This is one of our favorite Christmas-themed posts from the archive. We hope you don’t mind the re-post!
White privilege refers to the many, many benefits of being white in a society dominated, both culturally and materially, by other white people. The notion was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in a 1989 an essay titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. One benefit is that most fictional characters, unless otherwise specified (and sometimes even so), are assumed to be white. Growing up non-white in a white-dominated world, then, means that most of the mythological figures of your childhood do not look like you in one important way.
Santa, of course, is a fictional figure whose appearance is invented. Theoretically anyone could be Santa. Yet, while we may see the occasional non-white Santa at the mall or in novelty holiday stories, he is unbearably and overwhelmingly white in our (google-able) imagination: The first three pages of a google image search for “Santa”:
For more examples, see all of our posts about white privilege. Thanks for Martha Pitts as Ms. for this post idea.
Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
LarryW — December 24, 2011
For pity's sake
Ambers — December 24, 2011
Give me a break. This is political correctness gone horribly wrong...
Anonymous — December 24, 2011
Just for the sake of playing devil's advocate, given that Santa is supposed to be from the north pole, then it wouldn't make more sense that he'd be white? I say this because as far as I know, the reason that people with different skin colours exist is based on how much sun people have been exposed to over many generations and there would not be a lot of sun exposure for someone who lives at the North Pole. Of course, I realize that I'm trying to make logical arguments over the skin colour of a made up figure, and there's no actual reason one way or the other for him to be white, but that's just how my brain works.
Though now that I think of it, the Inuit and Sami (who are actual reindeer herders btw) and other aboriginal people from very far north are not white, so maybe I am full of crap. Oh well, anyone else have something to say about this?
Ari — December 24, 2011
Maybe because he was already white?
Sam Rogowski — December 24, 2011
Isn't the traditional Santa Claus from Germany? Were there a lot of otherly colored folks there at the time of his creation?
Cguillen411 — December 24, 2011
I don't think this post is about the intent (positive or negative) of those who create White images of Santa Claus (much less about political correctness), but more about the impact of how an overwhelmingly White depiction of Santa has on children of color.
What I enjoy most about posts here is the absence of judgement. For the most part the posts shed light on sociological realities in today's society. Very relevant post, Lisa Wade.
Jasmine Peterson — December 24, 2011
I don't see this as being about political correctness, but about awareness of privilege. I appear White, so I benefit from White privilege, but at the same time recognize it for what it is. It's not just Santa Claus,
but the pervasive assumption of Whiteness for all mythical characters we
grow up with. In a culture as diverse as ours, we could at least pay
lip service to that diversity in the figures we create, rather than
upholding the (White) status quo all of the time. I
rather tire of the Whiteness of all of our mythological figures. I even
remember as a child wondering why Santa, if he delivered to all of the
children of the world, was always White and never Mexican, or Black, or
Puerto Rican, or Asian, or Indian, or Native.
Anonymous — December 24, 2011
This, of course, totally ignores the legends the original "Santa" were supposedly pulled from. Most, if not all, of those legends came from countries in England predominated by pale skinned folks. Hence, Santa followed the legends.
Now if you wanted to have a conversation about JESUS being white when the concept is utterly ridiculous, I'll back that there is inherent and blatant white privilege at work there. But cutting into Santa is pretty freakin ridiculous considering the background origins of the character.
Christianhlozada — December 24, 2011
it's not about political correctness. the article above is a demonstration of how people of color are surrounded by and have adopted traditions that continue to avoid representing them. a good example, as far as the lack of political correctness, would be a representation of jesus with caucasian features, which encompass most of the images i was raised with. because our culture is dominated by caucasians, our traditions look caucasian even when they are fictionalized, see the above article, or historically based, see jesus.
Bloom Langer — December 24, 2011
Santa is a terrible example. He is based on SinterKlaas, who in turn was based on Saint Nikolas, a real person, who was really white. Jesus would have been a better character to use, since he is often portrayed as white, though if he existed in real life, he would probably have been Arab.
