Anthony Batts has the red suit, the white beard, the jolly “Ho, ho, ho.” For the past three years, kids have climbed on his lap and whispered Christmas wishes.
Unlike adults, most of the children don’t notice something different about this Santa Claus: He’s African American.
“Santa!” children squealed when Batts walked into a classroom Thursday at the Martin Luther King Center in Spokane. “Hi Santa!”
“Merry Christmas,” said Batts, a tall, bulky man with an infectious grin. “Come on, kiddies. Have you all been good?”
Along with Asian Santas, bilingual ones and those who know sign language, black Santas are becoming more popular in many cities across the country. Last year, the black Santa in Seattle’s downtown Bon Marche attracted just as many kids as the white Santas in the area.
African American Santa Clauses are still rare in Spokane, but Batts wants to change that.
For the past three years, the bus driver for Spokane Transit Authority has dressed up as St. Nick and visited local schoolchildren. The idea started after he became the official Santa at the annual STA Christmas party.
“The biggest pleasure is to put a smile on their faces,” said Batts, 46, and the grandfather of three. “I just want to be visible. If (the children) never see me, they’re going to think that every hero has to be white.”
Older kids realize he’s black, but most of the little ones don’t notice the difference, he said. All they see is a bearded man in a red suit.
On Thursday, the 4-year-olds at the MLK Center fell all over themselves to talk to Batts.
“Where do you live, Santa?” they asked as he shook their hands and gave them candy canes.
“I want a race car with a remote control,” one boy said.
For nearly half an hour, Batts was surrounded with children who chattered about their families, school and what they wanted for Christmas. They showed him their toys and reindeer made from paper bags.
“I think it’s really good that they’re coming out with different Santas,” said Heather Bracey of the MLK Center. Bracey is white, but her 5-year-old daughter, Marissa, is half-black and half-white.
While some kids may not notice Santa’s skin color, it makes a difference in the long run, said Nancy J. Nelson, the interim associate director for Eastern Washington University’s Black Education Program.
“It’s the same as having an African American teacher or role model,” she said. “It’s about seeing people who are like you so you don’t feel different or abnormal.”
Although Spokane’s minority population is less than 10 percent, it’s also important for white children to see Santas of other races, Nelson said.
Blacks are often negatively portrayed in the media, she said. To change that stereotype, “it’s good to see us as a part of the community and doing positive things.”
Most of the MLK Center kids immediately ran to Batts when he walked through the door. One child, however, kept her distance.
The girl, who was African American, refused to acknowledge him as Santa Claus.
“He’s not Santa,” the 4-year-old said, frowning. “Santa Claus is supposed to be white. … I want the white Santa Claus to come to my house.”
Batts wasn’t offended. He simply smiled and gave her a candy cane.
“Santa Claus comes in all colors,” he said.
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