My elder daughter loves the Santa Claus story (especially where Rudolph enters the scene), but she knows it only as a fictional tale. She’s told that the presents she receives on Christmas morning are from her family, not from a man who slides down the chimney our house doesn’t actually possess. For my girls, Santa takes his place in a milieu of imaginary characters along with Cinderella and Winnie the Pooh and the cast of Dinosaur Train.
Yet it is troubling to me how easily angered so many people are by the mere suggestion of a non-white Santa. It reminds me of the upset caused by Rue in The Hunger Games; though Collins describes the character’s “satiny brown skin,” some viewers of the film were astonished and outraged that the tributes from District 11 were portrayed by black actors. Both scenarios speak to racial privilege as powerful even within the imaginary realm—that even characters described by their creators as non-white can be assumed white. In both the discussion of Santa and Rue, there’s also the underlying belief that a white character is somehow universal while a person of color can only represent or speak to another person of color. It’s not just that Santa is most frequently depicted as white, it’s that so many people simultaneously insist on his whiteness as essential and obvious without recognizing what that says about how much race actually matters to us.