The other day I saw a video with Fox News host Megyn Kelly. She was going on about an article on Slate.com, written by a Black woman who argued Santa should be changed to a penguin in order to spare millions of non White kids the insecurity and shame she grew up with. Mrs. Kelly was clear in her response when she stated the simple fact that not only was Santa White, but Jesus was as well and the writer simply needed to just face the facts and deal with it.
Obviously this generated a response from many that disagreed. I also felt a certain way about her words (and the absolutist tone she said it with), but instead of anger it brought up other feelings, feelings I had not thought about for some time.
As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, my mother took my sister and I to go see Santa Claus at a local plaza. This was a treat hung over our heads in order to get us to act (moderately) well-behaved throughout the month of December. Me being seven and my sister nine, it was more than enough to curb our youthful impulses for a few weeks.
When the day finally arrived the excitement and anticipation was on display as we shuffled and giggled the entire train ride there. Unfortunately, upon arrival we were greeted to utter disappointment.
We ran to the back of the long line. My sister pushed down on the shoulders of the unfortunate girl in front of her as she leaned in to get a better look.
“You see him?” I asked as I tried in vain to squeeze past a couple in front of me. “Well?” I repeated.
Her response came not as a sound but an image: The joyous expression that filled her face since morning morphed into one of horror. As I stepped around and followed her gaze my expression mimicked hers.
Seated in the large chair in front of the long line of small children was an imposter, a charlatan, and not a very good one at that.
Tears streamed down our cheeks as we cried aloud. The other families turned to us, curious about the sudden commotion. Our confused mother kneeled down, a look of concern on her face, “what’s a matter witcho,” she asked in bastardized patois.
“You tricked us, Momma,” I said through tears, “you said we were gonna meet Santa.”
“Tricked?” She put her arms around me. “Of course not, baby. That is Santa.”
My sister stepped between us, her face determined as she pointed at the fraud occupying the red suit and exclaimed (with all the eloquence a nine-year old child from the ghetto could), “That ain’t no Santa!” Her face constricting even more, “Santa ain’t Black!” She said the last part with as much conviction as she could muster. And the tone did it’s job. It wasn’t a question or even a statement, my sister spoke fact… gospel even. She could have been stating that the sky was blue, or water was wet. My mother, left with no reply, simply stared as onlookers (all of them Black) either rolled their eyes, sucked their teeth or murmured loud enough to be heard. The more talented managed to accomplish all three .
With her point made my sister let out a huff before marching toward the entrance. Me, the impressionable kid brother, followed suit. My mother, most likely more embarrassed than she had even been, offered weak apologies to the judgmental crowd before running along after us.
Christmas. Was. Ruined.
Fast forward a few years to Providence, Rhode Island. I was around 13, living in a city people like to call the melting pot of New England but was actually more like a tossed salad considering how each ethnicity in the diverse city managed to feel American while holding on to the identity and traditions they brought from foreign lands.
One day my best friend Donald and I decided to head over to our friend Miguel’s house. His mother had left to visit family back in Puerto Rico and we decided it was a perfect opportunity to skip school. It was our first time there, so while Miguel was breaking into his mother’s stash of booze Donald and I took a look around.
We made our way to a living room cluttered with trinkets, mismatched furniture and a plastic-covered couch. As we took in the clutter (not dissimilar to our own homes) we immediately noticed a large painting of Jesus hanging on the wall. Donald and I shared a look before breaking out in laughter. Miguel came in, holding a large bottle of brandy and asked, ” the fuck is so funny?” Donald, still doubled over, left it up to me to explain.
Motioning towards the painting I asked, “What the hell is that?” Miguel looked at me blankly and said, “What? You mean Jesus?”
Finally getting a hold of himself, Donald blurted out, “Jesus? Jesus ain’t a spic!”
Donald was Black, and like me he grew up worshiping a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus while Miguel on the other hand grew up with a slightly different image of God. And the ethnically crowded city introduced me to many other gods. From Indian, to Asian, to Arab, and with each I was in shock considering my background was one of a very sheltered Christian… which essentially meant they taught me (the lie) that everyone worshiped the same God that I worshiped… the same race as well.
I once heard an anthropologist mention something that caught me off guard. While arguing the point that there weren’t any real supernatural deities he said it was no surprise gods almost always resembled the people that worshiped them , which made it more likely man created gods in their own image instead of the other way around. He stated it as if it were obvious… and considering the evidence, it basically is, but for me, up until that point, it was something I had never thought about.
How could I when that rule clearly did not apply to me.
What does it say to the fact that most Black people in this country lack a god of our own? They “choose” to worship a god that was not only forced upon them during a time in which their cultural identity was completely erased (and the label of a subhuman put in its place) but this new god also happen to look like those that enslaved them, like those that ruled over them?
And what does it mean that we still choose to follow Him even after we’ve been “set free?”
How could this not affect the psyche of a people when the two most important figures in a child’s life look nothing like them? A culture where even the adults continue to cling to a world view that is so divorce of them that the only time people even resembling them are supposedly mentioned it’s in a negative light. To grow in a society where not only is White considered good and worthy of obedience (in the case of Santa) and outright worship (in the case of the Messiah) but the very idea of these characters being anything other than White sounds so absurd it borders on being offensive.
And I guess I should make it clear that whether or not Jesus was White or (as many argue) light-brown with dark hair and dark eyes (considering what Semitic Jews from Bronze Age Palestine looked like at the time) is irrelevant. Not only because I’m now an atheist and lean more to the idea that He never actually existed, but more importantly, the emotional and psychological effects would be the same regardless of if it were true or not.
There was a study in 1939 called “The Doll Experiment.” In it they showed two dolls to Black and White children. The dolls were identical except one doll was White with yellow hair while the other was brown with black hair. The children were then asked a series of questions like which doll was nice, which was bad, which had a nicer color, which would you rather play with. What the psychologist learned was that all the children, regardless of race, had a clear preference for the White doll.
At the time they used the results from the study to argue against segregation, suggesting it had a negative influence on children in general, but also it exposed the self-hatred and internalized racism in African American children. It was an important study for its time, one that I wish would be repeated today. And if it were, I would hope they would take a deeper look at the effect cultural traditions, like Christianity, has on African American self-esteem and self-worth.
I once asked an aunt why the picture of Jesus that hung in almost every room of her home was of a White man when the bible described Him having “feet the color of brass.” She responded with an intense look in her eyes and contempt in her voice, “That’s the devil!” she shouted, “The devil’s in you making you ask such questions!” According to her it didn’t matter what Jesus looked like. “The only thing that matters is that I spend my life praising His name.”
I sometimes wonder if her answer would have been the same if someone brought her a painting of Jesus that resembled the one that hung in Miguel’s house. Somehow I think not.
As an atheist, one would think this type of conversation (or lack thereof) would create feelings of frustration, or maybe even humor at the absurdity of it all, but instead what I feel is profound shame. Not of my aunt (or the many others in my community that think similarly) but for myself, because it reminds me of how I was: an impressionable child reacting to the idea of a Black Santa with utter disappointment, or as a teen, filling the living room with condescending laughter at the idea that he could even suggest Jesus, (my then Lord and Savior) would have ever looked like anything other than a White man… The shame is also for what the underlying meaning my reactions were really saying about how I saw myself and what kind of effect that way of thinking had on me then, and most likely still does today.