Dreaming of a White, Yellow, and Black Christmas
“Well before diversity in merchandising was a thing, my mother, like many black parents in the 1980s and 1990s, always MacGyvered peach-skinned Christmas figurines into mirror images of our own family. Mom carefully colored in the faces of elves on ornaments, angel tree toppers, carolers on Christmas cards, and, most importantly, all iterations of Santa Claus himself got the brown marker treatment,” wrote a black woman in the NYT.
As the parent of two biracial children (my wife is from Asia) I can’t imagine squeezing that much racial thought into our holiday. It never occurred to me to take a yellow highlighter to any of the kids’ dolls. Dolls were molded in some sort of horrific pink that matched no skin tone on earth, same way Bruce Springsteen from New Jersey sings in a Midwesty accent that matches nothing spoken anywhere. I think we understood it was all intended as some kind of placeholder, the way in candy yellow means lemon and green means lime but neither of which has much to do with the actual fruit. Rather than assuming it was all a racial assault, we just didn’t pay much any attention to it. Pass the cranberry sauce, please.
Now out there someone is saying “But it’s different! Your kids aren’t black.” This is true. But I wish people would make up their minds on Asians. Are they discriminated-against POC and we all should cheer them on as they shove aside whites in university admissions? Or when it comes down to stuff like that they should be shuffled off into some broader category of pale people, only to be reinstated in the POC club when a Chinese guy for the first time beats out a white man for a city council seat? Maybe my kids wanted to feel hated and left out at Christmas but just ended up confused. Not my fault.
But it could have been me. My children, unlike those in the New York Times article, were literally raised under the boot of white patriarchy. Me. I told them what to do, determined the initial course of their lives, and made them read Tom Sawyer. Well, sort of. My wife was there lending her more informed perspective. Indeed, she is a woman immigrant and does not speak English as her native language. That sort of makes her more woke on paper than anyone on The View times 100 Disney movies. I guess the kids were lucky to have her around so their Christmases were not spoiled by the lack of representation.
The New York Times article pointed out another way I failed my children: they did not get a letter from Yellow Santa. The writer found someone on Etsy who for a few bucks would send a personalized letter from Black Santa. I rushed over, thinking perhaps though my kids are now adults I might still send them something from Yellow Santa to make amends. You know, reparations.
The thing is the Black Santa letter says exactly the same things our own fake White Santa letters once said, stuff about being a good kid, leaving out milk and cookies, all that. Um, there’s nothing, um, you know, “black” in the letter. The illustrated Santa does not even look like anything but the standard Santa with a tan. One would almost think this was a woke hustle. I checked with my Asian wife on this. She said “Santa lives at the North Pole. Why would he be anything but fair skinned? Doesn’t make sense.” Good thing she’s just an honorary POC or we’d be racists.
The NYT writer also details her joy in learning Macy’s has a top secret black Santa available on request. Accessing this Santa involves a code word that is passed around woke New York City orally, and also printed in the Times. I don’t think Macy’s has an Asian Santa or Hispanic Santa. They would not confirm a black Santa on request but it seems true. Do they also have separate lines for the black and white toilets? That was once considered a solution, too.
But what is really funny is a person who is willing to trick her kids into the whole Santa myth, a complete lie from the reindeer on down, wants to uphold justice on skin color. And lady, bad news: in a couple of years Santa is not going to matter at all to your kids because black or white, he isn’t real.
Still, if you’re shopping, there is BlackSanta.com which has all sorts of merch, including hoodies. Don’t bother with Asian Santa merch. The few figurees online don’t look Asian at all, weird considering most are made in China. I did find some bright red “Naughty Mrs. Claus” lingerie worn by young Asian models. That might be racist, too.
I also found a Japanese-American guy who believes strongly in the concept of Asian Santa, actually at one point claiming Santa originated in Greece, which is in Asia Minor, and thus (I think seriously) makes the claim Santa is indeed Asian. The Asian Santa guy was adamant “As a parent of an Asian American kid, I want to have him look up to people that look like him — even if they are fictional. I don’t want him to feel different, in a bad way. It’s important to expose him to Asian/Asian Americans he can look up to — Santa or someone else, it doesn’t matter.” So how about President Xi, or Kim Jong Un? They’re pretty successful Asians.
It’s all fun until it turns serious. I don’t feel bad about the way my kids grew up. I explained to them (not on Christmas) their great great grandfather was a slave. He died on May 7, 1943 alongside most of his loved ones in the Sobibor concentration camp, about 120 miles from Warsaw. Their grandfather, my dad, was a refugee, who came to America speaking no English. Discrimination in progressive New York City forced the family to change their name to something “whiter” and walk away from their religion. My dad spoke of being beaten up by the Italian kids on the block, and then by the Italian cops who came to break up the beatings.
I don’t know how to measure horror. Does having relatives enslaved by the Nazis in the 20th century hurt more or less than having relatives enslaved in the 17th century? Does retelling the stories of Emmett Till and lynchings trump the gas chambers? How to measure that against the Chinese who died building the railroads? The iron workers gunned down by anti-union thugs and federal troops? The coal miners who died horrible deaths from black lung? Race it turns out is not the only narrative, unless you live under the narcissism of contemporary wokeness transcending history.
The answer to these unresolvable questions, if posed by a white Santa, is usually dismissal, an often not too polite statement of “it’s not the same.” I find it insulting when CRT people claim any portion of the success I’ve had in life is related to what other white people did to other black people hundreds of years before anyone in my family arrived in America. That’s bull; I know whose back my success rests on.
For all the garbage said about how American history is white-washed, we have no such illusions in our home. We understand how discrimination harmed our relatives, and we know what we all did to grow past it. It had a lot to do with education, sacrifice, and work, and very little to do with exaggerated claims to victimhood by association, the latest fad where any historical event that harmed a black person can be claimed as a lived experience by any living black person. The NYT writer brings up her mother, who grew up in the same town where some black men in 1949 were unjustly accused of murder and rape. She demands a black Santa, in part, to somehow rectify this.
My family knows America is a rough and imperfect place, a place that systematically exploited many of its people. We know America’s greatness isn’t about romanticizing a past that never existed. But this still used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face. It was never supposed to be a finite place where parents teach their kids they will never get ahead because of the cap of racism. Or that maybe using a different Crayola on Santa was part of some solution.
Update: It turns out the woman who wrote the NYT article about black Santa is actually promoting a children’s book about “the black Santa Christmas story I wanted my children to read.” She works for the Times. So the NYT article is not in fact a memoir of racial injustice. It’s a Grinchy grift, a commercial, just an ad for her book. So we can all feel better. Merry Christmas!
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.