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Inside Blackness

Inside Blackness: Black Santa

Desiree Cooper

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Jay Hollowell with Santa
(Courtesy Desiree Cooper)
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This weekend, you might be headed to the mall to take your children to see Santa. Some kids can't wait to get on Santa's knee. Others go to Santa kicking and screaming. For some people of color, the local mall's Santa can bring on a crisis of a different sort. Weekend America's Desiree Cooper continues with her series called "Inside Blackness." It explores what everyday life is like for blacks in America. Today, we hear about the complicated relationship some black families have with the traditional Santa Claus. Just a word of warning: This may not be suitable for children who are sure they're on Santa's list this year.

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Richard Bogle (Vancouver, Wash.):

I was the first black Santa I ever saw. I'm an ex-cop, and two of my former partners were part of the law enforcement training department at Clackamas Community College in Oregon. They decided to have a Christmas party for the children of incarcerated parents. There were more than 600 mostly underprivileged boys and girls there, and I held each and every one of them on my lap and took their requests for gifts. I was hot, drained and flat-out exhausted when I finished. But I left with a good feeling. Each kid was given a token gift--perhaps for many, the only gift that Christmas. Santa's race doesn't matter to me because he is a spirit. I think we should have more black Santas. It would reinforce a father-like image for young black kids. It would also enhance the multicultural experience for white youngsters.

Lea Washington (Elk Grove, Calif.):

I am a parent to two young boys who, at ages five and eight, have never had a sit-down with a mall Santa of any ethnicity. We are all African- American. Santa's race doesn't matter to me directly, but I do understand the subtle message that seeing only a white Santa can convey. My eight-year-old son observed, after I pulled out a black Santa Christmas decoration last year, "That's not Santa. Santa is white." I asked why he thought that. He shared that basically all he's ever seen tells him that Santa is white, and no black Santa sitting on our mantle would change his mind. I explained that the mall Santas are helpers to the real Santa, and that they come in all shapes, sizes and colors, including black. Now does this mean that I need to run out and find a black mall Santa? Nope. It does mean that I need to keep doing what I'm already doing: Teaching my children that we need to know as much about who is presenting the image, information, picture, etc., as we do about the item itself to help us understand the message being sent. Folks like to depict what is familiar and comfortable to them, and a white Santa is that for many.

Dawn Wright (Corvallis, Ore.):

When I was in high school, I applied to be a Santa at our local shopping center. As both an African-American and a female, I didn't expect to get the job, and I didn't. But it was fun applying anyway. As an adult, though, I have been asked to dress up as and play the role of Santa Claus on two occasions. The first was on an oceanographic research vessel at sea near Antarctica. I was working on the ship as a laboratory technician, and on this particular expedition, we had to be out for two months that extended over the Christmas holidays. Keeping people's morale up is a high priority on these trips, and the crew asked me to cheer everyone up by playing Santa on Christmas Day and handing out some gifts around the ship.

The other occasion was for my departmental Christmas party at Oregon State University where I am now a professor. The office staff always chooses one faculty member or older graduate student to dress up in the costume and play Santa at the party, giving out gifts to adults and children alike. I was really surprised when they asked me to do it one year, but it was a lot of fun. And one of the children in particular really seemed to believe that I was actually Santa. The moral of these stories is that the color of one's skin is not important. It is the spirit of giving and love and fun that Santa represents that is important.

Louise Mayer:

Growing up in white suburbia, my authentic Santa was one who looked like the Santa Claus depicted on the Coca Cola ads. My homogeneous existence and worldview changed dramatically my first year of teaching, when I was a minority teacher in an all-black school district. For our Christmas concert, the decoration crew trotted out the black Santa Clauses, and I was taken aback. Needless to say, in 30 years in that district, I only saw black Santa Clauses. So I would say that it's important for children to see Santa in their own image. At my high school, a great many of my students were never introduced to the idea of Santa Claus at all. As one student told me my first year in the classroom, "There is no old, white man who brings you gifts. If you get presents at Christmastime, they're from your family who worked hard to pay for them."

