The religion teacher at my all-girls Catholic high school was eccentric. She regularly cried over personal problems in front of students, asked us if we were giving our boyfriends head, and posted images of STD-ridden genitals around the classroom. But the most mind-blowing thing she taught us was that, according to her, Jesus was a black man.
On the first day of religion class in freshman year, Mrs. Jones grabbed a thin, 5-foot-tall, dark-skinned black girl from our group of 30 students, marched her to the middle of the room, and proclaimed, “This is what Jesus looked like!”
I, a mixed-race Afro-Latina and white woman, wondered: How could Jesus be black when every single depiction I'd ever seen of him was that of a peachy-skinned, blue-eyed, sandy-haired, 6-foot-something white man?
“Everything you’ve been told is wrong!” Mrs. Jones declared. We laughed hysterically in response.
Everything you’ve been told is wrong.
But when I thought it over, and confronted the possibility that everything I’d learned in 10 years of Catholic school was a colorful fable, I realized Jesus was most likely black (or Arab at the very least). After all, many archeologists and scholars reportedly believe he was born in Nazareth or Bethlehem of Galilee; this area, located near northern Africa, has a warm and temperate climate.
Since educational institutions have a long record of whitewashing history, who’s to say that the modern-day interpretation of Jesus is as accurate as mainstream depictions would have us believe?
Discovering black Jesus also conjured up my earliest memories of Christmastime, specifically the year I was first introduced to black Santa Claus.
When I was 8 or 9, my white uncle approached me with a small gift. As I tore through the bright-red wrapping paper, I uncovered a delicate porcelain Santa ornament, complete with pink cheeks, plump face, bushy white beard, and a red hat—except he was black.
“What?” I cried in horror. “What is this? Why is Santa black?”
I can’t remember my uncle’s exact response, but it was something along the lines of him wanting to give me a gift he thought I would find relatable—one that represented me.
Although black Santa was beautiful, my knee-jerk reaction was rooted in the whiteness that surrounded me. It was reflected in my education at school, the media I consumed on TV, and the lily-white faces of my Barbies. It was easy to reject the notion that any beloved mythical character could look like me—simply because I was taught that they weren't supposed to.
Needless to say, I was very upset with my uncle, and threw out his gift.
The black Santa debacle and my introduction to black Jesus remind me of actress Michelle Rodriguez’s recent comments about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Earlier this year, she urged people of color to create representation for themselves.
“Stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes,” Rodriguez said. “Make up your own."
After facing criticism, she later clarified her remarks: "It's time to stop trying to take what's already there and try to fit a culture into it. I think that it's time for us to write our own mythology and our own story."
Rodriguez wasn’t eloquent, but she has a point. Outside mainstream narratives, all cultures have their own mythology and stories—they’re just not as widely known stateside. But in a country where people of all colors celebrate Christmas and other holidays, we shouldn't allow cultural erasure to reaffirm whiteness as the norm.
Although white America isn’t generally receptive to flipping the script on spaces normally reserved for them (case in point: Actor John Boyega was the target of racism after being cast as a Black Stormtrooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it's important for people of color to create and see reflections of themselves within pop culture.
Even as we fight institutionalized racism and work towards gender equality, however, many white Americans still take issue with challenges to the status quo. For example, in response to Slate's 2013 story, “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore," Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly declared that like Jesus, Santa “just is white.” Unsurprisingly, this caused an uproar, but since the conservative network is considered the United States' “most trusted national news channel," it’s fair to assume that many Americans share Kelly’s sentiment.
As a mixed-race person, I’ve toyed with the idea of a black Santa, a Latino Santa, and an Asian Santa—anything that's more inclusive. But none of these will likely escape white America's criticism.
I’ve toyed with the idea of a black Santa, a Latino Santa, and an Asian Santa—anything that's more inclusive.
In retrospect, I wish I had kept black Santa and believed in black Jesus. Now that I’m older, it’s hard for me to accept the dominant narrative. Feminist scholar and cultural critic Bell Hooks has devoted much of her life’s work to promoting positive images of people of color as necessary, and hopes that one day, they will become the norm.
When discussing the manipulation of mainstream representations of whiteness and blackness, Hooks said in an interview, “Whether we’re talking about race, or gender, or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is. It’s not about magical thinking; it’s about people consciously knowing what kinds of images will produce a certain kind of impact.”
When I only see images of white Jesus and white Santa, I’m effectively being told that only they are worthy of celebration, praise, and visibility. But I also take solace in knowing that even though this is the norm, it's not normal. I must continue unlearning everything I’ve been taught—especially during the holidays.
So this year, I’ll be cringing at the white saints and angels lining my local church's walls, the white nativity scenes, and all the white Santas in shopping malls. Although Father Christmas isn’t real and not everyone believes in Jesus, I await the day when our mythical characters and religious heroes can reflect the diversity of all Americans.
Because Christmas isn’t just for white people.