Why is that Santa Black?

A small anecdote about race…

 

I work for a small branch in a huge, urban public library system.  Last Christmas the supervisor for the libraries in this area gave our branch a present….a plastic Santa face to put up as decoration.  Earlier this week, a kindergarten class came to the library for their regular visit.  One kid, very smart but sometimes irritating because he loves attention a little too much, asked, “Why is that Santa black?” 

 

The child was African-American as are most of the libraries patrons…..In fact, I’d say that 80-95% of the people who use this neighborhood library are African-American.  Out of a class of 22 kids, maybe 1 will be Caucasian. 

 

Anyway, the question took me aback.  The class was on its way out the door and I was a little flustered so the best I could come up with was to say, “Why not?  Why shouldn’t the Santa be black?”  I was also curious as to why he thought Santa’s must be white.  I guess he always saw Santa represented as white.  If I had more time perhaps I would have said something like, “Santa represents generosity and hospitality.  Santa never really existed, but everyone can be like Santa by being generous, hospitable, and cheerful.”  I also didn’t want to be the one to break it to him that Santa doesn’t exist. 

 

What would you have said to a six year old asking, “Why is that Santa black?”

What does this say about India and the U.S.?  For me, it was a reminder that kids notice everything.  When Satya and I have a child, we will have to make some conscious decisions about what we show our child.  Will we have a white Santa or a brown Santa?  I don’t know.  St. Nicholas was from Turkey so if we want to be historically accurate a brown Santa would be best.  On the other hand, my Caucasian family is the one that celebrates Christmas, not his Indian one.

Response to “Can I Whup Your White Child?”

Thanks to chineseambassador and thatindianbloke on ColorBlindCupid for a thought provoking discussion about race.  This post is a response to their discussion.

 

Racism does exist.  Below, are some of my personal experiences with racism.  Some of it is contradictory, which I think expresses how convoluted and confused this has become.

 

I live in a large urban city on the East Coast and work as a librarian in a city library.  Sometimes kids will call me “white b—” when I tell them they have to leave due to their bad behavior.  They say that just because it is the something they think will get under my skin the most.  Clearly, they’ve learned those words up from somewhere.  I’ve had a drunken man make fun of my hair when I was the only white woman on the subway train.  The train was packed with people-some joined in the laughter and some ignored it.  I felt angry and frightened. 

 

On the other hand, the kids here are facing some terrible conditions and a lot of it is a result of racism which created entrenched poverty.  Have any of you seen or worked near the inner cities?  I don’t think anyone can see them and still say that kids in that environment have a fair shot at life.  Are white people responsible?  In some ways, yes for letting these conditions exist, creating policies that perpetuate them, and for speaking divisive rhetoric.  In some ways, no of course white people are not responsible.  As has been said, no white person living today had an African-American slave or created Jim Crow laws.  It depends on how you look at the question.

 

I don’t think that race is the only way to look at things.  Many Hispanic and white kids also face tremendous odds in trying to create better lives for themselves.  I heard a while ago that affirmative action should be based on family income instead of race. Perhaps that is a good, fairer option?

 

 

I’ve also been told by young african-american girls “you have beautiful hair.  I want hair like yours when I grow up”.  Girls here love Barbie and princesses, like young girls do everywhere.  (It is ridiculous that Disney will just be releasing their first movie with an African-American princess this spring)  The library received a bunch of masks for the kids as part of a promotion for the re-release of “Sleeping Beauty”.  There were purple and black dragon masks.  There were also masks with flowing blonde hair.  I admit I felt unsure whether to hand the masks out or not. 

 

 

Satya has had his own share of bad experiences.  When my husband ran into a problem at work last year, he had some horrendous things said to him.  He faced indifference and injustice-the attitude was, “You Indian guys do things like this all the time.  We can send you back.”  This was said to his face by an administrator without any investigation into the situation.  He was believed guilty without due process despite working there for a few years and despite being well known and liked in his department.  One of my African-American co-workers told him “You are a black man now” and told him to expect to face a lot of racism.  Eventually, the problem got straightened out somewhat but not without turning our lives upside down and forcing us to make some quick decisions.

 

 

In other ways, he seems to be in the middle.  The white people think of him as white and the African-Americans think of him as one of them to some extent.  It is confusing though.  Indians are not considered a minority, so there are not any affirmative action benefits.  This is what Satya has said and what his experience is.  Does anyone else know about that?  Or is that only in certain fields?

 

Being called a “white b” or being told “You Indian guys” are not everyday occurrences.  Everyday racism is more in tones of voice, body language, looks, and “feelings”.  It is feeling vaguely threatened when stopping at a gas station.  It is in how people won’t sit next to you on the bus unless it is nearly full.

 

 

I agree with chineseambassador and thatindianbloke that the popular perception in the U.S. is that if you are mixed, you are the ethnicity of the darker parent.  That is what I’ve observed anyway.  Unfair, yes.  Do I like it?  No.  Will this change much and within the next 20 years?  I doubt it.  We will likely live in an area that is mixed so maybe that will help some. 

 

How will we deal with it when the time comes for us to have kids of our own?  I don’t know exactly.  Satya thinks that the best thing is to expose them to a lot of his culture-regular trips to India, learning Kannada, being vegetarian, having a home altar with Hindu gods and saints, exposing them to Hindu mythology, celebrating Indian holidays, watching Kannada and Hindi movies.  He thinks that this will give them a firm identity and confidence.

 

How do I feel about that?  Well, traveling is something I enjoy and I’ve always wanted to go to India. I love languages and am trying to learn some Kannada myself.  I don’t kid myself that I will become fluent, but I do hope to read signs and carry on basic conversations.  I have visions of him and the kids sitting around the dinner table speaking Kannada to each other and me being completely clueless.  I  plan on reading the kids Bible stories like my dad read to me and also some of the Norse mythological stories because they are part of my heritage, what I heard when I went to Swedish summer camp, and are just great stories. 

 

Vegetarian?  Well, I figure it is best for health and for the environment.  To some extent, I do regret that my kids will never taste traditional Swedish Christmas food like lutefisk and korv (homemade sausage made with pig and potato). It does mean some traditions will die.  On the other hand, the Swedes in Sweden rarely eat lutefisk anymore themselves-it was the poor man’s food in 1800s Sweden because it is nearly indestructible.

 

Holidays and home altar?  I like holidays.  We will still celebrate Catholic holidays (St. Nick, Christmas, Easter, etc.) and American holidays.  We will put up a Christmas tree.

The trouble will be trying to celebrate them here because I don’t have a Lingayat background.  Some holidays he is unclear of himself because they are mostly for women or because he hasn’t been back to India in nearly 10 years.  Many of the smaller Lingayat holidays will likely fall by the wayside unless we are in India when they are celebrated. The home altar I think is kind of nice.  Some Catholics have them today.  I grew up with statues of saints, and a crucifix on my bedroom wall.  The home devotional part is comforting and a bit familiar to me. 

 

 

All in all, racism is here.  We will try to raise our kids to be strong and to be open to others.  We will try to remind ourselves to be the same.