Katharine Krueger — December 24, 2011
Sheesh, I am kind of astounded by the tone of some the negative comments here. Instead of calling someone's thoughtful piece "ridiculous", how about stating your point of view in a positive way? One can disagree in a way that shows respect for the writer who was willing to stick her neck out and offer some thoughts on a controversial topic.
I appreciated this post very much.
My own thoughts are: Since we've clearly turned Jesus into a Causasian, isn't it striking that we don't have a few more Santas of color? Altho St Nicolas was a real person, Santa Claus is an amalgamation of several storylines. And what would it be like to be a person of color in a world where Jesus becomes white but Santa never changes hue?
Rachel Kantstopdaphunk — December 24, 2011
I want to quibble with a side issue. "politically correct". Several of the commenters rightly speak of the tradition from which Santa is derived, (the red and white is from a coca cola colors from the loga, santa gained traction in the us thanks to coke) and suggest that this article is entirely off base because of santa's original whiteness. Y'all have a point, however, there's no reason we cannot engage in some racebending on what is essentially a mythical figure OTHER than white supremacy. So, yes, original santa was probably pretty white, but no, he needn't necessarily ALWAYS be depicted thus. HOWEVER the bone I have to pick is with the term 'politically correct'
The term 'pc' has almost always been used to mean something that is both culturally sensitive, yet also OVERLY so to a laughable degree. SO when people say things like, 'oh this is just way too pc" or whatever, its clear to many of us that they are drawing on a tradition of resisting change, and resisting anti-oppression and resisting the move toward less oppressive language as an appeal to personal liberties. It has been, typically, shorthand for 'when the whining liberals make absurd demands that really really inconvenience me personally'.
ANYWAY, here is my point. It muddies the water if we pretend that any of us had ever used that term in a *positive sense since like, what, the early 80's??? Basically, nobody has said 'hey can we please be politically correct' in a long time, so to me its disingenuous to pretend otherwise. When people say 'I'm not PC' they are implying that someone *IS* its sorta like saying, "I'm not a bleeding heart liberal" in that, now, this is something that some of us are labelled by those who oppose us. My argument is simply thus: anyone using the term pc is typically using it as shorthand for "I plan to dismiss any and all criticism out of hand in order to protect my privilege" AND I'm completely fine with that, I just want for folks who aren't using it in that sense to be aware that this is how it reads.
When you say PC you are quoting George Bush Sr, and using it, often, in precisely the same sense. That's cool by me, let's me know what your priorities are. BUT for those who are unthinkingly using it as though it were anything other than shorthand for"'whiny liberal idiots doing too much" perhaps another word is in order.
Basiorana — December 24, 2011
It is true that Santa is always white.
However, that is because Santa is European. Specifically, he is a Dutch mythological figure loosely based on a real, real white, Turkish man. You can't just randomly make him black any more than it would make sense to depict a figure from Yoruba mythology as white. Black Santas don't take hold not because of some internalized oppression, but because there's nothing wrong with one particular mythological figure being white if the real live person he is based off was white (even the other inspirations for Santa were all European in tradition-- there was no black equivalent that was incorporated).
I like depictions of elves as being all races, but I don't see why we should racebend St. Nicolas. He is not God, after all.
Anthony Tantillo — December 24, 2011
Sociological Images, where one writes and publishes before thinking.
Seriously, this is the equivalent of saying
"Saint Patrick, of course, is a fictional figure whose appearance is invented. Theoretically anyone could be Saint Patrick. Yet, while we may see the occasional non-white Santa at the mall or in novelty holiday stories, he is unbearably and overwhelmingly white in our (google-able) imagination: The first three pages of a google image search for “Saint Patrick”:"
Just give it some time. Sociological Images will realize how horrible an article and will pull it like all the other painfully obvious poorly written articles.
Anthony Tantillo — December 24, 2011
What this actually means; "A white tradition with it's origins in northern white Europe featuring a white man gains world wide notoriety and popularity. White people should feel guilty about this."
