White Christmas, White Santas, White Privilege

I am dreaming of a white Christmas, and I’m not too thrilled about it.

Photo of a man dressed as Kente Claus, an African-American Santa, by Flickr user soulchristmas, under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Last week my kid came home with her latest art project: a peach-colored Santa with a cotton-ball beard. I was curious. “You colored him peach?” I asked, remembering our conversation earlier in the week when I brought home black plastic Santas from Dollar Store to put near the chimney.

“That’s not the real Santa,” my kid said as dismissively as a 4.5-year-old could say. I had to lay the smack as a feminist mom who actively engages in anti-racist, anti-bias parenting. As best I could, I told her that Santa (who I dislike immensely—why should I put all my hopes and dreams on some rotund,  able-bodied, heterosexual white guy? He could be Rush Limbaugh, for all I know) can be whatever color you want him to be. At the same time, how could I blame her? White men dressed as Santas sit stoically at malls while white parents get their white babies to sit on Santa’s lap. White plastic and porcelain angel-women (no angel-men) sit on shelves waiting to top-off trees. On television commercials, thoughtful white husbands give their stoic white wives diamonds.

All this whiteness recalls the unearned privileges the brilliant Peggy McIntosh cites in her list, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” where whites engage in a long list of social advantages stemming from the idea that “whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative and average, and also ideal.” Numbers 8 and 26 particularly stand out: “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race” and “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.”

Oh, I know what some are thinking:” Why don’t you just let your daughter be? Kids don’t see color.”

Au contraire, mon frere.

Noticing skin color is not a sign of prejudiced behavior, nor does it cause prejudice. But children are very much aware of the societal bias against darker skin (and I live in a city, New Orleans, where colorist attitudes–the brown paper bag test–is not too far in the distant past). Remember Anderson Cooper’s special on race last spring, where the white child attributed negative attributes to a dark-skinned doll?

All I wanted was a choice for the kids in class–black, brown, purple, red–especially if many of them like my daughter have skin tones much closer to the brown crayon than the peach crayon.

So, I called the teacher. No answer. Then I wrote what I considered to be a very thoughtful/careful letter explaining my concern for making my kid and her classmates color Santa in peach. Let’s just say that when she finally called me back during her lunch break, I felt her defensiveness as she ran down her list of  non-racist credentials:

1) “I am not that kind of person” (Me: “What person did I say you were in the letter? I mentioned you were a great teacher and that my kid was learning a lot in your class.”)

2) “We had some people … I don’t want to say it, because I’ll be judged. (Me: “No, please say what you need to say.”) “OK, people of your color over at our house last night.”

3) She mentioned three times that she and her husband were going to do missionary work.

4). “I don’t see color.” (Me, to myself: Yeah, well, the whole colorblind pedagogy is not enough. In my letter, I wrote that as educators and adults we have a duty to intercede in the development of children’s beliefs that the dominant white culture is superior to other ways of life. Kid learn this bias by the prevalence of white cultural images, and a lack of contact and information about non-white images. What are the consequences of promoting a colorblind pedagogy? Isn’t there a way, instead, that we can respect each other as individuals and confront and eliminate barriers based on race, culture, gender and ability?)

5) “She (my kid) acted fine in class. She didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Kids don’t see that thing.” (Me, to myself: Are you implying that I made stuff  up when, a couple of summers ago, my kid came home and asked, “Where are the the chocolate kids in summer camp?” or when she beamed when her teacher bought black dolls for the classroom)

6) “I have 24 students. I was in a rush to do an art project.” (Me: Sigh. )

Studies show that by age 3, and sometimes earlier, children show signs of being influenced by societal norms and biases and may exhibit “pre-prejudice” toward others on the basis of  gender or race or being differently abled. In a society in which institutional racism and sexism exist, it’s not enough to be non-prejudiced or an observer. We have to intervene and challenge institutional behaviors that perpetual oppression.

In the meantime, Merry Multi-colored Christmas!


Martha Pitts is a feminist mother and pseudo-academic hailing from New Orleans, Louisiana, where she is also raising her children. A graduate of Princeton University, Martha is pursuing a PhD in English literature with a minor in women's and gender studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She has written for various publications including the Times-Picayune and Gambit Weekly in New Orleans and the Washington City Paper. She's interested in issues related to motherhood, black women, and popular culture.