Judging Santa by the Color of His Skin

by Benjamin Studebaker

America’s culture and race conflicts have been horribly united by Slate‘s Aisha Harris and FOX’s Megyn Kelly over whether Santa Claus ought to be white (Kelly’s view) or a penguin (Harris’). The result is a grotesque mutant argument encompassing everything unpleasant about both disputes. When will the war on Christmas and racism come together so perfectly again? It’s a current events version of a rare comet. It’s not every day we have the opportunity to analyze a debate so morbid as this, so let’s get started.

Harris wrote a piece for Slate in which she claimed to have been alienated by the general tendency for Santa to be portrayed as a white guy as a child. Here it is in her own words:

Two decades later, America is less and less white, but a melanin-deficient Santa remains the default in commercials, mall casting calls, and movies. Isn’t it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?

Yes, it is. And so I propose that America abandon Santa-as-fat-old-white-man and create a new symbol of Christmas cheer. From here on out, Santa Claus should be a penguin.

As we might expect, FOX’s Megyn Kelly did not take kindly to this suggestion:

Kelly’s argument:

Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man too, but, you know, it’s like, we have, he was a historical figure, I mean, that’s verifiable fact, as is Santa–I just want the kids watching to know that–but my point is, how do you just revise it, you know,  in the middle of the legacy, of the story, and change Santa from white to black?

A brief fact check–contemporary scholars generally agree that Jesus was not white (he also did not have long hair–during the Roman period, long hair was considered barbaric and uncivilized, even by the apostles).

Harris gave a response to Kelly this Thursday, in which she argued that Santa is socially constructed and revisable, pointing out that the original Saint Nicolas was a skinny Greek man, not a fat resident of the far north:

Santa as we know him today is the result of wild imaginations and creative input from many people across centuries, including, as I noted in my piece, Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore. He’s utterly divorced from his religious and historical roots.

In response to this, I could make the following argument: Kelly’s complaint against making Santa racially inclusive is the same complaint Sarah Palin made about the left’s opposition to crosses on public land, that it affirms a special privileged position for whites over other races in the same way that the government-funded cross affirms a special privileged position for Christians over other religions.

There is, however a key difference between the state endorsement of Christianity that crosses on public land represent and the pure happenstance that has caused Santa to be portrayed as a white guy. When your average small town in Alabama decides to put Christianity on its public buildings and in its schools, it is deliberately doing this in an attempt to maintain the primacy of the Christian religion and Christian moral teachings. Santa Claus is portrayed as white because he is was originally authored predominately by Europeans, and Europeans at the time in which Santa Claus became a thing happened to be overwhelmingly white. People have a tendency to create in their own image.

If this argument applies to Santa, it applies to all iconic characters. Harry Potter is white and British because JK Rowling is white and British. Should Harry be a frog? Part of the appeal of Harry Potter is that the kids can imagine themselves going to Hogwarts–this might be harder to achieve if all the witches and wizards are frogs. Perhaps JK Rowling should not have mentioned a race for Harry at all, and allowed the reader to insert his or her own–but what about in the movies? Should Harry be played by different colored actors in different scenes? Surely not, that’s too confusing. But if that’s the case, the only way to portray Harry in a fully inclusive way would be to draw him as an animated character, and even then, we’d have to either draw him differently constantly or use a color that no one identifies with–perhaps green? And of course, it’s not just Harry Potter–Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, so much of our most ubiquitous fiction is full of white people. Sure, there’s a Mace Windu, a Uhura, a Sulu here and there, but the leading trios are white guys (the entire fellowship/Luke, Leia, Han/Kirk, Spock, McCoy). Tolkein, Lucas, and Roddenberry were white guys. What do you expect?

When non-whites are the authors, the main characters are just as generally non-white–there is an entire genre of television known as the “black sitcom“. This fiction is usually viewed as a counterweight to generally white fiction rather than as reverse racism, but if we sit down and watch one of these shows, we quickly see that all too often, the characters are not merely black, but they are black stereotypes, meant to not merely give black people characters to identify with, but characters that are theirs, that many white people cannot, by design, relate to. This makes racial targeting an explicit goal of the show, not an unintended side effect of the author’s tendency to self-bias. There are many black kids who love Star Wars, but there are not many white fans of the works of Tyler Perry. The racial bias of the former is incidental, the latter is intentional.

The reason whiteness is still generally default is that the authors of fiction and the owners of movie studios and publishing companies in our society still tend to be white. They inevitably think of their fiction and their characters as extensions of themselves and project their own identities and traits onto the worlds they create. Harris has her causes and effects reversed; making Harry Potter a frog or Santa a penguin is beside the point. If we really want an inclusive society, we need non-white content creators–black JK Rowlings and Stephen Spielbergs, not frog Potters. How do we get non-whites into those kinds of positions? By equalizing economic opportunity among the races.

Black kids don’t need frog Potter, they need better schools, better home environments, and access to more resources. There’s a tendency for bourgeois intellectuals to begin commenting on racism as if it exists in a vacuum, as if all we need to do is change the way we talk or think about race. They forget that for the victims of racial inequality, the problem runs far deeper. They don’t merely “feel different”–these people are actually being systematically denied the economic opportunity necessary to pursue lives of their choosing. No progress on racial issues will be made so long as skin color is a reliable predictor of wealth. The rest of this is mere sideshow. For the average black person in America, the color of Santa Claus isn’t the problem, the problem is paying rent, or paying for college, or finding a decent school or job, and when we indulge in the mental masturbation of culture critique, we trivialize racism and ignore the terrible harms it still inflicts. When it comes to improving the life chances of black people in this country, Aisha Harris is doing no more work than Megyn Kelly.