When Santa's Race Matters

Telling a kid he can't dress as Santa Claus is cruel.

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Santa Claus waves at spectators during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, in New York. After fears the balloons could be grounded if sustained winds exceeded 23 mph, Snoopy, Spider-Man and the rest of the iconic balloons received the all-clear from the New York Police Department to fly between Manhattan skyscrapers on Thursday.

I was always a pretty skeptical kid, as most journalists probably were. So I never really bought the whole Santa Claus thing. I always felt like I was sort of humoring my parents by pretending to believe that elves were making my Easy-Bake Oven and Santa was delivering it to me (along with gifts to children all over the world! In a single night!). And undoubtedly, my parents thought they were humoring me.

So one day, I figured it was time for all of us to give up the charade. I went to my mother and asked her, point-blank: "mom, is there really a Santa Claus?" My mother, clearly having anticipated this question for some time, had the Good Housekeeping magazine answer all ready: "There is if you believe."

This is not something that ought to matter at all to adults, except that the race of the fictional character has come into question of late. Fox News' Megyn Kelly started the faux controversy by saying on air that Santa is white. The network's Bill O'Reilly backed her up Monday, saying, "Ms. Kelly is correct. Santa is a white person." To his absurdly small credit,  O'Reilly did add, "Does it matter? No."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Well, no, it doesn't matter if you're grown and Santa is just a childhood memory. But what if you're a black kid in Albuquerque, and your teacher says you can come to school dressed as Santa, an elf or a reindeer? What happened to ninth-grader Christopher Rougier is this: He came to school in a Santa-esque beard and hat, and his teacher said, "don't you know Santa Claus is white? Why are you wearing that?"

Presumably, the cover story wasn't blown for the boy, who presumably does not believe in Santa Claus. However, he may have believed that being African-American does not prevent him from being all kinds of things – president, even – because the path had been cleared for him by others. Whether the child really thought he could grow up to be Santa someday is irrelevant. The lesson he got from his teacher is much more devastating – that there are roles for white people and roles for other races. These are strong messages to send children. Barbie, for example, used to limit herself to trying on new fashions and going to the beach at Malibu. Now, Barbie does it all – she's an astronaut, a "pet doctor," even a presidential candidate, smartly done up in a suit and pearls. Girls with Barbies might indeed still get a distorted body image for women, but at least they aren't being indoctrinated with the idea that their futures are limited to "women's" jobs.

It shouldn't matter if Santa is pictured as a white man, given that we're talking about a fantasy, but the reality is that it does. The mere message of the big, benign white guy being the one to distribute presents to children (if they're good!) is bad enough (don't people of other races express generosity?). Telling a kid he can never be in the image of one of the most beloved characters of childhood is cruel.

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