Earlier this week, I argued that our image of Santa Claus should no longer be a white man, but, instead, a penguin. I hoped the piece would come across as a little tongue-in-cheek, while at the same time expressing my real concern that America continues to promote the harmful idea of whiteness-as-default. Over the past couple of days, I’ve received a lot of responses. Some of them were positive—mostly because, as I said in the piece, people love penguins.
But many responses have (unsurprisingly) been negative. I’ve been labeled a “racist” more times than I can count, and more than one person has wondered whether or not I think snow should no longer be white. Some of it’s pretty amusing, actually.
But the “controversy” reached its apex last night when Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, along with three (white) guests discussed the topic on her show, The Kelly File. Just before diving in, Kelly made sure to emphatically declare, “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.” It doesn’t get much better from there:
Since Fox didn’t bother reaching out to me personally to debate the issue at hand, I’ll offer up my own response here. Kids, look away …
Santa isn’t real.
Sure, as Kelly File guest Monica Crowley notes, Santa is loosely based on Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop known for secret gift-giving. But while the names “St. Nicholas” and “Santa Claus” are often used interchangeably, modern-day Santa hardly resembles his supposed inspiration, who was depicted as tall and thin and, you know, Greek. He did not have a workshop in the North Pole nor eight faithful reindeer. 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.
And yet Kelly and her guests not only say repeatedly that Santa is real and definitely white, they also equate him with Jesus, who, historians generally agree, was a Jewish man who grew up in Galilee. Was he white? Probably not. But the truest answer is that we really don’t know. Also, whiteness is a historical construct. And, again, Santa isn’t real.
“You can’t take facts and then try to change them to fit some sort of a political agenda or sensitivity agenda,” Crowley says at one point. But what she and Kelly fail to realize is that changing “facts” when it comes to Santa is nothing new. And other countries have all sorts of Christmas gift-givers, including the yule goat of Scandinavia and the Three Kings (one each, traditionally, from Europe, Asia, and Africa) in Spain.
Finally, changing Santa does not mean we’re being “politically correct.” It means we’re expanding our perceptions of the “norm.” The argument that Santa must be white spills over into conversations about other, equally fictional characters. Can James Bond or Spider-Man be played by people of color? Why not? And yet some people will tell you—believe me—that they have to be white. Of course, some people also believe that characters who were written as people of color are not actually people of color. Which goes to show how deeply rooted the idea of “whiteness” as the default really is. And that presumption carries over into our everyday lives as well, sometimes with sad results.
I’ll be fine if no one else jumps on board the penguin train and Santa remains a white man. But if you’re seriously emphatic that he is white and must remain white, there’s a good chance that your view of the rest of the world is just as limited and unimaginative. I mean, we are talking about a magical man who slides down your chimney every Christmas Eve. Just so we’re clear.