I've come to grips with the fact that a lot of the beloved icons Americans take for granted have been given the acceptable veneer of Anglo-Saxon normalcy. In a country where folks largely of British and European descent not only make up the majority of the population, but also dominate in the socioeconomic sense, it's expected of us to see icons like Santa Claus mirror the appearance and expectations of the majority, nevermind how an icon's supposed to be enjoyed by all.
Sadly, whenever someone attempts to overturn the apple cart that is the sacrosanct vision of whiteness for beloved icons, it invariably upsets a lot of people.
Take Megyn Kelly, for instance. Fox News' bleached-blonde fantasy trophy wife and designated eye candy for male conservative viewers took offense to a recent essay by Aisha Harris challenging the status quo of St. Nick's ethnic heritage, as seen in the above video. Kelly's response to an age-old assumption rooted in cultural privilege being challenged by some uppity minority was to firmly reinforce that sacrosanct vision of whiteness:
Santa just is white … Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change, you know?
Translation: Santa is white, Jesus is white and why can't these uppity minorities just shut up and accept our vision of what they look like?
But why should we?
And that's what Aisha Harris asks in her essay. Why not turn Santa Claus into an anthropomorphic entity that can be genuinely enjoyed by all? A penguin works just as well - they're cute, adored by all (seriously, have you seen Ice Age?) and the mythos surrounding Santa Claus stays the same albeit with a few small tweaks - swap the North Pole for South and you're golden. Considering how much the big guy's been appropriated and transformed over the ages, losing his human form in favor of a cute and friendly penguin isn't much of a stretch.
Yes, Santa Claus is Nordic in origin, but his evolution into an anthropomorphic entity won't entail throwing his heritage down the memory hole. And by suggesting a species change instead of a "colors of Benetton" version of Santa, Harris does her best to sidestep the age-old accusation posited by the Fox News crowd - that [add person here] is angry because [add figure here] isn't black.
In the meantime, scores of black, Asian, native and Hispanic kids are assumed and expected to overlook the jolly red giant's complexion, while attempts to transform Santa Claus into a more relatable figure are considered cheap dime-store knockoffs that aren't worthy of real consideration:
My father replied that Santa was every color. Whatever house he visited, jolly old St. Nicholas magically turned into the likeness of the family that lived there.
In hindsight, I see this explanation as the great Hollywood spec script it really is. (Just picture the past-their-prime actors who could share the role. Robert De Niro! Eddie Murphy! Jackie Chan! I smell a camp classic.) But at the time, I didn’t buy it. I remember feeling slightly ashamed that our black Santa wasn’t the “real thing.” Because when you’re a kid and you’re inundated with the imagery of a pale seasonal visitor—and you notice that even some black families decorate their houses with white Santas—you’re likely to accept the consensus view, despite your parents’ noble intentions.
Having your culture considered second-best and second class wears on a kid's self-image and self-esteem. It's bad enough that adult minorities have to deal with the constant drumbeat of mainstream media deeming their culture as fundamentally worthless by having the most negative aspects of it played up and assumed the norm.
Meanwhile, Megyn Kelly's reaction mirrors the fear-induced response of a culture that believes itself to be under siege. It's the zero-sum assumption that moving away from a white-dominated point of view represents a grievous loss of societal power and prestige for whites and a victory for whatever brown hoard is at the gates at that moment. It's a POV that drives the average Fox News viewer into an epileptic fit when confronting anything that happens to give minority groups a helping hand.
That feeling isn't just limited to the Fox News crowd. See the controversy surrounding Amandla Stenberg's role as Rue in The Hunger Games, the guffaws over Idris Elba as Thor or the shitfest that happens anytime anyone asks what if a black guy was cast as James Bond. When characters and icons are firmly established as white, it's hard introducing a non-white perspective without incurring a backlash.
On the other hand, white Americans are curiously silent when it comes to whitewashing ethnic icons and characters. The disastrous U.S. live-action adaptations of Street Fighter and Dragonball come to mind. Traditionally ethnic icons, roles and holidays wind up lightened up and made safe for general consumption.
The Fox News crowd wants us to shut the hell up and accept things as they are right now, because doing otherwise makes them feel uncomfortable and threatened. The rest of us just want to celebrate the holidays without being reminded that we're forever stuck on the outside looking in when it comes to culture.