Dreaming of a not-only-white Christmas

SH City Clerk Carmen Brooks to don Santa costume, giving Black children someone who looks like them.

Carmen+Brooks%2C+Signal+Hill+City+Clerk

Courtesy City of SH

Carmen Brooks, Signal Hill City Clerk

When Signal Hill City Clerk Carmen Brooks was growing up, everyone looked African-American like her, she recently told the Signal Tribune. The City of Detroit back then, where Brooks was raised, was segregated between Black and white neighborhoods, she said.

“All around me were representations of Black people in all areas of life,” she said. “In order to see people who didn’t look like me, I had to go to the suburbs.”

That upbringing is part of what led Brooks to volunteer to be a Black Santa Claus for children to chat with during Signal Hill’s “Virtual Visits with Santa” on Wednesday, Dec. 2.

When parents register for the event through the City’s website, they can choose a Black or white Santa for their child to visit via Zoom that day.

“Why wouldn’t Santa be Black?” she questions.

When the Signal Hill City Council brought up the event during its Nov. 10 meeting, Brooks offered to volunteer and even said she had her own Santa suit (more on that later).

“In the spirit of diversity, and the fact that it’s going to be virtual, we should think about having an African-American Santa, or a Santa that’s representative of the child he is chatting with,” she told the council. “Usually when you go out to anyplace public, the Santa is always white. […] We’re way more diverse than that now and we should think about that as we promote diversity in our city.”

Because of her own experience growing up, Brooks raised her son, now 34, with role models who looked like him to foster positive self-esteem, she told the Signal Tribune.

“When my son was a little boy, I intentionally did not allow him to take pictures with a white Santa,” she said.

According to a 2019 Psychology Today article on Black Santa and representation by psychology professor Sarah Gaither, Black Santa actually became prominent during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s as a figure of empowerment

“We want to feel like we belong in society,” Gaither says. “One prominent way those belonging needs are often met is through visible forms of representation, such as a Black Santa.”

Gaither also discusses something Brooks mentioned as well– that our notion of a white Santa Claus was only popularized by Coca-Cola ads in the 1930s.

“Think about what a segregated world we had in the 1930s,” Brooks said. “Doing this is a way to start the conversation on things that are very traditional and near-and-dear to people’s hearts.”

Black and Brown people want to see representations in their own image, something white people may take for granted, Brooks said.

She has always been one to challenge and be vocal about things people take for granted, Brooks said. She’s been involved with the City for more than seven years, serving on the Parks and Recreation Commission and Planning Commission before being elected as City Clerk in 2019.

Once in her new position, Brooks realized she couldn’t contribute to the city council as she did on city commissions. The City Charter was silent on how much the city clerk could speak at council meetings so she brought up the matter with Mayor Robert Copeland. The council had a public discussion before deciding to always call on Brooks, as well as City Treasurer David Hopper, for comment on council items.

“Not in my public service or private life am I a person who is not vocal,” she said. “I’m a person that engages.”

Asked how she thinks the community will react to an African-American Santa, Brooks was positive.

She had told her neighbor, who is white with two young children, about her being Black Santa for the virtual chat.

“Once she thought about it, she said, ‘How do we get you?’” Brooks recounted. “I think it will at least raise some awareness and challenge the status quo and stereotypes in popular culture. And for the people who have African-American children, they will say, ‘It’s about time. Why did it take so long?'”

Brooks also said children are more open-minded about representation, depending on the images they’ve seen.

“In the world we live in now, younger people are way more open to, and fluid about, gender and race,” she said. “Probably for these little kids who are experiencing Santa, it may not even matter.”

Brooks got her Santa suit after her first grandchild was born last year and she was celebrating Christmas with her family. Playing Santa for her granddaughter seemed in keeping with how she had raised her son.

Dressed as Santa Claus, Brooks will conduct virtual chats from City Hall with the white Santa volunteer–Police Sergeant Don Moreau. Depending on which Santa each child has chosen, one of them will take the call.

“As we as a City usher in a new Diversity Coalition Committee, we start to look at things through a more diverse lens,” Brooks said. “I think this is a good way to start.”

Signal Hill’s “Virtual Visits with Santa” will take place on Wednesday, Dec. 2 from 5-6:30 pm and 6:45-7:30 pm. The City’s “Virtual Tree Lighting” will take place in between at 6:30 pm.
Parents can make an appointment for their child 12 years and younger through Signal Hill’s website to virtually chat with Santa. Each registered child will also receive a holiday coloring book and a personalized letter from Santa.