The Case for an Asian Santa—and a Black Uncle Sam

When people are allowed to make a symbol their own, it becomes that much more resonant—especially in a nation founded on ideas, rather than blood or tribe.
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A few years ago I told a friend that the culture wars were over. You might think, given the recent controversies about the whiteness of Santa and Jesus, to say nothing of the racial divides that opened up after Trayvon Martin’s killing, that I was terribly wrong. But I stand by the claim. The culture wars are over—all over, that is, but the shouting.

There is plenty of shouting, to be sure, on cable and social media. But the fundamental shift has already occurred. To paraphrase James Baldwin, America is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

I don’t mean statistically: We have a few more years before the group called whites will be a minority of the U.S. population. Nor politically: Pretty much every power structure in America is disproportionately white and will remain so, long after the population figures tip. I mean simply that the cultural die is cast. We are now a country that defines Americanness in terms that are no longer reflexively, primarily white.

From the start, people calling themselves white have claimed the default setting for American public life. Now demographic change and its shadow are displacing that default. This is what drives so much of the white status anxiety today in politics and popular culture. It also suggests that the much-maligned Millennial generation will be our deliverance. They’ve grown up more comfortable with diversity and less inclined to privilege whiteness automatically than any generation in the country’s history.

Some people find all this race talk an unhealthy obsession. They want simply to transcend it. But even if you think that’s a worthy goal—there are times when it might be and times when it mightn’t—we can’t possibly transcend race until we transcend the idea of a white race.

That’s why the color of Santa matters so much now. In her piece that sparked Megyn Kelly’s viral moment on Fox News, Slate’s Aisha Harris suggested replacing Santa with a penguin. That’s an understandable plea from someone who thought the whiteness of Santa unbearable. My view, though, is that Santa ought to stay human; There’s no need for people of color to fall back to a bird. Better to claim the jolly old man—and better still to assert that he is a human of all races.

I believe in Santa. I believe in a Santa who’s whatever color you want him to be.

Call it SANTAx—in just the way that TED spawned the ecosystem of TEDx events. Those events follow the form and structure of the original TED conference but are conceived and curated locally, with local voices, as TEDxSeattle or TEDxBoston or TEDxAustin. TEDx didn’t dilute the brand; it amplified it. That was its genius. SANTAx would do the same for our Yuletide symbol. There is a base concept of Santa—red, fur-lined costume with white fringe, chubby, old, and twinkle-eyed. Beyond that base, let Santa in Santa Fe be a happy Hispanic; let Santa in the heart of Los Angeles be ... well, actually, a photo of a kindly black Santa in Crenshaw has already flooded Facebook in recent days.

Santa comes just once a year, though, and while he’s cherished he’s not a civic figure. Imagine if we extended the SANTAx approach to figures who symbolize not just a national holiday but the nation itself. AMERICAx. Our armed-services recruiters could call Uncle Sam back into active duty and make him Asian one year, African American the next, white, Native, Latino in a random rotation. Lady Liberty could have a revival too—for instance, in naturalization ceremonies for new citizens or Independence Day celebrations—that varies to fit the cowboy style of East Texas or the hipster style of Portland or the earnestness of the Twin Cities; a revival that changes color and style just as readily.

Rotating people of different colors through such iconic national roles may offend white supremacists; you can’t please everyone. More seriously, it may discomfit people who think that when people of color assert themselves in terms of color America will fly apart centrifugally. “If everyone has their own Santa, there’s no such thing as Santa” sounds like the 1990s jeremiads that warned, “If everyone has their own cultural studies, there’s no such thing as culture.” But that’s exactly wrong. This kind of multicolor rotation is the very essence of the American experience: claiming, reconstituting, redeeming.

When we decentralize the power of a symbol and trust people to make it their own, the symbol becomes that much more resonant. That’s especially true in a nation like ours that really has only ideas and icons—not blood, not tribe—to hold us together. Of course that’s also why it’s scary to so many—especially those who’ve always had the automatic pleasure of seeing themselves in every representation of America. But let a thousand Technicolor Santas, Uncles Sam, and Ladies Liberty bloom and we will in fact become much more bonded to one another. Let the full breadth of AMERICAx be expressed, and the more irresistible America itself becomes.

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Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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