On The Racial Identity of Fictional Characters

Ever since Aisha Harris inaugurated the Great Black Santa Controversy of 2013 one notion that’s troubled me is the idea that Megyn Kelly is wrong to insist that Santa is white because Santa is a fictional character—as if fictional characters don’t have racial identities simply because they’re fake.

If anything, the truth is the opposite. The realest racial identities of all are the identities of fictional characters.

Of course, when you hear someone say “Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father” you could jump up and say “those aren’t even real people!” But if you said that, you’d be an asshole. Or at minimum, an inept user of the English language. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Luke is a callow and impetuous youth who matures into a genuine hero. These are true facts about Luke and Anakin Skywalker.

Some true facts about a fictional character relate to race. Tom Buchanan is white. Pecola Breedlove is black.

You can say things about the racial identity of real people, too. But be careful when you do because race is a social construct. My paternal grandfather, as I understand it, was not white when he was a Spanish-speaking kid growing up in the Cuban immigrant community of Ybor City. But by the time of his death in the mid-1990s as an English language novelist and journalist in New York City he was white. He wasn’t Hispanic in the 1930s, though he was perhaps “Latin” (as were, as I understand it, many Italian-Americans). Yet today he’s one of the Pioneers of Modern U.S. Hispanic Literature. The historical Saint Nicholas was a Grecophone resident of Asia Minor living at a time when “whiteness” as an ethnic category didn’t exist.

But fictional characters’ ethnic identities are not plastic in this same way as real people. Pecola Breedlove is definitively black and Tom Buchanan definitively white in a way that almost no real person could be. If in the future the relevant racial categories cease to be used, students reading The Great Gatsby will have to be taught about whiteness to understand the meaning of Buchanan’s love of The Rise of the Coloured Empires. The character is an artifact of his time and place—he is white, he fears coloured (which is to say non-white) empires.

Now Santa isn’t white in the way that Tom Buchanan is. Not because he’s fictional, but because it’s no part of the story that he be white. You insist that Buchanan is white because elements of the text don’t make sense otherwise. You insist that Santa is white because you’re being a jerk.