Whiteness and racism are baked into America’s conception of Christmas. Look no further than the outrage caused by Minneapolis’ Mall of America hiring a black Santa Claus this year. People are incensed that a fictional character typically portrayed as white might be portrayed as black, brown, or anything else.
Why might this be?
The stock answer is simply “tradition.” I can sympathize on some level. People take great solace in tradition. We like things to be how they were when we were growing up. This constancy is comforting. Amid all the chaos and change in our world, tradition keeps us grounded.
The other side of this, of course, is that by hiring a black Santa Claus, we ARE keeping with tradition. Literally every aspect of Christmas is still alive and well, from Santa’s costume, to his speech, to him being a straight man, to the tradition of kids sitting on his lap. At the Mall of America, everything is intact EXCEPT for his whiteness.
This begs us to ask: Why is Santa Claus’ whiteness an essential component of the tradition of Christmas?
But, as I reflected more on this, I realized this is perhaps not the most important question. Perhaps more telling of what is truly happening here is the fact that the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth was not white. Jesus was a person of color. However, despite the historical figure of Jesus being a personal of color, we have made Jesus white in our tradition.
White supremacy is not just about someone overtly shouting “white power” and inciting genocide. White supremacy is anything that reinforces a system that gives white people wealth, power, and privilege above other races. White supremacy is the system that teaches us that “white is right” and frames our mind to celebrate whiteness.
How can insisting that our most beloved figures are white, even when they aren’t, be anything other than white supremacist? What does it say that we can transform Jesus (a historical figure) from a person of color to a white man, but we recoil when Santa (a fictional character) is portrayed as black? What message do we send our children when our most revered positions are reserved strictly for white men, even when this is historically inaccurate?
Perhaps, for those of use who will be celebrating Christmas in a few days, when we sit down for dinner at our grandma’s house and see a painting of Jesus, we will ask ourselves: What function do images like this truly serve?