by Dr. Henry Zonio, PhD
In these weeks leading up to Christmas, we celebrate the season of Advent. It is a season of anticipation of Jesus’ arrival on Earth as Emmanuel—God With Us.
The Advent and Christmas seasons are key times in the Christian calendar when we introduce the youngest of our church communities to Jesus through songs, crafts, pictures, movies, Nativity scenes, and so much more. As a sociologist who researches how children’s spirituality and identity are shaped by material culture, especially religious material culture (i.e., Sunday school curriculum, Biblical illustrations, church decorations, and religious paraphernalia) what I’ve noticed in my research is that this season inundates children with an overwhelming picture of what Jesus (and his family)—Emmanuel—God With Us—is “supposed” to look like: White.
When I bring this up, there is one response I get most of the time, which goes something like: “What’s the big deal? It doesn’t matter if Jesus is White or not. What matters is that we teach kids about who Jesus is. Race/Skin color has nothing to do with it.”
What I’ve found in my own research as well as in others is that how Jesus is represented in our material culture has implications for how children see God, themselves, and others. I will highlight three findings from research on how predominantly White representations of Jesus shape. I will follow with three suggestions churches can implement to be more intentional in how we present Jesus to children, especially during this season.
What’s the Big Deal?
One of the unintended consequences of predominantly White representations of Jesus is that we normalize whiteness as the standard to measure God against. What I repeatedly found in my research with predominantly White, predominantly Black, and predominantly Latino/a churches was that most children were most comfortable with identifying Jesus as White in comparison to other races and skin colors. When I presented children with non-white representations of Jesu and the Holy Family, most expressed a dis-ease with those representations. Further, when asked what they would change about the non-White pictures, most of the children stated that the characters’ skin color should be lighter/whiter because that is what Jesus is “supposed to look like” according to other pictures they’ve seen of him at church and/or at home. Although some of the children at the predominantly Black church were comfortable with Black representations of Jesus, they still confirmed that the White representations were the “best pictures” of Jesus.
Predominantly White representations of Jesus also shape how children see themselves in relation to who Jesus is. When I asked children in a predominantly White church what skin color Jesus had, almost all of them would point to their own skin. They had no trouble in seeing themselves reflected in Jesus; they took for granted that Jesus looked like them. In the times that I mentioned that Jesus probably had darker skin because he was born in the Middle East, many of the children at the predominantly White church were surprised or could not believe it. Alternatively, when I asked children at a predominantly Black church and a predominantly Latino/a church what skin color Jesus had, they would look around the room for pictures of Jesus (who was White) or look for lighter skin-tone colored crayons to refer to. Not one child used themselves as a reference for what Jesus looked like. When I asked if Jesus could have the same color skin as themselves, most insisted that Jesus did not look like them but like the pictures with White representations. Some even thought that it was silly to think that Jesus may have really had darker skin.
A third consequence of predominantly White representations of Jesus is that they shape how children relate to and evaluate other people. A recent psychological study showed that understanding God as a White male strongly predicted the likelihood of people perceiving White males as the most deserving of being in leadership positions. When we normalize Jesus as White by not intentionally providing diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural representations of Jesus, we implicitly reinforce a racial hierarchy with Whiteness as the dominant racial category.
What can we do?
Race in the United States is what sociologists call a “master identity status.” In other words, the way in which we interact with each other, whether or not we mean to, is shaped by what stereotypes and biases dominant society teaches us about people in different racial categories. This means that when left to our own devices, paths of least resistance lead us to interacting with people from different racial categories in accordance with dominant social norms. We cannot simply ignore race in church; we must intentionally move towards diversity and intercultural-ness. Here are three simple things that churches can do during the Advent and Christmas seasons to normalize a Jesus that children of all races and skin tones can identify with.
Find and prominently display various ethnic, racial, and cultural representations of the Christmas story. Yes, “historical accuracy” is important, but so are diverse interpretations. White characterizations of Jesus and the Christmas story are specific racial, ethnic, and cultural interpretations. Our children need to see Jesus contextualized through the eyes and experiences of other races, ethnicities, and cultures. These can be found through simple internet searches.
Don’t shy away from pointing out that most of the representations of Jesus and the Christmas story in churches and in larger culture (i.e. media, stores, music) are White. Allow children to come up with ways to increase the visibility of diverse representations of Jesus. For older children, have conversations about the importance for people of various races, ethnicities, and cultures to be able to see interpretations and representations of Jesus that look like them.
Find books and videos of the Christmas story that have been written and/or performed by people from varied ethnicities, races, and cultures. If you have a diverse congregation, be sure to diversify those who share the Christmas story with children. In addition to helping children from minoritized groups see a Jesus that looks like them, help White children see that Jesus doesn’t have to just look like them.