Monday, December 5, 2016

Black Santa


Here is a news story about racists (predictably) getting pissed off about a black man playing Santa Claus.

I should first go on record saying I'm not surprised.

I'm just appalled, like I am just about every time I see people creating these situations. And what's gross is that among these racists are a ton of people who think they aren't racist by having a problem with this.

If you are upset about a man in a Santa costume being black, or you are upset that Santa is being portrayed as black, yes, that has its roots in racism. You don't have to hate black people or actively want them to suffer to have racist ideas, and one racist idea is that a fictional character can't be properly portrayed by someone who's not white.

It's not just about color or accuracy. Because I understand why people might be confused or might object to Santa being portrayed with traits they're not used to. Santa without a beard would probably be weird. Santa dressed in a green or purple outfit would probably be weird. But unlike clothing or facial hair, "being black" is a different thing from part of a costume. These people object because "black" is in violation of how they see Santa in a way that Santa being white with a deep tan would not be. Sure, the idea that he's a pale man with rosy cheeks from the north pole is pretty common, but people don't actually get this kind of upset when mall Santas have a tan. They get mad when he's black. It is not a question of aesthetics. And factual accuracy for an iconic fictional character is a funny idea to me. Santa Claus isn't a real person, so portraying him the way he "really is" doesn't apply. He's not a specific creation of a specific author who made him to look a certain way, and if your need for him to be white is strong enough to inspire outcry, I think you might need to examine why this is an issue for you.

Some may also try to sidestep accusations of racism by claiming Santa is based on a historical person and therefore should retain the physical qualities of that person. Well, Santa Claus as we know him today is more of an amalgam of various legends, but it's pretty indisputable that he's partially inspired by the real-life Saint Nicholas. Who, in some art of him, looks like this:

He also sometimes looks like this.

The man himself was from what is now Turkey. Like many historical figures involved in early Christianity, he was Middle Eastern. Many people from that area of the world would not be thought of as "white" by today's racists. Most of them are willing to imagine them as white for their own purposes, though--the same as they do with Jesus (who was, obviously, also Middle Eastern). 

Considering how many cultures fed into the modern version of Santa, I think it's actually incredibly appropriate to diversify presentations of Santa in media and among actors who play him. And furthermore, the race of the person playing Santa Claus should not play into how you feel about his character. What he represents is what's important, and there is nothing inherently white about this character.

I've seen similar discussions when people of color are selected to portray historically white comic book characters. Some people throw a fit and insist that a character's whiteness is integral to their character and that changing the character's race somehow distorts it. They then, almost like clockwork, claim that historically black comic book characters should be changeable if white comic book characters are, but that "PC Culture™" would lead to outcry and protest. Well, there are some characters for whom being black is necessary for their character to make sense. It is usually much more relevant to who a character is if they are from an oppressed minority of some kind. However, it is a lot easier in fiction--just like it is in life--for "white" to be used like a default. As if it's invisible, while non-white races don't get that treatment in this society. If, in fact, a white character's whiteness is a placeholder for "everyman," then there isn't a reason that character can't be portrayed as something else. If a character's whiteness is historically a point of pride (i.e., the character is racist) or they have a specific cultural identity that is tied to whiteness, yeah, it's not a good idea to change it if it literally wouldn't make sense. In most cases, you can't find a non-racist or non-privilege-related reason why a white character can't be presented as a person of color. "What if I made that black character white?" is not an analogous situation to "What if I made that white character black?" That's what I think a lot of people don't realize. 

There's nothing about Santa Claus that requires him to be white. Citing tradition is a bad choice here, because "it's always been that way" provides no argument for why it should always be that way. Sentimental notions of preferring what's familiar are valid, I will say that. But when you contrast the value of that with what you sacrifice in this situation, I feel like most reasonable and non-racist people would have to see that encouraging diversity should trump the need for familiar images. Especially--especially--because it's not like a black Santa existing prevents you from finding a white Santa if you prefer that. The existence of a black Santa option literally does not erase the white Santas. In fact, the white Santas overwhelmingly outnumber the non-white Santas in this country. But racists aren't even worried about what they find familiar, what they aesthetically prefer (without asking themselves why), or what constitutes "traditional" to them. They want their preferences to be given the power to take that choice away from others.

In other words, it's not even just that they prefer white Santa. It's that they don't want others to have access to seeing an incarnation of this character in a shade that matches themselves. They want their children and everyone else's children to have no choice in how they see Santa. They want Santa to just be one thing, and they want that thing to be a white guy.

When it doesn't matter what race a character is, it really shouldn't matter what race a character is. As in, if you're one of those people who claims they "don't see color" (not true, and essentially racist) or thinks race doesn't really matter, or thinks reports of inequality and oppression are greatly exaggerated on the part of people of color, then there should be no value judgment against a black portrayal of a historically white character, and there should be no outcry against it. Especially when it comes to what Santa represents as a symbol of the Christmas holiday and a spirit of giving. It should come in every color. And if that's a statement you can agree with, you can't just agree with it in theory but still foam at the mouth when you see an example of it in practice. If you need Santa to not be black, reevaluate whether you hold racist prejudices. (And keep in mind you do not have to be white to hold racist beliefs.)

This morning I had to send a holiday party bulletin to my co-workers and I punctuated it with this image:

Black Santa was the first that popped up when I searched for a cute Santa emoji to insert. I hope nobody thought "why would she choose black Santa?" because my first thought is "why wouldn't I?"

Until we stop assuming every choice that includes a non-white option is politically motivated and representative of "PC Culture," we don't have the choice as a society to claim we're post-racist. If every deviation from white is a specific choice assumed to carry ~liberal~ values while every representation of white is just standard, default, how-it-should-be, we have not moved away from racist assumptions at all.

When someone asks "why not?" and you have to phrase your answer very carefully to avoid sounding racist, you have some work to do.

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