Dreaming of a Non-White Christmas
Santa, Jesus, and the Symbolism of Racial Supremacy
Well it's that time of year again. Time for all good
Americans to focus on what really matters. Not family,
community, or world peace, but that national sacrament of
late-stage capitalism known as Holiday shopping. Whether you
do it online, or drag yourself to the mall amidst the sea of
humanity scrapping and fighting for the latest must-have
gizmo, rest assured that your actions are vital to the
national interest. In fact, the annual consumer bonanza
unleashed in the last fiscal quarter is so central to
defining life in the U.S. that the economy's strength in the
beginning of the following year is literally tied to how
much stuff we buy. So get out there and do your duty: Buy
American. Be American. Shop till you drop, and remember,
this is what it means to be a patriot!
Now, being one who doesn't like to give advice that I myself
am unwilling to follow, I must say that I too have been
making the pilgrimage to the shopping centers lately, both
to purchase desired items, and also to observe others in
the process of this sociologically fascinating ritual. As
someone who regularly writes about racism, you can probably
imagine that I have long been especially intrigued by the
way in which Holiday symbolism replicates notions of
whiteness as rightness, and acts to reinforce, however
subtly, racial supremacism. Yet, the full force of
this process never really hit me until last week.
It was then that I found myself at the mall, passing a line
of parents and their children, waiting to have a few seconds
alone with Santa. You know Santa, right? The big white guy
who only works one day a year and yet no one calls him lazy;
the big white guy who exploits elfin labor in a sweatshop
for no pay while his wife does all the housework, and yet no
one calls him a slave master; the big white guy who invades
millions of homes on Christmas Eve and yet, no one arrests
him for breaking and entering. Yeah, that one.
Though there has been an attempt to make use of Santas of
color in malls around the country lately, I think we can all
agree this is pretty absurd: if Santa were black, there is
little question he'd have been shot dead years ago in the
vestibule of some New York City apartment by the NYPD's
Street Crimes Unit. After all, how could the cop be sure
that toy gun he was bringing to the child inside wasn't
real? Better safe than sorry -- and anyway, that bright red
suit would make him a logical target, seeing as how red is
the color favored by members of the Bloods street gang.
But it wasn't this kind of irony about a black Santa that
animated the comment I heard while strolling through the
mall that day. No, it was pure racial resentment and nothing
else leading the white woman, child in tow, to say to her
friend, "don't you think it's silly to have these Black
Santas? Everybody's trying to be so P.C. I mean, come
on, a Black Santa? Everyone knows Santa is white."
Her friend of course agreed. Everyone knows Santa -- a make
believe entity for those who haven't figured it out yet --
is white. The insistence on the racial purity of this
entirely fictional being, as if this was a real person,
struck me as hilarious, and right up there with the folks
who send get well cards to their favorite soap opera
characters when they fall ill on the shows. Ronald and
Nancy Reagan are reported to have done this once. Fantasy,
reality, ah screw it, who cares? I'm starting to realize
the awful truth: white people are certifiably insane.
It all made sense though once I passed the woman and noticed
the holiday stationary and cards in her bag. The ones with
the calming, soothing face of Jesus staring back at me. You
know the Jesus I'm talking about right? The one with the
pale skin, blue eyes, and rock-star good looks? Yeah, that
one. The same Jesus that has occupied the minds of Western
Christians for the last five centuries, ever since
Michaelangelo was commissioned to paint his image,
and used his lily-white cousin as the sitting model.
Oh shit, I've stepped in it now. Questioning the ethnic
heritage of Christ himself. And you thought this was just
gonna be a cute little diatribe about the commercialization
of the Yuletide season? Au contraire, mon frere.
My wife and I have received many a Christmas card this
season, and as always, the representations of Jesus that
adorn so many of them cast the Christian Messiah as nothing
if not European. Now I know my gentile friends have that
song, "A Child is Born in Bethlehem," but I never realized
until now that they had meant Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Silly
me, but I always had thought the Christ child was born in
that part of the world we call the "Middle East," which, if
we were being honest, we would easily recognize as basically
a part of Africa, separated from the continent by the man-made
Suez Canal. As such, the odds of him looking the way he does
in churches across America are pretty much slim and none.
But don't tell that to most of his followers: especially
the ones who are white like me.
The suggestion that Jesus would have been dark-skinned
(black in the admittedly non-scientific racial taxonomy
of the United States), is about as blasphemous to most
Christians as anything one could say. Of course, no one
wants to admit their indignation at the notion, so they
typically couch it in ecumenical platitudes like "it doesn't
matter what Jesus looked like; it only matters what he did."
