Larry Jefferson, playing the role of Santa, poses with Jack...

Larry Jefferson, playing the role of Santa, poses with Jack Kivel, of Prior Lake, for photos at the Santa Experience at Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minn., on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. Credit: AP

Santa can be black, and Amy Schumer can be Barbie, and we can all just take a deep breath about who’s portraying our fictional(!) icons.

For the first time in its 24-year history, suburban Minnesota’s Mall of America - the mall-est of all malls - hired an African-American man to play Santa.

“We want Santa to be for everyone, period,” Landon Luther, co-owner of the Santa Experience, which runs the studio at the mall, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

So he went to a Santa convention in Branson, Mo., and happened upon Larry Jefferson, a retired U.S. Army veteran from Irving, Texas, who has been playing Santa since 1999, according to the paper.

“I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love and peace to girls and boys,” Jefferson told the Star Tribune.

He belongs to the Lone Star Santas, a nonprofit that delivers toys to children whose homes have been struck by natural disaster. He has a fluffy white beard, a bright red suit and a jolly grin.

But his skin is black, so naturally people lost their minds.

Outraged loyalists to white Santa called for a boycott of the mall. Bigots had a field day on social media. (You can Google their reactions if you want to. I’m not repeating them here.) Scott Gillespie, the Star Tribune’s editorial page editor, posted on Twitter that the paper had to disable the comments section on its story about Jefferson. Later he tweeted that comments were disabled “based on past practice with stories with racial elements.” (I’m not sure which is sadder - the idea that black Santa would inspire a racist deluge or the idea that black anyone would.)

This is madness.

Santa can embody joy and goodwill and the spirit of giving regardless of whether his skin matches yours. Just ask the millions upon millions of little black and Latino and Asian children who’ve been lining up to meet him for decades. Are white children so sheltered and insensitive that they can’t imagine goodness coming from a nonwhite being?

No, they’re not.

Are their parents? Obviously some of them are.

I don’t understand what we choose to hold sacred.

Amy Schumer is set to star in an upcoming live-action Barbie movie, the Hollywood Reporter announced late last week, which has prompted the dress-size police to take up arms (toned, svelte arms, no doubt).

Schumer doesn’t fit the plastic Barbie mold, so her casting is an outrage. (Lots of “Barbie Goes to Fat Camp” jokes and the like.)

Never mind that no actual human fits the Barbie mold; the doll’s measurements would make her 6 feet tall and 100 pounds with a 39-inch bust. Barbie’s waist is so small, according to estimates, that she would only have room for half a liver.

But, by all means, let’s defend that ideal. Better for women to aspire to an anatomical impossibility than get the idea they can go around having actual hips.

What gives?

If we don’t want our icons to look more like America, what does that say about America?

If a whiff of diversity and inclusion in our fictional characters sets people on edge, what hope do we have for creating a more openhearted, open-minded, equal-opportunity place for living, breathing, working, loving human beings?

You can write off the Santa/Schumer blowback as a handful of nuts on social media. But people similarly waved away the vitriol aimed at the new “Ghostbusters” - What’s the big deal? Some guys on Twitter are upset. - and that escalated into an all-out campaign to take down co-star Leslie Jones.

I’m done pretending a little racism here, a little cruelty there is no big deal. I don’t want to shrug off hostility and harassment. I don’t want to place the same nonsense limitations on make-believe characters that we place on real people. It reveals an alarming lack of empathy and fairness and cheats us out of making real progress toward unity.

We can’t let this stuff become par for the course, or the course is going to lead us backward.

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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