Earlier this week, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly found herself the object of well-deserved criticism, historical and otherwise, after declaring on-air: “I mean, Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure. That’s verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want the kids watching to know that. But my point is, how do you just revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story, and change Santa from white to black.” She was responding to a piece in Slate that posed a joking solution to a real problem, suggesting that Santa Claus be replaced with a penguin so that children of color don’t have to experience yet another cultural institution that doesn’t reflect them. And in doing so, she managed to get both her history wrong — both Jesus and Saint Nicholas have Middle Eastern and Turkish origins, and Santa Claus’ image has undergone constant revision — and to reveal herself to be more callous than the brand she’s worked so hard to build would suggest. Her response to the writer of the original post and the people she spoke for? “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change.”
The response was overwhelming, and Kelly, who took a sick day from her show the night after the Santa segment, returned last night to answer her critics. And the lessons she’s taken from them are revealing.
“I also did say Jesus was white,” Kelly acknowledged. “As I learned in the last two days, that is far from settled. For me, the fact that an offhand jest I made during a segment about whether Santa should be replaced by a penguin has now become a national firestorm says two things. Race is still an incredibly volatile issue in this country, and Fox News, and yours truly are big targets for many people.”
It’s in keeping with Kelly’s claim to Jay Leno earlier in the week that “I am a straight news anchor — I am not one of the opinion hosts at Fox,” to acknowledge that there’s scholarship about Jesus’ race and appearance that contradicts her own assertion. But it’s entirely in keeping with Fox’s larger brand to make the response to Kelly’s segment evidence of both black entitlement and part of a devious campaign aimed at undermining Kelly herself.
Nobody’s asking for a complete revision of Santa Claus’ cultural history, here. There is no organized campaign to color-correct Thomas Nast cartoons or Coca-Cola ads. Instead, the question Kelly’s critics were putting to her is why she feels the need for Santa Claus to be depicted as exclusively white. Kelly tried to side-step that question. But there’s really no way around it.
My friend Zerlina Maxwell suggested to Kelly later in her show that having exclusively white Santa Clauses can be “alienating to black children.” I’m not sure I would have phrased it that way, because a negative explanation gave Kelly an easy question to deploy in response. “Why? Why is white skin alienating?” she demanded. “And why is that not racist?” One answer to that question is America’s fraught racial history, a narrative that Kelly seems less willing to acknowledge than religious scholarship. But the other response is to ask why Kelly finds the idea of having some non-white Santas in the mix so unsettling that she’s trying to definitively codify the race of a fictional character.
Put in a positive light, I might have said that it’s not that white people are alienating to black children so much as it would be a nice thing for children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to be able to recognize themselves in major cultural symbols. It would be sympathetic. It would be inclusive. It would be kind.
Ms. Kelly’s case for keeping Santa exclusively white, by contrast, seems to rely on a shifting cultural history, and her own comfort. In particular, that question to Maxwell, and Kelly’s suggestion the way in which “race is still an incredibly volatile issue in this country” is all about unjustified black resentment of whiteness, indicates a kind of profound insecurity. Kelly’s refusal to see any black assertion of emotional need–much less electoral power, given the fears she’s stoked of the New Black Panther Party–as anything other than an entitled threat to white culture or white institutions ultimately comes across as a need to be constantly reassured that whiteness still has a special value. As far as Christmas lists go, that’s not exactly a charming item to have at the top.