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A letter to Santa Claus, racial lightning rod

If we can't imagine Santa across the racial divide, no wonder we have trouble creating an America without a racial divide.
A man dressed as Santa Claus in Madrid, Spain on Dec. 1, 2013.
A man dressed as Santa Claus in Madrid, Spain on Dec. 1, 2013. 

This week, the debate about Santa got heated. Not the existential discussion about the big man's existence. The other Santa discussion. The one about his race. 

Aisha Harris, writing for Slate, called for all of us to re-imagine Santa Claus. Casting him, not as a jolly white man, but as a friendly, fully de-racialized penguin. 

Then, during a discussion about the column, Megyn Kelly of Fox News said this. 

"By the way, for you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. But this person is arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa. But you know, Santa is what he is, and just so you know, we're just debating this because someone wrote about it, kids." 

Both Harris' initial "Penguin Santa" proposal and Kelly's racialized Santa angst prompted enormous public backlash. So much so that last night Kelly responded on air, pointing out that the segment was satirical and arguing that the over-the-top responses are reminders that even when we are talking about the lighthearted, the satirical, the magical, and the admittedly imaginary--racial symbols are still powerful and provocative.

(Yeah, I hear you on that one, Megyn!) 

"For me, the fact that an offhand jest I made during a segment about whether Santa should be replaced by a penguin has now become a national firestorm says two things. Race is still an incredibly volatile issue in this country, and Fox News, and yours truly, are big targets for many people."

So given that I know a little something about how awful it is to have cable news hosts unwittingly launch an army of angry trolls in your direction, this is not a letter to Kelly. I thought I'd address my letter to the man who is used to getting an awful lot of mail this time of year. 

Dear Santa, 

It's me, Melissa. 

I am not writing to appeal my placement on the naughty list, but rather to make an early appeal. I think we are going to need you before December 24th. 

I know it is a busy time of year, but we need you to settle a little debate that has emerged in American media asking: Are you white? Are you black? When you come in from the North Pole, do you have a legal visa--or are you undocumented? 

Your whole story, which is supposed to be universal, can leave a lot of kids feeling pretty distressed at this time of year. Can you find a kid if he lives in an apartment building, not a house with a chimney? Can you find her in a homeless shelter?

Why do you leave so many more toys under the big trees in the wealthy neighborhoods and so few under the trees in the poor communities? Are the kids with unemployed parents on the naughty list? 

Growing up in a household with one white parent, one black parent, three siblings who are black, and one who is white, and me with a bit of both, no one made up stories about "Santa is the color of the people in the house he visits." You would have been Technicolor-rainbow at 413B where I grew up! 

I know that when you put dolls under the tree, you knew I needed one that looked like me. And my big sister needed one that looked like her, too! I know you have inspired cultural artists as distinct as Burl Ives and Run DMC

Santa, actually, come to think of it: you are a lot like our country itself. You are as universal and encompassing, or as narrow and exclusionary as we imagine you to be. So, if we cannot imagine you as racially different from ourselves, it is because our minds are stunted by a history that still cannot fathom benevolence, kindness and intimacy in the bodies of those who are not like us. 

If we still doubt that you can embody every possibility of racial being, it is because we do not yet believe that every racial body is capable of making our sugar plum dreams come true. If we can't imagine Santa across the racial divide, no wonder we have trouble creating an America without a racial divide. 

So Santa, maybe this year, you can just leave a little more racial imagination and tolerance in our Christmas stockings. Maybe you can give us a little more sense of satire, help us be a little slower to judge, and give us the tools to have more empathy for one another. 

Because if we, as a nation, can become polarized over you... we're going to need a lot more than candy canes this time of year. 

Sincerely, Melissa 

(Oh, P.S.: Parker says she's waiting up for you this year!)