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!