77, greets four-month-old Raelyn Price as her grandmother Gloria Boissiere looks on, at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall in Los Angeles, California, December 16, 2013. Patterson has worked as Santa since 2004 at the mall, which is one of the few in the country with a black Santa Claus. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

African American Santa Claus Langston Patterson (L), 77, greets four-month-old Raelyn Price as her grandmother Gloria Boissiere looks on, at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall in Los Angeles, California, December 16, 2013. Patterson has worked as Santa since 2004 at the mall, which is one of the few in the country with a black Santa Claus. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

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6 thoughts on “Upholding Tolerance is not only the Majority’s Resposibility: The Debate over the Color of Santa Claus

  1. Nasreen says:

    The US was built on black slavery and the genocide of Native peoples. White supremacy underpins all our institutions. Harris and Kelly don’t start from the same place in terms of accepting figures of popular culture, whether or not they are real/imaginary. Black and brown kids grow up in a context in which people who look like them are only allowed to do/be particular things (again, in terms of popular culture). Wanting more figures in the US to be less biased in favor of whiteness isn’t a marker that you are unable to accept difference / are intolerant. Structural/institutional forms oppressions are not manifestations of diversity to be tolerated. Also, things that have emerged from black and Native communities is misappropriated all the time, from sacred headdresses, to the Harlem Shake.

    Rappers are predominantly black, it is true, but considering all the awards that the white rapper Macklemore received despite not being nearly as adept musically as others in the genre is an example of the way whiteness can co-opt and make safe those things that it may find threatening (the angry black figure / black affluence) or covet. Macklemore was lauded as a straight, white, man for supposedly shining a light on LGTBQ issues, despite the fact that there are many LGBTQ rappers / hip-hop artists making music that concerns the realities they live with every day but are habitually overlooked and despite the fact that Macklemore himself has done nothing to use any of his fame as a platform to promote these artists he says he is in solidarity with.

    Furthermore, in the US, segments of the field of entertainment have often been the only/best option for young black people to fulfill the ‘American Dream’ (other than joining the military – referred to as paying a blood tax) that we are taught is the goal. Not accomplishing this goal is then a marker of how unworthy you and, by extension, your ‘race’ are. Richard Sherman, the Seattle, Washington Seahawks football player shows the same arrogance as other white athletes, but is sanctioned and called an uneducated thug because he was angry that another (white) player refused to engage in the customary post game handshake/congratulations ritual and instead grabbed his (Sherman’s) face-mask which is usually thought of as unsportsmanlike conduct.

    As an aside – What makes Jesus interesting for me is that there has been a long history of each society/part of the world that has adopted Christianity through whatever means (empire mainly), has made Jesus their own, often by changing the image’s features. Mexico, Haiti, and the Philippines are the ones I’m most familiar with.

    • Thanks Nasreen for your extensive comment. I agree with you that there are deep-seated problems in America’s present as well as history regarding the issue of race and color; in particular how African and Native Americans have been treated and represented by the white majority. What I wanted to say in my post, however, is that tolerance is not something that only the majority should learn and uphold. There is a responsibility on the minority too to uphold it. If the minority continues to entrench itself culturally and politically, the dream of a tolerant, pluralist society can never be achieved.

      I may not be an expert on American society or I may never understand how non-white people feel in America, but being from Syria, I can tell you that a minority that entrenches itself against the majority can bring about disasters for its society. Tolerance should come from both sides at the same time. I think this is what Malcolm X realized when he changed his views from black separatism to a more inclusive view of society.

      • Nasreen says:

        I will endeavor to be brief this time:
        I see perhaps where we disagree. I do not believe that peoples should tolerate (dehumanizing) discursive forms of violence any more than we should accept the more physical or institutional versions. Tolerance of heteronormative and white supremacist institutions that result in criminalizing poverty, convictions and prison demographics, barred access to education and medical care which further fuel the image of non-whites [dangerous, poss gang members], the poor [lazy leeches], and immigrants [illegal =Mexicans and terrorist = Muslim/Arab/South Asian] as dangerous burdens on the state is problematic for me. Also, this has nothing to do with separatism, which is an issue white supremacist groups advocate for these days.

        In Syria, I wonder, are you speaking of the idea of minority rule/power? I think Syria, from what I’ve learned is quite it’s own situation.

    • I’m very sorry Nasreen for my very belated reply.

      I don’t think we disagree very much. I’m not calling to tolerate an exclusive white normativity. I’m just saying that all sides should accept each other. It doesn’t work only one-way.

      I brought Syria as an example, because there you can see how minorities can sometimes contribute to partial or total disintegration of society. It is not only about minority rule over the majority but also about the thinking that a minority can have their rights only when they split from the majority and become themselves a majority in their own territory. For example, some Kurds (an ethnic minority in Syria) think that they can only be free and have their rights if they split from Syria, but this would of course create other problems because you will have a Kurdish state with an Arab minority. So where does it end? The problem is not only with normativities; it is also how minorities think about the majority or, to put in similar terms, it is also about the normativities governing minorities.

  2. pegodaaj says:

    Nice thoughts. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the differences between “Santa” in the US and in Syria and Germany, if you don’t mind

  3. Thanks Andrew for your comment. Well, although I live in Germany, I don’t have a lot to say about Santa here very much due to many reasons: My German is still rusty; my social environment consists mostly of students, for whom Santa does not mean a lot; and I live in the Eastern part of Germany (former GDR), where Santa is less visible than the more consumerist Western part of the country. But from what I gather, they call Santa here Saint Nikolaus and he comes early in December, not in Christmas. Actually maybe they are two different characters, but they look the same to me!

    In Syria, we have a Santa figure whom we call after his French name “Papa Noel.” Only 10% of Syria’s population is Christian, so even though Christmas is a public holiday, most Syrians don’t celebrate it. However, Papa Noel and other traditions of Christmas such as the Christmas tree are transferred to New Year’s Eve, which is celebrated by the majority of Syrians, I guess.

    In Syria race is not a very sensitive issue like in USA, but religion and Western political/cultural domination are. So conservative Muslims object to Papa Noel on the grounds that it is a Christian tradition and thus strict Muslims should shun it. Those with leftist or Arab nationalist views usually criticize cultural imports from the West as some kind of cultural corruption or invasion, but race is not usually brought up. However, I don’t remember hearing such arguments against Papa Noel in particular. I heard the religious argument many times, but not the leftist/nationalist one.

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