A firestorm has been set off recently concerning the self-assured observations by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly that Santa Claus is white and so too is Jesus. These comments, which were in defiant response to a Slate article “Santa Claus Should Not Be A White Man Any More,” by Alisha Harris, have been spoofed by late night talk shows and satirized across social media. Scholars and others have also weighed in on the matter. All have pointed out that Santa is not real and that Jesus was not white. The fact of the matter is that Jesus was a Jew born in ancient Israel and St. Nikolaos upon which the make-believe Santa character was based was from ancient Myra. The fact of the matter is that neither Jesus or St. Nikoloas were white; indeed both were likely to have had swarthy complexions. While it is easy to laugh at Kelly’s comments or to simply dismiss them as curiously misguided and ill-informed, they point to something even more significant that is worthy of discussion —the meaning of whiteness and its theological implications. And so, I offer some random thoughts for further reflection.
Whiteness does matter. When whiteness emerged as a social, cultural, and racial construct in America, even as it had throughout the Western world at least, it did so as a mark of privilege and power. There was value in whiteness. It became a measure of one’s potential, one’s worthiness, indeed, one’s very humanity. Historically, whiteness—however that was determined—was the ticket to social, political, and economic status. To be non-white was to be considered an inferior being, worthy of being subjugated. To be a non-white body was to be a subjugated or oppressed body. Essentially, symbolically and practically, whiteness has signified privilege if not oppressive power. As James Baldwin once observed whiteness has “choked many a human to death.”
It is important to point out that to be born into a culture of whiteness or to be considered racially white, does not mean that one has to claim whiteness or to live into an identity of whiteness. Put simply, all persons whether white or not can choose not to affirm and perpetuate the unjust reality of privileged whiteness. Unfortunately, however, Kelly’s passionate defense of Santa and Jesus’ whiteness reminds all of us once again that an insidious and troubling narrative of “whiteness” continues to persist in America. Whiteness has meaning. It is considered by many “treasured property” that must be defended culturally as well as socially and politically. So what does this mean for those of us who are feminist, womanist, and people committed to a world where all bodies are free to experience the fullness of their humanity, even those which do not claim whiteness?
It means that we must recognize the persistence of “whiteness” in our world and society and the implications for “non-white” bodies. In response to the outcry about her comments, Kelly rather dismissively, if not sarcastically, commented that it goes to show you that race still matters. Race does still matter, as revealed by Kelly’s very defense of whiteness. That it matters means that our theological, ethical, and religious discourse must engage racial matters, especially if we are to disrupt and dismantle the social/political/cultural systems and structures that threaten the well-being and freedom of far too many communities of people. There is still much work to be done. We do not live in a post-racial society. This matter of race and whiteness must be confronted head-on. We must not run away from it, or avoid the difficult, uncomfortable conversations. We must name the sin of whiteness and repent of our complicity in it if indeed we are ever to live into the reality of freedom that our gods promise us. For inasmuch as race and whiteness is a social/cultural issue it is as well a theological issue.
And so the question is what does Jesus have to do with whiteness? Not only was Jesus not historically “white” but neither was he existentially white. Given who Christians proclaim Jesus to be, Jesus’ existential whiteness becomes a significant theological matter. For Christians, Jesus is more than just a man – he is the incarnate revelation of God. He, as “Son of God,” is Christ. It matters, therefore, that Jesus boldly and passionately rejected the conventions and supremacy of social, political, religious and cultural power in his own day. It matters that he consistently affirmed, empowered and befriended those who were the outcast, marginalized, oppressed, and rejected of his day—such as Samaritans and women. His very human particularities further suggests that one does not have to be defined by one’s biological/social/cultural realities but can in fact live against them as one lives into freedom. Instead of claiming the privilege that was associated with his ethnicity and maleness, Jesus lived against it and identified with those who did not enjoy such privilege. This brings us to the theological significance of whiteness. As long as whiteness remains a marker of subjugating and of othering power, then Jesus cannot be white—for to suggest such a thing would imply the whiteness of God. Yet as long as God stands for justice, freedom and peace, then whiteness is antithetical to God. It is anti-Christ.
Yes, there is a certain insipid silliness when it comes to Megyn Kelly’s comments. Yet, as silly as they are, they are not innocent. It is the tasks of all of us who believe in the freedom, justice and peace of God to recognize the danger of such comments, to interrogate them, call them out so that we can indeed move beyond a world where “whiteness” matters.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.