Last week, Slate’s Aisha Harris called for a new image of Santa, asserting “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 (and, of course, not just American culture).” Instead, Harris asked for a penguin, but that point seems largely missed in the media maelstrom that followed Harris’s foundational premise that a white Santa alienates non-white children. The story got debated on Fox News, where reporter Megyn Kelly claimed the whiteness of Santa and tacked on the whiteness of Jesus, too.
Both Harris and Kelly have responded to the initial flurry, with Kelly issuing an apology that’s not really an apology (seemingly standard fare for media across the political spectrum) and conceding that Jesus’s race is uncertain. Harris nods to the historical roots of both Santa and Jesus, reminding readers of the way Santa has been constructed and reconstructed across time and cultures. The entire conversation, with its easy conflation of Santa and Jesus and assumption of racial identities, made me think about the Christmas narrative that I convey to my own children.
My elder daughter loves the Santa Claus story (especially where Rudolph enters the scene), but she knows it only as a fictional tale. She’s told that the presents she receives on Christmas morning are from her family, not from a man who slides down the chimney our house doesn’t actually possess. For my girls, Santa takes his place in a milieu of imaginary characters along with Cinderella and Winnie the Pooh and the cast of Dinosaur Train.
Yet it is troubling to me how easily angered so many people are by the mere suggestion of a non-white Santa. It reminds me of the upset caused by Rue in The Hunger Games; though Collins describes the character’s “satiny brown skin,” some viewers of the film were astonished and outraged that the tributes from District 11 were portrayed by black actors. Both scenarios speak to racial privilege as powerful even within the imaginary realm—that even characters described by their creators as non-white can be assumed white. In both the discussion of Santa and Rue, there’s also the underlying belief that a white character is somehow universal while a person of color can only represent or speak to another person of color. It’s not just that Santa is most frequently depicted as white, it’s that so many people simultaneously insist on his whiteness as essential and obvious without recognizing what that says about how much race actually matters to us.
The conversation of race takes on eschatological proportions when applied to Jesus, whom I am teaching my girls is not a fictional character. I’m quick to say that our imaginative stories hold tremendous power, but I also want the Jesus story to exist on a separate plane from Santa or Cinderella. In “Insisting Jesus Was White Is Bad History and Bad Theology,” Jonathan Merritt cites two historical preachers who respond to the question of Jesus’ race. One from the nineteenth century writes “because the Bible refused to describe Jesus in terms of racial features, his gospel could appeal to all.” And Martin Luther King Jr. agreed, stating “’The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence’ because what made Jesus exceptional ‘His willingness to surrender His will to God’s will.’”
It would be easy at this time, as we await the Incarnation, to focus exclusively on the fleshliness of Jesus: a first century Jewish male. The Incarnation is meaningful in that it manifests God’s concern for our daily human struggles, and the babe in the manger is as vulnerable (and indeed, more so than many) as any newborn human child. Yet that baby is called Emmanuel to emphasize that God is with us—and Jesus never stops being God, regardless of His physical form. We get to create fictional characters in our own image, to comfort us or inspire us, though we need to be more reflective about why we are so attached to our characters’ racial identities. But when it comes to Christ, it is we who are made in His image, not He in ours. And as I teach my girls to navigate this racially-charged atmosphere, even at Christmastime, I want them to think about what it means that God’s image is multi-hued.