It is not a question even of the ignorance of white people. It is a question of the fears of white people.
Perhaps the most trivial news story, in recent memory, to make the rounds of the twenty-four-hour news cycle is most certainly the “debate” over whether or not Santa Claus is white. It started with a seemingly benign request from Slate’s Aisha Harris that Santa be de-racialized. Harris had a modest proposal: rather than a jolly old white man, how about turning our image of Santa into a penguin? No race, they’re cute and he’d still live in a snowy place. This deeply offended FOX News’s Megyn Kelly, whose unwavering belief that Santa—and Jesus—are white set off Twitter, the blogosphere and would-be pundits everywhere.
I honestly do not care about Santa’s racial identity. He’s a mythical figure with flying reindeer and elves. To the point of Harris’s original article, he can literally be whatever we decide. Growing up, my mother did all the Christmas shopping in my household, so for me Santa has always been a black woman. It’s not a big deal.
But what this whole controversy has revealed is another instance of white racial panic. For the entirety of the United States’s history, white people have had the advantage of defining themselves—and their mythical gift-giving icons—in a white supremacist state. Politically, culturally, economically, socially, everything has been tailored to privilege whiteness. But things change. Whiteness as the default identity to which everything else is derived or compared gets challenged. And the pushback is fierce.
We are living in an age of paradox. The old system of white racial supremacy is very much still alive and strong, but the advancements of other racial groups are undeniable. That means the government, the culture, the economy and the social order, while not even close to anything equitable, are changing and shifting towards something that’s at least more inclusive. Most of these changes are superficial and have no material benefit for the people on the bottom rungs of society. (As I wrote in June, when it was reported that there had been more white deaths than births in 2012, it’s not about demographics, it’s a matter of resources/wealth/power.) But they can give us hope that we’re moving in the right direction.
The result is fear. Fear that too much change coming too fast will change the current system in a way that will no longer privilege whiteness. Being white will no longer be special. It will not allow you to define yourself against the other. There will be no power or privilege. You will just be.
We saw it in immediate aftermath of the election of Barack Obama as the first black president. It animates our debate around immigration reform. It drives our fear of China emerging as a superpower. And yes, it’s even in the desire to affirm Santa’s white identity. The visual markers of white supremacy appear to be eroding, and for certain segments of the population, that’s a frightening prospect.
Of course, white people have nothing to fear. Not in the immediate future, at least. Just as the rich have nothing to fear, men have nothing to fear and heterosexuals have nothing to fear. The system of white supremacist capitalist heterosexist patriarchy isn’t going anywhere for a while. It is so entrenched in our way of thinking that even those who don’t benefit from it work towards its maintenance. We still have a long way to go.
Santa Claus is merely a symbol. We project upon him what we wish to see. So don’t worry, white people. With the political and economic advantages still heavily weighted in your favor, Santa will still bring you your gifts. He’s still on your side. In the foreseeable future, Santa is still a white man.
(But it won’t always be that way.)