There’s an elephant in the room America, and it’s standing on a very fragile thing. The fragile thing is the status quo of racial identity for this country and when it gets shaken, even a little, people become feral, back themselves into corners, and start lashing out at everything and everyone until they feel comfortable and safe again. The thing about them, status quos that is, is that some of them need a good shaking up. Public Education, for example, is a status quo situation that really needs a good shake down; Santa Claus really isn’t, he’s a simple idea, but simple ideas can be used as powerful tools of instruction.
Last week, Aisha Harris posted a blog on Slate about her particular feelings regarding America’s white-as-default mindset by writing a piece in which she confesses some—probably honest—feelings about how she always felt her family’s black Santa Claus was lacking, how the white Santa was demeaning and suggested that Santa should be a penguin instead so everyone feels equally represented. Taking issue with the post, Megyn Kelly over at Fox News held a panel lambasting the notion of a non-white Santa, emphatically stating that both Santa and Jesus “just are white”.
Both Kelly and Harris have put out statements saying that their pieces were respectively meant as satire. Harris’ piece could either be viewed through one of two lenses…satire or as the ravings of a moron. Actually, Kelly’s could be the same, but while in Harris’s return comments she mentions that there was a larger issue she was poking at—America’s supposed default whiteness—Kelly’s seemed to give lip service to the race issue but instead took the flurry of interest in her comments as being targeted as a white woman or a conservative pundit, or about Fox—in effect painting herself as a target for her whiteness. A tactic which could easily be interpreted as the oppressor trying to paint themselves as the oppressed. Either way, Santa isn’t really the elephant that the two women were poking at.
This controversy isn’t about a white or a black Santa Claus. Or even a white, black, or brown Jesus. This is about people being unable to talk about race without getting all caught up in a tizzy and immediately resorting to name calling and blind rage. One of the major problems in this country—a festering, infected, painful wound—is race, and especially so when it comes down to blacks talking about whites or whites talking about blacks.
We never wrapped up slavery all that well, and segregation closed rough too, and we never healed. We moved forward without ever airing it out properly and so it’s become an elephant in the room. Talking about race went from being an opinion that you could wear on your sleeve—regardless of the rationality of it—in an in-your-face approach, to being a social crime. Neither are the best approach, but in lieu of a real conversation about race we’ve created a taboo. We created a big, loud, unavoidable elephant that everyone would rather tip-toe around, and strangely comment, on occasion, about how wonderful elephants are to have in rooms, without ever explaining themselves and often having never been in the room with an elephant before.
People of my generation have been a party or subject to a different kind of racism than the old in your face, slur hurling, spitting, lynching racism—ours is one that smolders and hides in shadows and crevices; a racism that is pervasive in the culture, implicit in the national psychology, but denied in the popular discourse–most of the time. To add a fuller dimension to it, this isn’t limited to just supposed blacks and supposed whites—it includes the wide and gradient spectrum of hue man tones. Its led to many of us believing that there isn’t a race issue anymore (as Megyn Kelly tells us, there certainly still is—glad she got clued in), or even further that they are not themselves somehow a racist or prejudiced in somewhat to someone. They can’t admit it, they won’t, they have a black friend or dated an Indian or has a really cool co-worker who’s Chinese (even though they’re Vietnamese). In America, we don’t want to talk about it, even when we are talking about it. Though elephants and Santas sure are great conversation pieces—they aren’t actual racial misconceptions or beliefs or prejudices.
We refuse to explore or discuss the problem, so it festers and corrodes us from the inside. It seems easier that way. We live for comfort and desperately don’t want to explore ourselves. We don’t like to be uncomfortable, we’d rather avoid issues all together and hope they go away, which is why our wound has become so toxically infected. Also, we are subject to binary black and white thinking—we are trained to think left wing/right wing, red state/blue state, winner/loser, rich/poor, and of course black/white. There are many gradient and transitional states of being and thinking in between these extreme absolutes, but our society can only hold two concepts in the mind simultaneously—which makes us less sophisticated than cave men and apes from a societal perspective.
We get all entangled in minute genetic differences, social constructs, belief systems that invariably boil down to the same core values, semantics, sizes, and tans when we should be looking at the commonalities we share, rather than demonizing the differences. We treat slightly different visages as if they were totally alien, cannot have a conversation about our irrational xenophobic tendencies as outdated survival instincts from several ice ages hence—so we stereotype, generalize, misconceive, and misinterpret minute things while missing the bigger picture that we’re all stuck with each other, scientifically not all that different, and fail to accede that if we didn’t think and believe different things all of our conversations would be dull and boring.
We’re very sick, people. Worse yet, we’re training a generation of people that they’re all the same, even though we don’t treat them the same, even though they aren’t the same, even though they shouldn’t have to feel the same. There is nothing wrong with embracing a racial or ethnic heritage, especially not in America—supposedly—but we always default to one way of thinking, and one mental visage. Whiteness. The whiteness of America is quickly becoming a legend, a myth; and some people simply cannot handle that, and there is a rally against it. The vile poison that spewed forth over Bill de Blasio’s wife and children is disgusting and disgustingly predictable.
Think about the best thing Mitt Romney had going for him in 2012: he looked presidential. That was the big thing people said about him. His whiteness, gray, and tones made him sound like the President we’ve seen in a hundred movies. His experience with money made him qualified. That’s what people rallied around, a return to the status quo. If Obama was a black Santa at your black friend’s house—one you were mildly confused at seeing because you couldn’t quite articulate what was so off putting about a black Santa—then Mitt Romney was the Santa at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: comforting and white.
There are many (like Joe “the Plumber”) who assert that we’ll all just feel better about everything when a white Republican is running the show. And while this guy is an absolute waste of space and humanity, his only possible good quality is that is at least willing to have a conversation about his beliefs and assumptions on race. They are absurd, racist, illogical, and exclusionary but he is willing to share them. People that are far more reasonable should be half as willing to discuss their presumptions, assumptions, observations, and queries on race and ethnicity because at least then we’d have an authentic dialogue.
When people of color, or minorities, or fringe groups express their displeasure with the dominant group (or perceived dominant group) they are received as angry, as psychos, as rabble rousers, or as race baiters but what they really are, are just sharing their half of the conversation. When the members of perceived dominant group share their views they are labeled bigots, closed minded, ignorant. There’s truth and fallacy to any and all of those labels—but the need to label rather than really have a solid discourse on the misconceptions, misunderstandings, and exploring the default values keeps us from talking with people about race, to talking about those people. Talking about them, they, those, that group.
So while many are getting beat up over what color their Santa should be, they don’t know why it bothers them so much. Is it because they don’t want to accept presents from an all-seeing other? Is it because we want to be fully represented by fictional characters? Or is it because our comfort zone, the status quo, is being rocked a little too hard? Because certain groups aren’t accepted as baseline, only as present? I personally got worked up over this because I thought the issue was stupid, and that the commentators were mindless, but the more I considered it the more I realized that this was just a feverish symptom of our bad infection. Nobody can raise anything racial without the primal, feral, xenophobe coming out to protect our precious notions of others and self.
It has to be our inherent unwillingness as a society to explore our differences and our interconnectedness and coming up with the conclusion that “this is okay” in an honest and meaningful way that leads to my concern over this controversy because I could really care less about Santa…I’m Jewish. Which leads us to another elephant in the room…