Charles Lawrence (Berkeley, Calif.):

I was Santa for my kids' preschool about 12 years ago, in Emeryville, Calif. I'm black, but fairly light-skinned, and it wasn't a problem at all. My own kids didn't even recognize me, which was pretty funny. The part about which I am most proud involves my older son, who would have been about 15 at the time. When he told his friends about my experience, they told him Santa couldn't be black. They said this not in racist anger, but as a matter of fact. My son countered, without any coaching or prompting, that Santa could be any race at all. Santa's race does not matter. The meaning of Santa Claus is primarily for young children, who often have not even figured out what race really means. This is borne out in their choice of playmates. It's not until they get messages from us that they realize how important skin color can be. No need to "teach" this lesson prematurely.

Carole Abajian (Portland, Ore.):

I grew up in Washington, D.C., and was delighted to see a black Santa there. Santa's race matters. White folk have enough superheroes. I'm white, but have no tolerance for the abysmal prejudice and past treatment of people of color in this country.

Gregory Givens (San Jacinto, Calif.):

I played Santa once in Hemet, Calif. I had my Santa hat on. I walked around with a full-blown beard and mustache. Many of the parents came up to me and said, "Thank you." Only one Anglo European kid requested to sit on my lap. He sat on my lap until it was time for me to read Christmas stories. Santa's race doesn't matter to me. When I grew, up all pictures of Santa were of a jolly old Anglo-European man dressed in red and white with a beard and a pair of bifocal glasses. I believe this is a social understanding issue. The U.S. and the world can never see a black man doing anything right. Blacks are identified in the media as if they can do no good. So it is easy to say that there is no black Santa Claus. When, as a nation, we can stop looking at Santas as black or white or whatever and just view them as Santas, the world will be a better place.

Denean Bennett (Spring, Texas):

At some point, when I was a child, I did actually see a black Santa. It was, no doubt, in a shopping center in a section of the New Orleans metropolitan area that was frequented predominately by black shoppers. We all strive to find a fantasy for our children that reflects them. I think it's because, even unconsciously, we don't want our children to have the impression that the best and most beautiful things they love are unattainable because these things don't happen to people that look like them. That may seem a little over-the-top, especially if you're not a minority, but you'd be surprised at how much little things can affect a young person's sponge-like subconscious mind and self-image.

Frank Thornburgh (Walnut Creek, Calif.):

When I was small enough to believe in Santa, he was dressed so completely, including the beard, that I could see only his eyes behind thick glasses. I could not see, nor did I care, what skin color he was. Most very small toddlers have not yet been conditioned by adults to make judgments or have feelings about skin color. Only later do they hear and understand the comments adults make regarding skin color. When they are of the Santa age, they are not thinking about skin color but presents. They wouldn't care if you were purple. It's just, "Listen to my wish list." Santa's race doesn't matter because he represents a wishful, kind, common being. Santa, like all the world's various religious deities, has a neutral color. Someday we will all be the same mellow skin color. Then those future people will have to find something else to focus on.

More stories from our Inside Blackness series

Comments

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    By Elizabeth McLean

    From Houston, TX, 02/08/2012

    My husband is a professional event Santa. We are members of a Texas professional group of Santa Clauses called the Lone Star Santas. With regret, all our members are currently Caucasian with real beards, but not by our design. We have had a past member who was Hispanic who passed away a couple of years ago. We hope to have a Black gentleman join us soon who is interested in learning the business. I personally sought him out and offered to teach him the business. Our group is looking forward to welcoming him. We know that there needs to be diversity and would welcome and teach anyone the business regardless of race. It just does not seem to occur to many non-Caucasian people to do this. I would hope that the Black gentleman who joins us does not feel the need to bleach his salt and pepper beard, as that would not match his ethnicity. I know there are people who don't want to hire a white Santa, which makes perfect sense. I believe that once he gets known that he will have all the business he can handle, because there is a real need for diversity.
    We do find that people who currently hire a Caucasian Santa believe that he has to look like the Coca Cola Santa to the point that the Caucasians in our group have to (painfully) bleach their beards and hair white to fit that image. Otherwise they don't get hired a second time.

    By Liz Long

    From Chicago, IL, 12/11/2011

    If I had small kids I would want them to take a holiday picture with a black santa claus. I think kids should see someone that looks like them and feel proud. It's all about your personal preference though and that's just my opinion.

