On Tuesday, Slate columnist Aisha Harris made the case for depicting Santa Claus as a penguin instead of a white man to "spare millions of nonwhite kids the insecurity and shame that I remember from childhood." On Wednesday, Fox News' Megyn Kelly retorted that "Santa just is white" and "Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change." On Thursday, Harris reminded Kelly, "Santa isn't real."
While Harris wins the debate over Kelly hands down, chances are her cheeky penguin suggestion is not going to take off.
But that's OK. It may be even better for kids to be exposed to Santas of all different races.
The 2009 book "NurtureShock" by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which explores the latest and greatest research in child-raising, has a chapter dedicated to race. That chapter recounted an experiment done by an education professor. Two racially mixed first-grade classrooms in Ohio were first read a version of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas which featured an African-American Santa, then later held a Christmas party with a real African-American Santa as the featured guest.
What happened? Kids began to think critically about race.
First they saw the book.
...as [the teacher] turned the page ... they saw that Santa was Black ... Immediately, the children began to chatter about the stunning development.
While some of the black children were delighted with the idea that Santa could be black, still others were unsure. Some of the white children initially dismissed this idea out of hand: a black Santa couldn't be real. But even the little girl who was most adamant that the Real Santa must be white considered the possibility that a black Santa could fill in for White Santa if he was hurt ... Still another of the white girls progressed from initially rejecting a black Santa outright to conceding that maybe Black Santa was a "Helper Santa." By the end of the story, she was asking if this black Santa couldn't somehow be a cousin or brother to the white Santa ... Her strong need that it was a white Santa that came to her house was clearly still intact–but those concessions were quite a switch in about ten pages...
...A couple of children offered the idea that perhaps Santa was "mixed with black and white"–perhaps Santa was something in the middle, like an Indian. One boy went with a Two-Santa Hypothesis: White Santa and Black Santa must be friends who take turns ...
The classrooms debates continued for a week. Then it was time for the party. "Santa was coming. And they were all sure it was the Real Santa who was coming." And it was a black Santa "just like in the picture book."
The black children were exultant–since this proved Santa was black. Some of the white children said that this black Santa was too thin ... real Santa was the fat white one at Kmart. But one of the white girls retorted that she had met the man and was convinced. Santa was brown.
Amy, one of the white children who'd come up with the mixed-race Santa theory, abandoned that idea upon meeting Black Santa. But she wondered if maybe Black Santa went to the black kids' houses while White Santa delivered the white kids' presents. A black child also wondered if this Santa would take care of the white kids himself, or if perhaps he would pass along their toy requests to a white Santa hidden somewhere else.
The authors summed up what happened next, and why it matters:
A black Santa storybook wasn't enough to change the children's mindsets. It didn't crush every stereotype ... But the shock of the Santa storybook did allow the children to start talking about race in a way that had never occurred to them before. And their questions started a year-long dialogue about race issues. By the end of the year, the teachers were regularly incorporating books that dealt directly with issues of racism into their reading. Both black and white children were collaborating on book projects about Martin Luther King Jr.
The overarching theme of the "NurtureShock" chapter on race is that kids are ill-served when parents and teachers skirt the subject, since different races are all around us and "children's brains can't help but attempt to generalize rules from the examples they see." Drawing out discussion, even if what is said can be awkward and embarrassing, is essential to avoid having stereotypes solidify.
We may never see the day when Penguin Santas roam the earth. But you'll be doing your kids a favor if you introduce them to some non-white Santas. And talk about it.