Last week, as you may have heard, Megyn Kelly declared on Fox News that both Santa Claus and Jesus were white. As she put it—by way of discussing a Slate piece about how we should no longer think of Santa as a Caucasian—the man whose birth Christianity observes on the 25th of December was a white guy and “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable it doesn’t mean it has to change.”
That was obviously controversial. While Santa’s race and background is rather malleable—as an essentially fictional character, he can perform the exact same role in American culture even if he’s black, Hispanic, a transsexual Filipino, or, as the Slate piece actually proposed, a penguin—Jesus was a real person. But as Hadas Gold put it at Politico: “Christ was born to a Jewish family around what is now Israel, and his race has long been debated with several scholars saying he likely looked like what many modern day people of Middle Eastern descent look like.”
You are white or black or Asian in America not because of anything inherent in you, but just because of the world in which you live.
According to the U.S. Census, a white person is someone “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as ‘White’ or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian.” While it’s true that he “looked like what many modern day people of Middle Eastern descent look like,” scholars have only debated Jesus’ appearance. His race is not questionable. He was from the Middle East; he is white.
Not that it really matters much. Calling him white is an attempt to classify him according to criteria that had no meaning in the time in which he lived.
OVER TIME, AMERICA HAS has constantly redefined racial categories. We’re inconsistent in our distinctions. As I wrote in a piece for Mother Jones, back in 2008, we change the definitions of race all the time. The first census, in 1790, broke the population into three groups: “free whites,” “other persons,” and “slaves.”
By 1940 the Census explained that people should be clustered according to the following, very intricate, classification system:
Negroes-A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned as Negro, no matter how small a percentage of Negro blood. Both black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction. A person of mixed Indian and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, unless the Indian blood very definitely predominates and he is universally accepted in the community as an Indian. Indians-A person of mixed white and Indian blood should be returned as an Indian, if enrolled on an Indian agency or reservation roll, or if not so enrolled, if the proportion of Indian blood is one-fourth or more, or if the person is regarded as an Indian in the community where he lives. Mixed Races-Any mixture of white and nonwhite should be reported according to the nonwhite parent. Mixtures of nonwhite races should be reported according to the race of the father, except that Negro-Indian should be reported as Negro.
Historically, the “one drop” rule regarding African ancestry meant that you were black if you had any black ancestors at all, but the rule did not apply to the other races. Someone was an American Indian in 1940 only if “enrolled on an Indian agency or reservation roll, or if not so enrolled, if the proportion of Indian blood is one-fourth or more, or if the person is regarded as an Indian in the community where he lives.”
U.S. First Lady Nancy Reagan, for instance, is a supposedly a descendant of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. But it is difficult to imagine someone whiter.
According to the current classification, all of President Barack Obama’s descendants, no matter who his children and grandchildren marry, will be black (“a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as ‘Black, African Am., or Negro’”), but someone with American Indian ancestors only appears in that category if he “maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.”
Race is a social construction. It has no biological meaning. According to an essay by William Melvin Kelley in Harper’s earlier this year, race is probably a pretty recent invention:
The word race comes to English from medieval Italian razzo, meaning any given breed of horse. Dogs, cattle, and horses had different breeds, the first Portuguese slavers must have mused in 1444, so why should not humans too have a raca? One breed originated in Europe; another came from Africa; a third, the Indianans, inhabited America; and the forth breed, also from America, developed from a mixture of the first three.
We have changed and continue to change these definitions all the time for convenience. Sociologists have long been in agreement that race is essentially made up. Professor Ruben Rumbaut of the University of California-Irvine explained in 2011:
Race is one of three questions that has been asked in every census since 1790. So for 220 years, that person’s age, sex and race have been asked in a census. Age and sex have been measured in the same way for 220 years. Race has pretty much never been measured in the same way from one census to the next … this is not a biological given category but a social and legal and political construction whose meaning changes over time.
And that’s really all that “white” is. Americans have a tendency to associate Census-white with biological or structural white. But, in fact, Census white is all there is. There was no Census definition of white in Jesus’ time and, thus, his whiteness is irrelevant or simply made up.
IN THE UNITED STATES, white is a category that’s grown over time. When a group becomes more common and assimilated, the Census Bureau eventually decides it’s white. At some points in American history the Germans, Greeks, Hispanics, Irish, Italians, Slavs, or Ashkenazi Jews were not white. Until they were.
Indeed, the increasing percentage and economic and cultural power of Hispanics in the United States means that almost certainly we’ll soon redefine them, or at least some of them, as white. Currently there is no Hispanic or Latino race in the U.S. Census, but people are instructed to choose their race and then indicate “Hispanic origin” as a subset of race. It’s complicated.
Even if you are white now, here in America, all of your ancestors were almost certainly not white people.
This brings us to perhaps the most important thing about the historical Jesus. The Roman Empire certainly had classification systems for its own people, but they didn’t have anything to do with whiteness or place Jesus in any sort of privileged group. If Jesus is racially white now, he certainly was an underprivileged ethnic minority where he lived: in a colonial state ruled by the first-century Roman Empire.
Scholars argue about the details of the life of Jesus and on the meaning of his teachings, but he almost certainly was a low-status carpenter or stoneworker in Palestine. His parents weren’t citizens of Rome, and as a Jew he enjoyed none of the rights of a Roman citizen. He could neither vote nor hold office. This was why he was crucified, after all. Roman citizens sentenced to the death penalty (like St. Paul, supposedly) were beheaded. Rome executed Jews and other non-citizen lawbreakers by the much slower and more painful crucifixion.
It’s perhaps correct to classify him as white according to the contemporary definition, but he certainly wasn’t white in his own time. And neither was anyone else.
Calling Jesus white, in fact, is sort of like calling Jesus a Catholic, or like referring to the Inca Empire as communist regime. Yes, it technically met many characteristics of a communist state—collective ownership of property, multi-ethic citizenry, a planned economy, severe punishment for minor infractions, a fabled and strictly enforced moral philosophy—but such a term had no meaning at the time.
That’s the thing about race. It has no biological or even long-term historical meaning. It has only social context. You are white or black or Asian in America not because of anything inherent in you, but just because of the world in which you live.
While Kelly was, maybe, technically right that Jesus was white because he was “a person having origins in … the Middle East,” she’s entirely wrong in her inference from that that he was white in the way that she is, or bears any resemblance to the blue-eyed, brown-haired Jesus common in Western art. Yeah, he was white, but he wasn’t that kind of white.