I am shopping for Christmas pajamas to outfit our crew…again. I’ve already done this once. About a month ago, I bought matching sets. They were delivered and shoved in the back of our basement until this weekend when I pulled them out and was struck by a very obvious thing – the jolly Santa faces peering back at me were white. Like super white. Like, in all my life, Santa had never looked so shockingly white.
I gazed around our freshly decorated house. Alabaster Santa stared back from every corner. On cookie jars, candles, plates and mugs, from oven mitts, towels and ornaments, there was Caucasian Santa with his pink cheeks and knowing smile.
Defeated and embarrassed by yet another too-late epiphany, back to the laptop I went in search of new jammies and diverse décor, but the selection was slim. It seems most depictions of Santa as anything other than porcelain-skinned trend toward some caricaturized version of blackness. I could find Santa decked in gold chains, Santa with headphones over turntables, and Santa wondering aloud where his “ho’s” went, but few renditions of Saint Nick were available sans stereotype. Given that the actual Saint Nicholas from which the legend originates resided in what is now Turkey, and that most folks living anywhere near the North Pole are Inuit, it’s amazing how pale Santa has become. But hey, it happens to the best of them. Just look at Jesus.
Earlier this year, I sat on my children’s floor, sorting through a pile of Christian books that had been scattered throughout our shelves. One by one, picture books, illustrated bibles, and collections from my own childhood went into a pile for donation until only two remained. Page after page, the faces retelling the story of God, of human salvation, of all creation – those faces were all white. These figures, who Christians the world over agree hail from the Middle East and Northern Africa, still miraculously appeared European. Only two of nearly twenty depictions lining our shelves held any semblance of a mirror for the littlest boy in our family. What kind of message is that? To have people believe their only hope for eternal glory rests in the face of a white man who was not actually white to begin with?
The idea that Jesus was, in all likelihood, not a blue-eyed surfer type with sand colored hair is not new. It had struck me before, but I had never sat and reflected on why he is continually portrayed this way. I had not stopped to contemplate the intentionality of it. The articles and books dissecting the Europeanization of Christ had not yet laid open on my nightstand because, just like Santa, I saw myself reflected in his eyes. What was there to question?
Over the past few years, I have taken a deep dive into understanding my whiteness on a level I have previously not. It’s been eye-opening and embarrassing at times, uncomfortable and infuriating nearly always. My re-education has been, and will continue to be, a process, a conscious effort to dig away the layers encapsulating our transracial family. But as a mother, this is my responsibility. This was always my responsibility, long before a multi-racial child crossed my doorstep, I just couldn’t see it. And no, I was not colorblind. I was comfortable.
Our two-year-old is not colorblind either. He can pick out a likeness of himself in nearly any scenario. Oftentimes, he does so without prompting. When watching a show or reading a book, he points at individual characters, identifying them as people within our family.
“Mama!” he shouts, chubby finger pressed into the face of a woman with a long ponytail.
“Buggy!” he exclaims, moving on to a little boy with freckles like our eldest son.
“Me!” he declares, smiling at the character with brown skin and natural hair.
This child knows we all look different. He recognizes these differences, even now at this early age. As “cute” as many of us think it is to characterize kids as colorblind, they are anything but. They can tell when the little boy in the story looks like them, just as they can tell when their sole path to eternal salvation does not. The rosy-cheeked man handing out all the presents? He doesn’t either, at least not until sometime late this week when FedEx drops off a box filled with the only set of racially diverse Santa Clause pajamas I could find.
Representation really does matter, especially when it has been purposefully altered to perpetuate a lie. These lies harm everyone, not just the children who can’t find themselves in a manger scene or Santa’s workshop or the majority of illustrations society uses to maintain these recolored facts and fables. But we, as white people, would rather cling to a known misrepresentation than disrupt the narrative that the giver of glory or the givers of gifts is one of us.
When you observe blue-eyed Jesus through your own blue eyes or white-faced Santa in your own fair skin, how clearly do you see them? Can you hear their hidden message? And if you haven’t spent time considering the whiteness of the iconic images displayed all around us this holiday season and every other day of the year, could it be because you see yourself? Could it be because you’ve always been able to see yourself inside the story?