Over the course of our research, we heard many stories of how people—from parents to teachers—were struggling to talk about race with their children. For some, the conversations came up after a child had made an embarrassing comment in public. A number had the issue thrust on them, because of an interracial marriage or an international adoption. Still others were just introducing children into a diverse environment, wondering when and if the timing was right.
But the story that most affected us came from a small town in rural Ohio. Two first-grade teachers, Joy Bowman and Angela Johnson, had agreed to let a professor from Ohio State University, Dr. Jeane Copenhaver-Johnson, observe their classrooms for the year. Of the 33 children, about two-thirds identified themselves as “white” or even “hillbilly,” while the others were black or of mixed-race descent.
It being December—just one month after Copenhaver’s project had begun—the teachers both decided to follow up a few other Santa stories they’d read to their classes with Twas the Night B’fore Christmas, Melodye Rosales’ retelling of the Clement C. Moore classic.
The room already dotted with holiday paraphernalia, Johnson had all of her first graders gather around the carpet for story time. As she began reading, the kids were excited by the book’s depiction of a family waiting for Santa to come. A couple children burst out with stories of planned Christmas decorations and expectations for Santa’s arrival to their own houses. A few of the children, however, quietly fidgeted. They seemed puzzled that this storybook was different: in this one, it was a black family all snug in their beds.
Then, there was the famed clatter on the roof. The children leaned in to get their first view of Santa and the sleigh as Johnson turned the page—
And they saw that Santa was black.
“He’s black!” gasped a white little girl.
Another white boy exclaimed, “I thought he was white!”
Immediately, the children began to chatter about the stunning development.
At the ripe old ages of six and seven, the children had no doubt that there was a Real Santa. Of that fact, they were absolutely sure. But suddenly—there was this huge question mark. Could Santa be black? And if so, what did that mean?
While some of the black children were delighted with the idea that Santa could be black, still others were unsure. Some of the white children initially rejected this idea out of hand: a black Santa couldn’t be real. But even the little girl who was the most adamant that the Real Santa must be white considered the possibility that a black Santa could fill in for White Santa if he was hurt. And she still gleefully yelled along with the black Santa’s final “Merry Christmas to All! Y’all Sleep Tight.” Still another of the white girls progressed from initially rejecting a black Santa outright to conceding that maybe Black Santa was a “Helper Santa.” By the end of the story, she was asking if this black Santa couldn’t somehow be a cousin or brother to the white Santa they already knew about. Her strong need that it was a white Santa who came to her house was clearly still intact—but those concessions were quite a switch in about ten pages.
Later that week, Copenhaver returned to see this play out again in another teacher’s class. Similar debates ensued. A couple of the children offered the idea that perhaps Santa’s “mixed with black and white”—perhaps Santa was something in the middle, like an Indian. One boy went with a Two-Santa Hypothesis: White Santa and Black Santa must be friends who take turns visiting children, he concluded. When Bowman made the apparently huge mistake of saying that she’d never seen Santa, the children all quickly corrected her: they knew everyone had seen Santa at the mall. Not that that clarified the situation any.
In both classes, the debate raged off-and-on for a week, until a school party. Santa was coming. And they were all sure it was the Real Santa who was coming.
Then Santa arrived at the party—and he was black. Just like in the picture book.
The black children were exultant—since this proved that Santa was black. Some of the white children said that this black Santa was too thin, and that meant that the Real Santa was the fat white one at Kmart. But one of the white girls retorted that she had met the man and was convinced. Santa was brown.
Amy, one of the white children who’d come up with the mixed-race Santa theory, abandoned that idea upon meeting Black Santa. But she wondered if maybe Black Santa went to the black kids’ houses while White Santa delivered the white kids’ presents. A black child also wondered if this Santa would take care of the white kids himself, or if perhaps he would pass along their toy requests to a white Santa hidden somewhere else.
Another black child, Brent, still doubted. He really wanted a black Santa to be true, but he wasn’t convinced. So he bravely confronted Santa. “There ain’t no black Santas!” Brent insisted.
“Son, what color do you see?” Santa replied.
“Black—but under your socks you might not be!”
“Lookit here.” Santa pulled up a pant leg, to let Brent see the skin underneath.
A thrilled Brent was sold. “This is a black Santa!” he yelled. “He’s got black skin and his black boots are like the white Santa’s boots.”
A black Santa storybook wasn’t enough to change the children’s mindsets. It didn’t crush every stereotype. Even the black kids who were excited about a black Santa—when Johnson asked them to draw Santa—they still depicted a Santa whose skin was as snowy-white as his beard.
But the shock of the Santa storybook did allow the children to start talking about race in a way that had never before occurred to them. And their questions started a year-long dialogue about race issues.
By the end of the year, the teachers were regularly incorporating books that dealt directly with issues of racism into their reading. Both black and white children were collaborating on book projects on Martin Luther King Jr. And when the kids read one book about the civil rights movement, both a black and a white child noticed that white people were nowhere to be found in the story, and, troubled, they decided to find out just where in history both peoples were.