Santa, Jesus and the Symbolism of White Supremacy


Tim Wise


"Well it’s that time of year again. Time for all good Americans to focus on what really matters. Not family, community, or world peace, but that national sacrament of late-stage capitalism known as Holiday shopping. Whether you do it online, or drag yourself to the mall amidst the sea of humanity scrapping and fighting for the latest must-have gizmo, rest assured that your actions are vital to the national interest. In fact, the annual consumer bonanza unleashed in the last fiscal quarter is so central to defining life in the U.S. that the economy’s strength in the beginning of the following year is literally tied to how much stuff we buy. So get out there and do your duty: Buy American. Be American. Shop till you drop, and remember, this is what it means to be a patriot! 

Now, being one who doesn’t like to give advice that I myself am unwilling to follow, I must say that I too have been making the pilgrimage to the shopping centers lately, both to purchase desired items, and also to observe others in the process of this sociologically fascinating ritual. As someone who regularly writes about racism, you can probably imagine that I have long been especially intrigued by the way in which Holiday symbolism replicates notions of whiteness as rightness, and acts to reinforce, however subtly, racial supremacism. Yet, the full force of this process never really hit me until last week. 

It was then that I found myself at the mall, passing a line of parents and their children, waiting to have a few seconds alone with Santa. You know Santa, right? The big white guy who only works one day a year and yet no one calls him lazy; the big white guy who exploits elfin labor in a sweatshop for no pay while his wife does all the housework, and yet no one calls him a slave master; the big white guy who invades millions of homes on Christmas Eve and yet, no one arrests him for breaking and entering. Yeah, that one. 

Though there has been an attempt to make use of Santas of color in malls around the country lately, I think we can all agree this is pretty absurd: if Santa were black, there is little question he’d have been shot dead years ago in the vestibule of some New York City apartment by the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit. After all, how could the cop be sure that toy gun he was bringing to the child inside wasn’t real? Better safe than sorry — and anyway, that bright red suit would make him a logical target, seeing as how red is the color favored by members of the Bloods street gang. 

But it wasn’t this kind of irony about a black Santa that animated the comment I heard while strolling through the mall that day. No, it was pure racial resentment and nothing else leading the white woman, child in tow, to say to her friend, “don’t you think it’s silly to have these Black Santas? Everybody’s trying to be so P.C. I mean, come on, a Black Santa? Everyone knows Santa is white.” 

Her friend of course agreed. Everyone knows Santa — a make believe entity for those who haven’t figured it out yet — is white. The insistence on the racial purity of this entirely fictional being, as if this was a real person, struck me as hilarious, and right up there with the folks who send get well cards to their favorite soap opera characters when they fall ill on the shows. Ronald and Nancy Reagan are reported to have done this once. Fantasy, reality, ah screw it, who cares? I’m starting to realize the awful truth: white people are certifiably insane. 

It all made sense though once I passed the woman and noticed the holiday stationary and cards in her bag. The ones with the calming, soothing face of Jesus staring back at me. You know the Jesus I’m talking about right? The one with the pale skin, blue eyes, and rock-star good looks? Yeah, that one. The same Jesus that has occupied the minds of Western Christians for the last five centuries, ever since Michaelangelo was commissioned to paint his image, and used his lily-white cousin as the sitting model. 

Oh shit, I’ve stepped in it now. Questioning the ethnic heritage of Christ himself. And you thought this was just gonna be a cute little diatribe about the commercialization of the Yuletide season? Au contraire, mon frere. 

My wife and I have received many a Christmas card this season, and as always, the representations of Jesus that adorn so many of them cast the Christian Messiah as nothing if not European. Now I know my gentile friends have that song, “A Child is Born in Bethlehem,” but I never realized until now that they had meant Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Silly me, but I always had thought the Christ child was born in that part of the world we call the “Middle East,” which, if we were being honest, we would easily recognize as basically a part of Africa, separated from the continent by the man-made Suez Canal. As such, the odds of him looking the way he does in churches across America are pretty much slim and none. But don’t tell that to most of his followers: especially the ones who are white like me. 

The suggestion that Jesus would have been dark-skinned (black in the admittedly non-scientific racial taxonomy of the United States), is about as blasphemous to most Christians as anything one could say. Of course, no one wants to admit their indignation at the notion, so they typically couch it in ecumenical platitudes like “it doesn’t matter what Jesus looked like; it only matters what he did.” OK, fine. I’m down with that. Although not a Christian, I’ve always been one who thought Jesus said and did some pretty exemplary stuff, unlike what so many of his modern disciples say and do. So then, if it doesn’t matter what he looked like then why not make him black? 