    By James Gregory

    From Chesapeake, VA, 11/08/2010

    Who really cares about a black santa..If theere are going to be black santa clauses sold at stores..where are the asian and latino santa clauses..if we need to be correct lets be correct for all and just not give into one race..if blacks find that it is important for there to be a black santa clause than are we saying its not important for there to be a asian and latino santa clause..lets be fair about this.

    By Maria McCutcheon-Cooper

    From Virginia Beach, VA, 12/19/2008

    I grew up in Detroit and remember visiting the Santa’s (both black and white) at Northland Mall. I learned the story of St. Nicholas in religious education and was more fascinated with the concept of gifts left in my stocking than of the ethnicity of the mall Santa. As I recall, the mall Santa is really a helper charged with collecting lists from kids around the world (remember - Zwarte Piet is black). The plan for us was to read our wish lists to every “Santa helper” we could find (black, white, or accessible via US mail). All kids recognize that and consider the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Claus are too busy supervising the construction of toys to hang out in a mall!

    Santa still leaves a gift in my stocking (I’m only 46). I will never stop believing 

    By charles lawrence

    From berkeley, CA, 12/15/2008

    no flogging, lee, but consider a couple of things.

    you suggest that this is something non-harmful, apparently without considering the subtle harm that comes from being told that the "good" is white. one only need look at the flaxen-haired images of jesus or the stereotypical old white man image of god, to name but two.

    in the death by a thousand cuts, each cut hurts a little, and any one of them that can be avoided should be.

    second, the examples you cite are all over the map. gandhi was a 20th century human, legendary in his way, but not a legend per se. muhammed is not depicted visually at all, according to the teachings of islam. the buddha is closest to your point, and buddhas are indeed somewhat different in appearance, depending on the local culture.

    none are ubiquitous in the same manner as santa, sadly, as a gandhi in every mall might be better for us.

    By shauna vercher-morrow

    From Detroit, MI, 12/14/2008

    Lee Thomas, you're right.....get ready for your flogging. Lee, I am a huge advocate of exposing my children to the experience of a black Santa Claus and not because it makes me feel more comfortable in my own skin. And just for the record, I don't condone the sagging pants trend nor do I condone ebonics as an acceptable form of the English language, BUT let's be clear, most of us (us being black and white) can and have easily slipped into a more "relaxed" form of the English language when around the comfort of friends and family. Because Santa is exactly what you said, a folklore, a legend, why can't he be black, hispanic or asian? Why not? Furthermore because some African Americans are choosing to expose their children to a black Santa, why do you so easily state that the cause must be because it makes us feel more comfortable?? It seems that you suggest that we must have issues with ourselves or our race, when in all actuality it's quite the opposite. I am very proud of who I am, my lineage and the great strides that our race has made. Sure there's always something negative that we could fixate on, but why do it, the media takes care of that for us. Christmas is a magical time of year, both spiritually and for the kid in all of us. If a "choice" of a black, white or green Santa enhances that magic then so be it. There used to be a time when African Americans didn't have many choices and as an African American, I take every opportunity to CELEBRATE the love I have for who I am and others who look like me....that Lee Thomas, makes me feel as you say "more comfortable".

    By Lee Thomas

    From South Bend, IN, 12/13/2008

    I imagine I will be flogged for this, but I think it is silly to change something non-harmful (such as the ethnicity/ancestry of Santa) simply to make other people feel more comfortable. I'm sorry, Santa Claus - according to legend - was Germanic or Scandinavian. Are we to begin an overhaul of other historical figures, actual or legend, in order to disguise our own social discomforts and uncertainties? Is Muhammed to become South Asian? Should we make Buddha of Moroccan descent? Can Gandhi be Lakota?
    I understand the need for heritage, lineage, ethnic celebration... don't get me wrong, diversity is fantastic. But I do not agree with this anymore than ebonics or pants hanging down around the knees with boxer shorts sticking out.
    Some things are better left alone.

    By John Greene

    From san diego, CA, 12/13/2008

    I am certain that the race of Santa would be moot, if children were told the truth. While, I know the intent my be benign, and in the "spirit of the season", it is nevertheless, a lie.

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