What color is your Santa Claus?

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In case you haven’t noticed, ‘tis the season … to have another controversy illuminating America’s race-driven fault lines.

This time we can thank Fox News’ talk-show host Megyn Kelly for responding to a December 12 essay by writer Aisha Harris on Slate.com that criticized what Harris said was the outdated notion of Santa Claus as a White man.

Harris wrote of the “two different Santa Clauses” of her childhood –  the White Santa of the larger American culture, and the one who existed within her family: her father, whose “skin was as dark as mine.”

Noting that “Like the holiday itself,” Santa Claus today is far removed from his religious origins and the real-life historical 4th-century Christian bishop, St. Nicholas, Harris asserted the ecumenical spirit of Santa Claus was its most important feature. She recommended that because television programs and films have made children so used to seeing animals with human characteristics and conveying human meaning, Santa Claus should be a penguin.

Kelly a few days later declared on her program she was having none of it:  “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is White.” And for good measure she added that Jesus was “White,” too.

Naturally, the blogosphere and the twitterverse had a field day, with many agreeing with Harris that today’s Santa Claus isn’t a person but a symbol of kindness, compassion, and putting the happiness of others above one’s own.

That spirit was beautifully described in writer Soraya Chemaly’s poignant remembrance in Salon.com of her Christmas’ “growing up in a British colony as it went through independence,” where almost “every Santa I remember seeing … was a black man.”

“When it comes to Santa,” she wrote, “the most ‘real’ thing about him is millions of parents, often but not always mothers, who quietly work away into the wee hours, tiptoeing in darkened rooms so Santa can get everything done before daybreak. … It wasn’t until I had my own small children that I fully realized how much time, effort and thoughtfulness my mother put into making sure that Santa Claus was so amazing and that Christmas was fantastical.”

She concluded with this: “Given the way childcare is still distributed, most of the time, women and mothers are doing the invisible work that Santa relies on to get through his busy night.  If there is one thing for sure, Santa will not be a small, brown woman for some time to come. This self-erasure is poignant, and not an entirely positive lesson.  Given the history of the United States in particular, the darker a parent, the more poignant the erasure.  However, it is a testament of the purest kind of love. The rank parsimony of insisting on Santa’s whiteness with such vehemence is an ironic way to defend the idea of selfless giving.”

Confronted with an onslaught of facts about the origins of both Santa Claus and Jesus, Kelly two days later declared she had “learned …  [it is] far from settled” whether the color of Jesus’ skin was or was not White. (Actually, it is settled that the color of his skin was not White; the question is what shade of brown was Jesus.)

Kelly characterized her earlier statement about Santa as a “tongue-in-cheek,” humorous response to Aisha Harris’s essay. She then added that those criticizing her represented “the knee-jerk instinct by so many to race-bait and to assume the worst in people, especially people employed by the very powerful Fox News Channel.”

Those transparent claims aside, this season’s “Santa controversy” underscores the broader tension that has gripped American society since the civil rights victories of the 1960s erased the color line’s hard, legalized barriers.

It revolves around the same fundamental question that has always defined Black-White relations in America: Where’s the “tipping point?” –  that point along the spectrum from intolerance to tolerance where the dominant group’s resistance to those who are different flares.

Soraya Chemaly made just this point about Megyn Kelly’s attempt to place a Whites-only sign on two of the world’s revered icons.

“What some people are unwilling to digest,” she said, “is that while they can see themselves, or specific prioritized aspects of themselves, everywhere in culture, they obstinately deny others the exact same right. … they cannot even imagine what it is like to admire and love people who don’t look like them.  People of other colors. People of other genders. People of other sexes. ”

Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.

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