Is Santa Claus Whiter Than Dumbledore Is Gay?

By Mike Dorf

In 2007, J. K. Rowling outed Dumbledore as gay. I used the occasion to write a column--Harry Potter and the Framers' Intent--that inquired about authorial intentions in literature and in constitutional interpretation. I want to do something broadly similar with Megyn Kelly's recent statement that Santa Clause is white.

I'll admit that it's tempting simply to ridicule Kelly's statement, and The Daily Show did a pretty good job of it, as seen in the clips below.  (Email readers should follow this link and this link if you don't have the embedded video.)

For a more scholarly takedown, I recommend this piece on Slate by Aisha Harris, whose original comments somehow set Kelly off in the first place.

Meanwhile, Kelly, in damage control mode, now claims that her insistence on the whiteness of Santa Claus was tongue-in-cheek. Based on the actual clip, this seems implausible, unless Kelly has an incredibly subtle deadpan delivery in which the joke is conveyed by deliberately avoiding any of the conventional signs of humor. Accordingly, I'll address the Megyn Kelly who appeared to assert in all seriousness that it's "just a fact" that Santa Claus is/was white. (If it turns out that Kelly was really joking, well, then think of this as a response to a fictional Kelly -- perhaps one who pilots a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.)

As discussed in the second Daily Show clip above, one version of the Santa-is-white theory rests on the claim that Santa is based on the 4th Century Saint Nicholas.  Jon Stewart et al point out that Nicholas was probably quite swarthy, not white, but one might make a second criticism: whiteness is a social category, not a scientific one.  Even if we had a true-color photograph of the historical Saint Nicholas or a time machine, we would not know just by looking at him whether he was "white" or "black" or whether these categories even had meaning in his cultural context.  Whiteness, in other words, is not "just a fact" about a person in the way that bipedalism is.  (And yes, I realize that bipedalism itself may be deconstructed.  Is a wheelchair-using person bipedal? What if her disability is temporary?  Etc.)

Perhaps the better defense of the claim that Santa Claus "just is" white would refer to the character of Santa Claus rather than to the historical St. Nicholas.  It is possible for a fictional character to have a determinate race, just as it is possible for a fictional character to have a sexual orientation.  My objection to Rowling's outing of Dumbledore was not that Rowling couldn't have written the Potter books in a way that made it clear that Dumbledore was gay; my point was that Rowling didn't write the books that way and, having failed to do so, she cannot control her creation post hoc, merely because she was the author.

Likewise here, if "Santa Claus" referred to a character in a particular well-known work of fiction, it would be possible to say that "Santa Claus just is white."  Perhaps the book--call it He Knows If You've Been Naughty or Nice--contained the following sentence: "Santa's alabaster skin was as white as the snow that fell on the rooftop of his North Pole workshop."  Well, then it would be accurate to say that the Santa of the book "just is white."  Of course, even then, we might think that a person of color depicting Santa Claus in a film would be true to the general story.  (Harris usefully gives the example of a black actor depicting James Bond or Spider-Man.)

In any event, there is no single book or other work that gives rise to the Santa character.  He is instead an amalgam of various myths and legends that evolved and merged over hundreds of years.  The "author" of the stories that contain the contemporary notion of Santa Claus is an even more diffuse inter-temporal, inter-geographical collective than is the "author" of the U.S. Constitution or any part thereof.

How should one go about discerning the "truth" about a fictional character created in the way that the American Santa Claus was created? When Kelly says that Santa "just is" white, she may mean only that most Americans today think of Santa as a white character, and so he "just is" white in that narrow sense.  This is a kind of meaning-is-use approach. Someone who says that Santa is black (or red or yellow or blue for that matter) would be making a kind of linguistic error.

I think that's probably the best case that can be made for the view that Santa "just is" white, but it's still a pretty weak case. It's enough to hold off wacky, idiosyncratic claims like "Santa is actually the Big Bad Wolf in the story of the three little pigs" or "Santa is actually Krishna come to Earth in human form."  But given the evolution of the Santa character over time, it is hardly clear that whiteness is an essential element of his character -- in the way that his being neither a wolf nor Krishna is, at least heretofore, an essential element of his character.