Black Santas can be controversial — and that's because of white supremacy, expert explains

Santa Larry, whose presence sparked controversy when he first appeared at the Mall of America's Santa Experience, is seen here speaking with a virtual visitor in November.  (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Santa Larry, whose presence sparked controversy when he first appeared at the Mall of America's Santa Experience in 2016, is seen here speaking with a virtual visitor in November. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

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.

Regarding the Mall of America controversy, retired U.S. veteran and Black Santa Larry Jefferson-Gamble has said, “There needs to be more Santas of color, because this is America, and kids need to see a Santa that looks like them. … That helps kids to identify with the love and spirit of the holiday,” noting that he’s often explained to children that “Santa comes in many different colors.”

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Another Black Santa, Kenny Green, agreed at the time, saying, “I would definitely take my children to go see an Hispanic Santa. I would definitely take my children to go see an Asian Santa. … Because that’s letting them know that Santa is a representation of all of us. That’s who we should be. We all should be Santas. We all should have Santa in our heart and in our spirit.”

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.”

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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. As poet and novelist Ishmael Reed once put it: “Just as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. have been toned down for popular consumption, the smiling rosy-cheeked overweight white man in red suit is an American invention. Modifying Clement Moore’s rendition of a rotund Santa Claus, the great abolitionist illustrator Thomas Nast dressed him in a red suit for the 1863 Harper’s Weekly,” an image, Reed argued, that “covers up the real Nicholas.” The new image was further perpetuated — and solidified — when Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for Christmas advertisements in 1931, bringing the jolly, white, rotund Santa image to its most massive audience yet.

A Roma child stands in front of a shelter bearing an image of Santa Claus as advertised by Coca-Cola — which is largely credited with popularizing the modern-day image of him as a jolly white man, seen all over the world. (Photo: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP via Getty Images)
A Roma child stands in front of a shelter bearing an image of Santa Claus as advertised by Coca-Cola — which is largely credited with popularizing the modern-day image of him as a jolly white man, seen all over the world. (Photo: Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images)

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.”

Despite inspiring America’s version of Santa Claus, Sinterklaas has been the topic of much heated, ongoing debate, because instead of being assisted by elves, this version of the gift giver is equipped with “Black Petes” — what many have interpreted as slaves. It’s a common, modern tradition, in fact, for the Dutch to celebrate these assistants in full-on blackface, claiming to be covered in chimney soot (although their clothes remain clean), prompting Google and Facebook to take a stance against such imagery just a few months ago.

How does white supremacy play a role?

Notes DiAngelo, “White supremacy is a highly descriptive, sociological term for the society we live in, which certainly includes extremists that we would think of as wearing white hoods, but it also describes the norm — a culture that positions white people as the center and as the ultimate representation of what it means to be human.” She points to highly revered images, such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, which depict angels as white and devils as Black, as further evidence.

“The irony,” she notes, is “on the one hand, white people insist that ‘we don't see color’ — and then we lose our minds when Santa is not the color that he’s ‘supposed’ to be.” Similar controversies have come about with announcements that remakes of children’s classics, like Annie and The Little Mermaid, would star Black girls.

“Given that most white people live segregated lives, I think it’s really important — not just for Black children to see themselves reflected in valuable symbols, but it's really important for white children to see it too,” says DiAngelo. 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.”

The big picture

Attempting to understand how young children are psychologically affected by racism started in the 1940s, with Mamie and Kenneth Clark’s famous Doll Test, which found that Black children overwhelmingly “favored the white doll when asked which doll was the nice doll.” This experiment has since been re-created — with similar results and more recent studies showing that not much has changed.

Researchers have also found that by age 5, “Black and Hispanic children show no preference toward their own group,” while “white kids remain strongly biased in favor of whiteness.” Furthermore, “children have already learned to associate some groups with higher status, or more positive value, than others” by the start of kindergarten — and pushing white-only Santa imagery can only add fuel to that fire.

Pointing to such studies, DiAngelo says, “There is research that shows that as early as 3 and 4 years old, children understand that it’s better to be white in society. They don’t miss that message, so that’s another really important reason why all children should be exposed to a whole range of representations.” This lack of representation, she explains, causes issues on a global scale.

“We have exported ‘Christmas’ and ‘Santa’ worldwide,” she says, recalling a trip to Thailand a few years ago, where she noticed that “Christmas representations were everywhere,” but none that resembled the local people. No matter the location, “when the ideal is always represented as white, we have also exported the white supremacy worldwide,” says DiAngelo. “Our cultural icons are everywhere, and that has an impact there too.”

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.”

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