Why is Santa Claus White?

Ask any American kid, Santa Claus is white. But a columnist at Slate thinks he should change his hue. Citing her childhood memories, Aisha Harris says a white Santa is confusing to black kids. It’s time to make the jolly old elf more “inclusive,” she argues.

Ms. Harris figures Santa should be represented by a penguin.

Here’s how she sees it:

For one thing, making Santa Claus an animal rather than an old white male could spare millions of nonwhite kids the insecurity and shame that I remember from childhood. Whether you celebrate the holiday or not, Santa is one of the first iconic figures foisted upon you: He exists as an incredibly powerful image in the imaginations of children across the country (and beyond, of course). 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).

Plus, people love penguins. There are blogs dedicated entirely to their cuteness. They’re box office gold. Most importantly, they’re never scary (in contrast to, say, polar bears and reindeer). Most kids love Santa—because he brings them presents. But human Santa can be terrifying—or at least unsettling.

I’m not sure I buy the penguin idea, but I can see why a white Santa could be troubling to a lot of children.

Not surprisingly, Fox News can’t.

The cable channel’s Megyn Kelly thinks Ms. Harris – and all non-white kids – should just deal with the fact that Santa is white. And, oh by the way, so was Jesus.

Say what?

I  know Marcus Garvey didn’t think Jesus was white. My mother told me Garvey said Jesus was black. She said he brought that message to Guy’s Hill when she was a girl, much to the dismay of some people – and the delight of others.

From what I have been able to discover, Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian Jew, with an olive complexion and black hair. And I know that German philosopher Christoph Meiners, who introduced the concept of a Caucasian race, would not consider that “white.”

As for the Santa that American kids see everywhere at this time of year, I understand he is based on the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas, as modified over the years by descriptions in such favorites as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” But the legend was not born in Holland. It probably originated in  the Byzantine Anatolia, now part of Turkey, where a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop became famous for his generous gifts to the poor. According to one story, he threw gold through a window to provide an impoverished girl (or in some versions three impoverished girls) with a dowry so she would not be sold into slavery. The gold landed in a sock hanging by the fire – starting the annual tradition of hanging up Christmas stockings.

Was the original Saint Nicholas “white”? You look at the portrait above and tell me what you think.

The horrible truth is that the icons of American culture are so pervasively white that they can cause psychological damage to black children – and adults. In one of his books, Barack Obama tells of his revulsion at discovering black people were scarring their faces with harsh bleaching products.

But I wonder whether the answer lies in redefining Santa? After all, it is the idea of a Santa Claus that matters, not his appearance.

My wish is for a color-blind America – a color-blind world – where people are less aware of skin color and more concerned (as the great Martin Luther King observed) with what’s inside a person.

I won’t live to see it of course. But my grandchildren – or great-grandchildren – might.

Click for the Slate column.

Click for the Fox News reaction.

Click for Ms. Harris’ rebuttal.