Race-work, Race-love

Racial Imaginations versus Racial Realities: The Case of Santa Claus

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2010 at 12:24 pm

It’s pretty easy to not believe in Santa Claus when you grow up in a working class neighborhood in New York City. For one, we had no chimneys. Forget the fact that Santa was too big to fit in a chimney to begin with. Instead, we had fire escapes and gates on our windows to protect us from crazy people breaking in. So as a consequence to keeping the bad guys out, we also sacrificed the good guys. Namely, Santa.

(Why would Santa want to come to the hood?)

Secondly, we were lucky enough that every community center had a Christmas event specifically held for poor kids. At each of these events, every child had a wrapped gift. If you stayed till the end, you might even get two. The gifts were never the ones you got from the Christmas list you were asked to write up in school. You got what you got when you got it.

(Strike two, Santa.)

At these events, if you hit up a couple of them, you were bound to see Santas from different races. In fact I don’t remember White Santas. I remember Black Santas. And even Santas who spoke Spanish.

(Isn’t Santa White? He’s White on TV. And that dude spoke English.)

Racially confused, at five, six, seven, probably till I was 8 years old, given my research, I knew Santa could not be true.

My books and the television I watched didn’t match my racial reality.

Racial imagination in the form of White Santas.

My racial reality — where Santa Claus maybe didn’t feel invited because we had too many gates in our windows. Or maybe because our apartments were in tall buildings. Or maybe because if our neighborhoods were bad, it meant we were bad too.

Kids see color. Adults saw it too. The adults were trying to match those racial imaginations. No conversation was needed. Some of them tried to make the imaginary a reality. Even if they didn’t quite match them.

Some of those adults told us to hold on to Baby Jesus. It was probably the few times some of us were ok with going to church. Baby Jesus was our gift, we were taught. At least we got a gift there.

(But, remember, to want more is to be selfish and not grateful.)

So, is Christmas all about gifts? No. But Santa is. What would Santa be without gifts?

Working with young people, particularly those who come from low-income and multi-racial families, I remind myself of my own racial realities at five, six, seven, years old – then as a teenager – then as a young adult – of the disparities between what we are told this season should look like and what that season actually IS to some…

Some people are afraid to ask because one, they are colorblind and think realities actually match the books they read and two, when spoken out loud, these realities could be sad. Not easy to handle.

This is not to say that there aren’t “happier” tales out there – but what I am talking about are the stories you don’t hear. It’s a silence heard around the world. That silence that comes out of displacement, that silence that comes out of poverty, that silence that is so deafening on TV and books that many of us just want to bury it. Not talk about it again.

Silence.

But we are reminded every year. Loud reminders.

Making someone comfortable enough to talk about the fact that different boxes of cereal were Christmas gifts, or that the season meant that parents had to work, or that they left cookies out for Santa and he never came, or that parents waited until the next pay check (because they worked overtime) for gifts is definitely not easy. Stories that do not get told because we may not want to hear them. That would mean taking responsibility.

Bringing these stories out however is the gift. Helping others find solace in that they are not alone is a gift. Sharing thee stories allows people to see they are not alone. They see they have nothing to be embarrassed about.

Then we work on how to use these experiences to push us to the next level. Maybe something better than Santa.

Maybe the hope for a better year. Save the plate of cookies for you and your family… Hope that your parents do not have to work another overnight shift… And if they do, maybe this year you can visit them at work (with the plate of cookies, of course).

Bringing together the imagination with the reality.

But first, before the hope breaks the silence, the conversation has to start:

What’s Christmas like in your house?

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