In an attempt to diversify the image of Santa Claus as a white man by training people of color to play the role of Santa in department stores, Old Navy launched a “Santa BOOTcamp”. The 30-minute virtual session took place on Nov. 19.
Why is Santa’s image not representative of all races, ethnicities and cultures if the U.S. is a melting pot?
Fewer than 5% of professional Santa Claus actors in the U.S. identify as non-white, according to a press release from Old Navy. While 49.9% of all children below the age of 15 in the U.S. identify as people of color, according to a census, this is the first time this has ever happened.
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Those statistics are disappointing but not surprising. I have never seen a Santa Claus in a store that was not white. When I was a kid, I viewed Santa Claus as a hero. I never realized Santa did not physically resemble me and my family or he did not celebrate our culture’s Christmas traditions like we did.
Old Navy launching this campaign to diversify traditionally white figures like Santa Claus is a small step in a larger fight. I believe the adequate representation that can result from this will benefit many children of color.
Old Navy is not the first company to attempt something like this. In 2016, Mall of America hired Larry Jefferson as its first Black Santa.
Jefferson, now retired, was the first Black Santa to gain national attention. Believing that Santa does not have a specific look, Jefferson still continues to advocate for the diversification of Santa Clauses in stores.
“Santa can be anybody,” he said in an interview with Marketplace. “Anybody who has love and kindness in their hearts and wants to share that with others can be Santa Claus.”
According to Marketplace, School4Santas is an institution in New York run by Tim Connaghan that trains people on how to portray Santa Claus in stores. Of all 4,200 people who have attended his school, less than a dozen have been Black Santas, Connaghan said.
I believe seeing diversity in someone like Santa Claus as a child would have helped me be more proud and accepting of my heritage and culture. I eventually got there on my own, but growing up somewhere that is mostly white, and at times unaccepting, makes it 10 times harder. My feelings and experiences are not unique by any means. In fact, I recognize that I probably had it easier than lots of other kids in similar situations growing up.
Nonetheless, representation is especially important for children. Seeing parts of yourself in role models like politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, actors and so on can motivate you from a young age to pursue your dreams. Seeing a character on television that you can relate to or watching important people celebrate your culture and traditions can give you a sense of pride within yourself that you never thought was possible to achieve.
Oftentimes, when marginalized groups of people are represented in the media they are stereotyped. This makes seeing a Black or brown Santa Claus taking pictures with kids in the mall all the more special.
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Old Navy is moving in the right direction by changing the traditional dynamics of Christmas and opening up the role to anyone. Increasing diversity and spreading holiday cheer, Old Navy’s inclusive Santa BOOTcamp can have positive effects on children of color that will last a lifetime.