@yahoo.com — December 24, 2011
I would have to agree for the most part with those who point out the European origins of Santa Claus, although I disagree with the use of the term 'political correctness' only because the term is most often used as a smokescreen when people are unable to articulate a meaningful debate.
The question that appears largely unasked is: Why is a European figure (and the festival associated with it) being celebrated by peoples with no meaningful connection to it? If this figure is meaningful to people of no colour, how did become so ubiquitous? If we look to globalisation as an explanation we are left with a new question: Why are there no figures meaningful to people of colour to be found in cultures dominated by people of no colour?
Anonymous — December 24, 2011
Since all gods and deities and mythological figures are just invented and could "theoretically could look like anyone" I think in order to be morally consistent here, Sociological Images should post about how ALL such figures are only portrayed one way and exclude the way other people look.
I'm not aware of a single African mythological figure that is portrayed in multiple ways, covering all the different races.
And why are Hindu deities always portrayed the way they are? I never see any multiple ways of portraying them, taking into account the feelings of those who might be hindu but don't look the way most hindus look.
And why stop at race? Why isn't Santa Claus female? Why isn't Haruman transgender? Why aren't there lots of female black buddha shrines in Japan?
It's all one world after all, and growing smaller every day, so experience can't be confined to just being "an American."
In other words, if someone has the right to be offended at how I portray my traditional figures and demand that I change them, then I have the same right to look anywhere else I want - even around to the exact opposite side of the globe - and demand that some people somewhere else change what they've been doing for centuries, just because I feel like it, because I'm hurt (because I say I am).
This is the logical conclusion of Lisa Wade's argument. Her line of thought would have us end up in a world where everyone's perpetually offended, and where cultural difference is beaten down and hammered out into a bland monotone gruel. (Incidentally, this is the perfect cultural program for global capitalism, because if you think about it, under Wade's view the prevailing values will then become the one thing we all have in common - that we're consumers first and foremost.)
A much better argument would be, rather than demanding that people abandon the traditions that help make them unique as a people, compelling them to change age old practices to suit the latest academic fashions, to encourage people to celebrate their own particular holiday traditions that much more, especially the olds ones, and to encourage traditional revivals as they are what make humanity rich in all its various forms. And for those who feel left out, to help them find their own practices and traditions. After all, no one wants to feel like they've ruined someone else's party. It's terrible advice to tell them they should.
Anonymous — December 24, 2011
I'm assuming most commenters here are white. Because you all fail to really grasp the term white privilege.
White privilege is a result of white supremacy. White supremacy is a result of colonisation and globalisation. White people created continue to create a world/countries and accumulated wealth at the expense of POC. Therefore POC mythical/based on historical, is rarely celebrated, represented, commodified etc.
That's white privilege - that you have the privilege of being surrounded by whiteness. even the positive jolly old characters which surround your childhood are white. And the system of white supremacy lives on.
Tim Eure — December 24, 2011
I understand where you're going but to me, Santa is another form of Satanic worship. So, to me, images of a Black Santa are offensive.
Check out video on this topic.
Blix — December 24, 2011
Santa was a real human being at one point in history. Just because many people have deified him to a degree... he was real once. Emphasis on once. There are too many problems here to discuss.
Francois Tremblay — December 25, 2011
"Specifically, he is a Dutch mythological figure loosely based on a real, real white, Turkish man."
Uh... no. Santa Claus' attributes are derived from Thor, a scandinavian god. His NAME is derived from Saint Nicholas (by way of the Dutch Sinterklaas) but that's about it. No Turkish men are involved in the Santa Claus myth any more than Christ is involved in Christmas. It's just name.
