Saturday, December 14, 2013

Dreaming of a white Christmas

Megyn Kelly, this year's prom queen in the Fox News lineup, generated a blizzard in the snow globe of chattering class by some remarks she made about Jesus and Santa. I don't know that this is worth commenting on. Since, however, the godless try to equate Fox News with with all things rightwing, perhaps a comment is in order.

Let's begin with a bit of background. This is what go the whole flap going:

When I was a kid, I knew two different Santa Clauses. The first had a fat belly, rosy cheeks, a long white beard, and skin as pink as bubble gum. He was omnipresent, visiting my pre-school and the local mall, visible in all of my favorite Christmas specials.Then there was the Santa in my family’s household, in the form of ornaments, cards, and holiday figurines. A near-carbon copy of the first one—big belly, rosy cheeks, long white beard: check, check, check. But his skin was as dark as mine.Seeing two different Santas was bewildering. 
For one thing, making Santa Claus an animal [i.e. penguin] 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).

Here we have the notion that children must be protected from the "bewildering," indeed "shame"-inducing experience of seeing two different Santas–one white and one black. Yes, that's just too much to process. That fosters "insecurity."

I find Aisha's experience odd because, to my knowledge, there's nothing new about black Santas. I believe that goes back to the Harlem Renaissance. So I guess she cut Black history class. 

I've read some critics of Kelly accuse her of saying it's a verifiable fact that Jesus was a white man. But according to the transcript I saw, that's not what she said. Rather, she said it's a verifiable fact that Jesus as a historical figure. Here's a partial transcript:

MEGYN KELLY: They have a piece that Santa Claus shouldn't be a white man anymore. Yet another person saying it's racist to have a white Santa. By the way, for the kids at home, Santa just is white but this person is arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa. Santa is what he is and we are debating this because someone wrote about it.Jedediah, when I read the piece, the author seems to have -- you know, she's African-American. She seems to have real pain at having grown up with the image of a white Santa. She speaks honestly saying I didn't understand why that had to be. 
JEDEDIAH BILA, Fox News contributor: She wants Santa to be inclusive. I had the same reaction. Initially I was thinking this is more politically correct nonsense, hyper sensitivity in the culture. It's a tribute to her writing. You realize if you were a young African-American kid and your Santa Claus was white, maybe you wouldn't feel a part of the tradition. She suggested a penguin should be Santa. 
KELLY: I have given her due on where she was going with it. Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change. Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure. That's a verifiable fact -- as is Santa. I want the kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story and change Santa from white to black.
Kelly has since said she was speaking tongue-in-cheek. That's possible. It's also possible that she said something really dumb on national TV, and is trying to fluff it off after the fact.
Kelly is also correct that just because something makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change. On the other hand, Santa Claus has been constantly mutating. 
Now let's zero in on some of the things she definitely got wrong:
i) St. Nicholas is a historical figure. Even at that level, I don't know how much is obscured by hagiographic embellishment. But it may well be true that he was Caucasian. 
By contrast, Santa Claus is basically a fictional character. An evolving cultural construct. A pastiche of history, myth, legend, folklore, Hollywood, and marketing. Santa has no fixed identity. Santa has whatever attributes we assign to him. 
ii) Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, Jesus was (and presumably still is) a semite. By conventional racial classifications, that would make him non-white. Certainly not Aryan, Caucasian, or even European. 
iii) Of course, Jesus is often portrayed as a white man in European art. That's because European painters were…European. Just like Italian painters make everybody look…Italian. 
By contrast, Rembrandt modeled Biblical characters on members of the Jewish community in Amsterdam. 

1 comment:

  1. "Why isn't anyone taking the penguin Santa Claus proposal more seriously?" asks a troubled Peter Singer. "Speciesism is the real offense!"