I have asked this question when giving speeches on racism at religiously affiliated colleges, and let’s just say, there’s nothing like it if you’re looking to see how fast you can get folks to start clearing their throats. Again they insist, “no you don’t understand, it doesn’t matter what he looked like, it’s what he did.” And again I repeat, O.K., fine, if it really doesn’t matter then let’s make him black, just for a year. Then you can change him back again if you really want to. No biggie. 

No dice, and no takers. We go round and round, as white folks check their watches and try to figure out how they can leave the room without seeming to be rude. 

But let’s be clear: the white iconography of Jesus that predominates in this culture makes absolutely no sense, except as an artifact of a white supremacist worldview. First off, the earliest representations of Jesus, Mary, and Christ’s disciples appear in the catacombs of Rome, where the first Christians, known as Essenes buried their dead. All of these portrayals picture a dark-skinned Messiah. In addition, during the time of Roman Emperor Justinian II, the Empire minted a gold coin that pictured Jesus. This coin, which today can be viewed in the British Museum, shows a man with clearly non-white facial features and tightly curled hair, consistent with the description of Christ offered in the Book of Revelations, wherein it is noted that Jesus had hair like wool, feet the color of burnt brass, and resembled jasper and sardine stones: both of which were brown in color. 

Now I don’t much care about the scriptural references myself, and far be it from me to insist on the infallibility of the Bible; but if the folks who do swear that every word of it has to be accepted as literal, don’t also accept these descriptions — which clearly contradict the imagery on the Christmas cards, or that of the nativity scenes one sees everywhere at this time of year — then they are nothing if not hypocrites. 

And don’t forget, according to Biblical lore, when Jesus was born, Herod sent search parties out to find him and slay him as an infant. To hide the Christ child, his family absconded with him to Egypt, and if there is one thing we can be absolutely sure of, it’s that one would not have been likely to try hiding an Aryan baby and family in pre-Arab Egypt, of all places. This was, after all, a society of dark-skinned Africans (as evidenced in their own hieroglyphs); one that had referred to itself as Kemet (the Black land), for thousands of years, and themselves as “Kemetcu” (the black humans). The “father” of modern history, Herodotus, himself acknowledged as much when he said “the Egyptians, Colchians and Ethiopians have thick lips, broad nose, wooly hair and are of burnt skin.” Elsewhere, he actually referred to them as “black.” If Jesus had been white, Mary and Joseph would have put him on a slow boat to Canada, not trekked to Egypt where finding them would have been like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. 

For those of you still reading, you’ll either be laughing or fuming: if laughing, it’s because you realize how silly the whitening of Jesus has been in this culture, and yet, how wedded we really are to that imagery; if fuming, well, it’s because you think that somehow I’m being sacrilegious, or absurd. But I’m just reading what the good book says, and applying a little common sense and anthropology to the process. 

If you want to really see absurd, go pick up Volume One of the Robert Maxwell Bible Stories Series, which I assure you is sitting on a table in your doctor’s office right now. There you will find Adam and Eve depicted as if the Garden of Eden had been in Norway, despite the fact that Biblical scholars all agree the Garden — whether viewed as a literal place or as a fictional metaphor — was bordered by two rivers, the Biblical description of which only fits that of the Blue Nile and White Nile: neither of which, last time I checked were to be found in Scandinavia. 

Some may ask what the point of all this is though frankly, it ought to be obvious. So long as our culture pictures Adam, Eve, Moses, Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and even God “himself” as fair-skinned folk, despite the obvious preposterousness of such representations, we will continue to plant the seeds of racial supremacism in the hearts and minds of millions of people.. After all, to believe that divinity is white like you leads one to easily assume that others are somehow less complete, less than human. If God supposedly made man in his image, and God is always portrayed as a bearded white man (kinda like Santa without the suit), how hard a leap is it — especially for children whose introduction to religion is always nine-tenths forced propaganda anyway — to assume that persons of color are somehow not full and equal “children of God?” Not to mention the sexist aspect of the male sky-God imagery, of course, which is a whole different can of worms. 

So now that I have managed to piss everyone off, here’s wishing you all a very merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Resplendent Ramadan, and Super Solstice. Now get out there and shop! And take that damned Swedish-looking angel off the top of your tree for God’s sake. — “

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    This says just about everything that I don’t have the time myself to write—even though I should. Probably one of my...
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