Santa Woes And Stereotypes In The Media
Emily Brooks, our new Media Monday writer for The Communicated Stereotype, has a Christmas gift for TCS fans with her new post on the Santa Clause controversy you may have heard about in the media. Please check out more of her work at her blog.
Santa Woes by Emily Brooks
Slate culture blogger Aisha Harris’ satirical take on replacing white-skinned Santa with a holiday penguin has sparked a national conversation on race and images in media and society. Most notably, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly reacted by telling kids across America that Santa Claus has white skin.
Kelly has since responded. See her response here. Of course “response” is only news terminology for backhanded statements that pass as apologies without including the words “I’m sorry.” Among other things, Kelly claims her words were an “offhand jest” and that her on-screen reaction to the piece was “lost on the humorless.” But there was nothing funny about the correspondent calling Harris “yet another person claiming that it’s racist to have a white Santa.”
When the word “racist” is used in rhetoric, as Kelly does, it can be turned into a meaningless insult instead of a descriptor of real discrimination that needs to change. Contrary to popular belief, racism isn’t just about using the n-word; it’s a complex system made up of subtle small moments and things about which we don’t think twice, like affirming a holiday saint’s skin color. “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just IS white, and this person is arguing that we should also have a black Santa,” she announces in the original Christmas controversy. “Santa is what he is.”
Even though she doesn’t rescind her racist comments and does misrepresent Harris’ work, Kelly still allies herself with the writer. “I acknowledged, as Harris did, that the most commonly depicted image of Santa does in fact have white skin,” she says. Portraying herself as a mere observer of our racist culture is strategic, of course. In a distorted echo of Harris, Kelly points fingers at the media that taught her Santa was white. She explains her comments were not based on fear or loathing, but rather on her observations of the “same” media and society “that Harris references in her piece.”
Their messages are far from the same, though. “My point is, how do you just revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story and just change Santa from white to black?” Kelly questioned in the original broadcast, her indignation betraying how big a deal the big elf’s skin color is. More than a decade into the twenty-first century, racism is still America’s bleak everyday reality. You don’t have to look far to find racism, after all—just look at the media that taught Harris, as a young black girl, that white Santas in Christmas specials and at the mall were authentic. “I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the ‘real thing,” she writes in the essay that sparked it all.
In the media, white men become the jolly benevolent symbol of Yuletide; what about black men? To say black men have it rough in the media is an understatement. Patricia Hill Collins notes that we learn to see black men’s bodies as aggressive, both physically and sexually. “As any Black man can testify who has seen a purse-clutching White woman cross the street upon catching sight of him, his physical presence can be enough to invoke fear, regardless of his actions and intentions,” she writes in her book Black Sexual Politics. Her examples include stop-and-frisk-style racial profiling and “random” drug searches of cars with black drivers (153).
People love and trust Santa. If our images of black men are scary stereotypes based nothing off of reality, then of course Santa will often be white instead. The media is largely in charge of these images, agrees Barry Glassner in The Culture of Fear. He gives examples of evening news programs primarily showing black men as violent, drug-addled perpetrators. Glassner thinks it’s easier for us to focus on fearing and hating groups of people than dealing with and owning up to our part in discrimination. “Many more black men are causalities of crimes than are perpetrators, but their victimization does not attract the media spotlight the way their crimes do,” he explained (1999: 109).
Kelly blames her racist comments on growing up in a racist country with a racist media industry. Yet the most glaring error in her carefully-constructed defense is that Kelly is a powerful voice in the very industry she blames for perpetuating racist ideals. By refusing to take ownership of the impact of her ignorant or thoughtless words, she chooses to solidify ideas of race, correct or incorrect, by—bingo!—saying ignorant things on air.
“Santa just is white” is about way more than skin, though. It’s about how we stereotype people based on their characteristics. Kelly is showing us what sorts of attributes we attribute to an inherently good man—that he is jolly, generous, kind, caring …and white. In our interlocking systems, white straight cisgender rich able-bodied men are the trump cards. Santa Claus embodies the good we all strive for and the generosity we all wish we had. He is magical and powerful, so he is pictured in the body of the most valued and powerful figure we know. It’s no accident that in popular American stories, Santa doesn’t have a wheelchair, he’s not on food stamps, and his partner isn’t Mr. Claus.
After showing a series of clips in which three African-Americans discuss their negative reactions to her comments and one white comedian pokes fun at the “Fair and Balanced” channel, Kelly accuses her opponents of “the knee-jerk instinct…to race-bait” and speaks tersely of “others suggesting that I am a racist who is outraged at the idea of a black Santa.” As the privileged and the oppressor, Kelly does not have the right to decide if her words are offensive or not. That falls to the group of people who she now claims is playing the race card.
Through no fault of their own, Kelly and Harris write through different lenses. Kelly’s lens happens to carry more privilege and power. Yet as a white person, Kelly has no right to decide that her words aren’t hurtful or that keeping Santa white is no big deal. As a white person myself, I want to make sure I’m not hurting anybody’s feelings because of unfair hierarchies that give me more say. I can only hope that in Kelly’s position, I would have the humility to realize I was wrong and the courage to apologize for my negative impact.
It’s much easier to say “media” or “society” are the problem than it is to take responsibility for the collective difference our individual actions can and do make. Culture is not separate from the people that make it up, and our actions, however small, make change occur.
Maybe that’s the biggest problem. “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change,” asserted Kelly on the first show. She may not understand exactly how necessary change is because she is favored by the current system.
Kelly learned something from this whole disaster, which she shared with viewers in her response segment. “Race is still an incredibly volatile issue in this country, and Fox News and yours truly are big targets for many people,” she stated. Clearly she’s still got much to learn, for if anyone’s a target of volatile issues arising from race, it’s the people who are on the receiving end of racism.
Hopefully the debates have raised awareness and action for racial justice without souring anyone to Santa. As for me, I’m certain Jolly Old St. Nicholas will deliver gifts on Christmas with his usual joyful generosity. Regardless of his portrayal in the media, the real Santa Claus is a major proponent of equality. After all, isn’t he the one who says “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night”?
Please check out more content by Emily Brooks at her blog Changing Perspectives About Gender, Sexuality, and Disability Through Writing.