Having Santa Claus be black would be as obtuse as putting out a play about MLK where MLK is played by a white man.
eduardo — December 25, 2011
I’m Hispanic, and most of us over here (Puerto Rico) don’t look at all like Santa Claus. Christmas here is basically about buying gifts, eating to excess and drinking copious amounts of alcohol -and I do my part every December to keep the tradition alive :P
I’m no expert, so perhaps someone with more knowledge than me can enlighten me, but doesn’t the legend of Santa come from Europe? Isn’t he supposed to be white? Occasionally you can see here a Santa with darker skin, and no one notices -it’s not as if Christmas is a religious holiday for many of us anyway (see first paragraph). How about an Asian Santa Claus? I’m willing to bet that most people here wouldn’t care, because of what he represents (consumerism). Actually, I can already see an ad with an Asian Santa selling high-tech gadgets (many electronic items are made in Japan, Korea and -obviously- China).
Umlud — December 29, 2011
Santa Claus is - at least according to CGPGrey´s channel - a blending of three northern European personifications that were common during that season.
Since they were particular northern European personifications, it makes a sort of sense that the default "Father Christmas" be White. However, in the sense that the character is invented, there is little reason for him to be White, either.
Umlud — January 5, 2012
In a related note, it is soon the night of the three kings/wise men/magi (Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar). Often, Balthazar is represented as dark-skinned. However, in many places, it might not be possible to find two white people and one black person to portray the three kings. What ought Christians in (say) Uganda do about depicting Melchior and Caspar? What about Christians in (again, say) Finland do about depicting Balthazar? Should northern Michigan churches bring in black children from southern Michigan to portray Balthazar, or can they pretend that he was white? Would it be wrong to depict Blathazar by darkening a Finnish boy's face? Or wrong to depict Melchoir and Caspar by lightening Ugandan boys' faces?
Or are we comfortable enough to say that they are depictions of people that might well never have existed and be done with it, allowing their portrayal to be done by anyone of any skin tone?
Breanne Diehl — March 3, 2012
If it's a person of white origin is considered white privilege? I mean, the mythos of Santa is primarily based on Dutch and Scandinavian cultures. I certainly can see the white washing of other cultural figures but I think this article is a little far reaching.
HappySanta — December 22, 2012
The elephant in the room is the drunk and naked santa with a red stocking cap over his crotch on the third page of the google image search.
CanadianLiz — December 22, 2012
One of the most beautiful things I saw while teaching in Haiti in 2000 was a Black Santa, whose filthy white wig had been spray painted blue to hide the dirt. Black Santa was dancing with the little kids, signing, and they were all happy. Nobody (but me, a white woman raised in Canada) seemed to question the legitimacy of this Santa. The moment was magical.
Biff — December 24, 2012
I dunno. What would happen if, in an alternative dimension, Santa Clause had been historically depicted as a person of color? The storyline might then become that of a mysterious, happy black figure who uses supernatural means to provide gifts for your family, with an emphasis on reinforcing good behavior. Wouldn't SocImages and others in that dimension then be up in arms about the culturally-based reliance on the so-called "magic negro" trope?
What I'm wondering is: if one grants that an historically Caucasian Santa Claus is inappropriate, what _would_ be appropriate?
none of your business — December 25, 2012
I love being white.
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anon — December 15, 2013
I'm pretty sure St. Nicholas, who I believe to be the main source of inspiration for Santa Claus, was European and thus white. I really do not understand all this stigma against a white Santa Claus.
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james — December 3, 2014
Santa Claus is based on St. Nikolaus and Christmas is a European tradition. This PC degenerecy is destroying culture and traditions. Do you think it would be appropriate for a bunch of "pale faces" to dress up like malcom x and start celebrating "kwanza"? Chew on that for a minute...
Stebbi — December 23, 2014
I feel that I have a firm understanding of white privilege and its effect on people of color. That being said, we are talking about a completely fictional character created in western europe out of western european tradition- so of course, naturally, europeans have traditionally depicted him as european looking. If you celebrate christmas and decide that you would prefer to envision santa as looking otherwise, by all means, depict him that way. It's your religious right to do so! :)
vern — January 4, 2015
In case someone else hasn't said it, Santa Claus is kinda based on a white guy who actually existed in real life, so not sure how that's white privilege