Posted on December 17, 2020

Black Santas Can Be Controversial — and That’s Because of White Supremacy, Expert Explains

Kamilah Newton, Yahoo! News, December 10, 2020

When the story of an Arkansas family and their Black Santa display went viral earlier this week, it did so for two reasons — first for the angry, anonymous racist note it inspired, and then, shortly thereafter, for the supportive displays of Black Santas it inspired in the neighborhood, turning a deeply upsetting experience into a “warm and fuzzy feeling” for the family.

The first part of that story, though — of the racist ire that began with “Please remove your negro Santa Claus yard decoration” — is, sadly, a familiar one. In 2016, when the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., upended a 24-year-old tradition by inviting a Black Santa to take part in its annual “Santa Experience,” both the mall and “Santa Larry” himself received tons of backlash. Years before that, in 2013, then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly hosted an entire, controversial segment to remind “kids watching at home” that “Santa just is white,” adding that Jesus was as well.


So what is it about a Black — or Latinx or Asian or any other nonwhite — Santa that so triggers some of white America? To answer that, we spoke to the author of the popular White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo. She tells Yahoo Life that the root of the backlash is many-layered, stemming largely from the idea that “within the context of white supremacy, anything that white people desire we see as belonging to us.”

Let’s start with history: Who was St. Nick?

According to numerous sources, the original St. Nicholas was a brown-skinned, third century inhabitant of what is present-day Turkey. He was born into wealth, ultimately known for both his fierce generosity and devotion to Christianity, and was eventually named Bishop of Myra, becoming widely recognized as the patron saint of children. Centuries after his death, his bones “were stolen by Italian sailors during the 11th century” who took them to Italy, when the related figure of “Sinterklaas” was born nearby, in the Netherlands.

Eventually, the Dutch colonized what is now known as New York City, bringing with them the idea of St. Nick, who received a makeover. {snip}

DiAngelo explains this transformation again within the context of white supremacy, and the white impulse to want to own anything seen as desirable. That’s regarding not only icons such as Santa, but even public spaces, “such as Central Park, … neighborhoods, and certainly in cultural figures. Santa is a fictitious figure, but Jesus and Mary are actual historical figures — and they were not white. We rendered them in our own image as white [as a] stand-in for ‘ideal’ or ‘human,’ and everyone else is a deficient deviation from that ideal.”


{snip} Unfortunately, Black Santas are few and far between, making up just 3 percent of American professional Santas, according to a 2016 report, which is troubling, as “research shows that positive representation of role models — one kids can look at and relate to — can go a long way in helping children have a better self-image.”


In order to prepare our children for the real world, DiAngelo says, parents need to get real about the world around them — whether it be by embracing inclusivity or historical accuracy. “I was raised Catholic, [and although] I can’t really use Catholic iconography anymore, I do look for Black Marys — the Black Madonna — and they exist. In Mexico and some other countries, you can find Black Madonnas, including nearly 500 depictions in Europe, which are probably more realistic at the same time,” she notes. “So we are capable of adjusting and accommodating for the reality of the world we live in.”