OK, fine. I'm down with that. Although not a Christian, I've
always been one who thought Jesus said and did some pretty
exemplary stuff, unlike what so many of his modern disciples
say and do. So then, if it doesn't matter what he looked
like then why not make him black?
I have asked this question when giving speeches on racism at
religiously affiliated colleges, and let's just say, there's
nothing like it if you're looking to see how fast you can
get folks to start clearing their throats. Again they
insist, "no you don't understand, it doesn't matter what
he looked like, it's what he did." And again I repeat, O.K.,
fine, if it really doesn't matter then let's make him black,
just for a year. Then you can change him back again if you
really want to. No biggie.
No dice, and no takers. We go round and round, as white
folks check their watches and try to figure out how they
can leave the room without seeming to be rude.
But let's be clear: the white iconography of Jesus that
predominates in this culture makes absolutely no sense,
except as an artifact of a white supremacist worldview.
First off, the earliest representations of Jesus, Mary, and
Christ's disciples appear in the catacombs of Rome, where
the first Christians, known as Essenes buried their dead.
All of these portrayals picture a dark-skinned Messiah. In
addition, during the time of Roman Emperor Justinian II, the
Empire minted a gold coin that pictured Jesus. This coin,
which today can be viewed in the British Museum, shows a man
with clearly non-white facial features and tightly curled
hair, consistent with the description of Christ offered in
the Book of Revelations, wherein it is noted that Jesus had
hair like wool, feet the color of burnt brass, and resembled
jasper and sardine stones: both of which were brown in color.
Now I don't much care about the scriptural references
myself, and far be it from me to insist on the infallibility
of the Bible; but if the folks who do swear that every word
of it has to be accepted as literal, don't also accept these
descriptions -- which clearly contradict the imagery on the
Christmas cards, or that of the nativity scenes one sees
everywhere at this time of year -- then they are nothing
if not hypocrites.
And don't forget, according to Biblical lore, when Jesus was
born, Herod sent search parties out to find him and slay him
as an infant. To hide the Christ child, his family absconded
with him to Egypt, and if there is one thing we can be
absolutely sure of, it's that one would not have been likely
to try hiding an Aryan baby and family in pre-Arab Egypt, of
all places. This was, after all, a society of dark-skinned
Africans (as evidenced in their own hieroglyphs); one that
had referred to itself as Kemet (the Black land), for
thousands of years, and themselves as "Kemetcu" (the black
humans). The "father" of modern history, Herodotus, himself
acknowledged as much when he said "the Egyptians, Colchians
and Ethiopians have thick lips, broad nose, wooly hair and
are of burnt skin." Elsewhere, he actually referred to them
as "black." If Jesus had been white, Mary and Joseph would
have put him on a slow boat to Canada, not trekked to Egypt
where finding them would have been like shooting fish in
the proverbial barrel.
For those of you still reading, you'll either be laughing or
fuming: if laughing, it's because you realize how silly the
whitening of Jesus has been in this culture, and yet, how
wedded we really are to that imagery; if fuming, well, it's
because you think that somehow I'm being sacrilegious, or
absurd. But I'm just reading what the good book says, and
applying a little common sense and anthropology to the
If you want to really see absurd, go pick up Volume One of
the Robert Maxwell Bible Stories Series, which I assure you
is sitting on a table in your doctor's office right now.
There you will find Adam and Eve depicted as if the Garden
of Eden had been in Norway, despite the fact that Biblical
scholars all agree the Garden -- whether viewed as a literal
place or as a fictional metaphor -- was bordered by two
rivers, the Biblical description of which only fits that of
the Blue Nile and White Nile: neither of which, last time I
checked were to be found in Scandinavia.
Some may ask what the point of all this is though frankly,
it ought to be obvious. So long as our culture pictures
Adam, Eve, Moses, Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and even
God "himself" as fair-skinned folk, despite the obvious
preposterousness of such representations, we will continue
to plant the seeds of racial supremacism in the hearts and
minds of millions of people.. After all, to believe that
divinity is white like you leads one to easily assume that
others are somehow less complete, less than human. If
God supposedly made man in his image, and God is always
portrayed as a bearded white man (kinda like Santa without
the suit), how hard a leap is it -- especially for children
whose introduction to religion is always nine-tenths forced
propaganda anyway -- to assume that persons of color are
somehow not full and equal "children of God?" Not to mention
the sexist aspect of the male sky-God imagery, of course,
which is a whole different can of worms.
So now that I have managed to piss everyone off, here's
wishing you all a very merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah,
Joyous Kwanzaa, Resplendent Ramadan, and Super Solstice. Now
get out there and shop! And take that damned Swedish-looking
angel off the top of your tree for God's sake.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and activist.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 2000 Tim Wise. All Rights Reserved.
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