A blog by Hári Sewell and Lisa Harbron

Hári Sewell is an author and educator on social and racial justice.
Lisa Harbron is an actor, writer and student researcher, interested in utilising the arts as a platform for social change.

Hari wrote

In families and networks where Christmas is discussed, especially where children are involved, conversations often include something about discoveries that Santa Claus is not real. Children often pretend to still believe in Santa because they have a vested interest in preserving the pretence.

As a society in the UK we are fed headlines and data about social injustices.  Much discourse is about the whatand less about the why. Where the why is discussed it often focuses on the internal conditions of an individual, community or social group, i.e. “what is it about them?”.  It as though we prefer to believe that deficits in the othercause inequities rather than conditions in society. It’s our version of Santa.  We play ignorant of the systemic and structural drivers for social inequities. 

Lisa wrote:
I remember the devastation I felt on discovering that Santa Claus was not real. I don’t remember what led to the discovery, only the feeling of the crushing realisation like the earth I had been walking on had crumbled underneath my feet. The spell of childhood joy and innocence was broken. I was so upset that I tried to will myself to unlearn what I had discovered. I didn’t let on to my parents. That discovery felt like a pivotal moment signalling the end of my childhood.

Maybe this is symbolic of how hard it is for us to fully acknowledge how structures and policies lead to, and maintain, inequities. We struggle to face our collective role in social injustices. Doing so would require a re-evaluation of our individual and collective identities.

Perhaps there is more learning that can be gleaned from the Santa Clause fable? Every year, children will be judged by a patriarchal figure as either naughty or nice, deserving of either presents or coal. Santa Clause seems to sit at the table of a capitalist patriarchal structure that promotes institutionalised notions of hard work for the luring promise of gratifying material gains.

Indeed, the myth of the meritocracy is the platform for self congratulatory sentiments, mediated by the statement “
anyone could get here if they tried hard enough”. It’s from the same victim-blaming stable as “that why I make sure I (..don’t dress that way / resist authority etc)”.

Two newspaper headlines in December 2022 are significant. “Met pays out to black brothers searched and handcuffed outside home” (The Guardian, 1st December 2022) and “Zara Aleena murder: Jordan McSweeney jailed for at least 38 years” (The Guardian 14 December 2022). They both speak of social injustices that one way or another circle back to victim blaming of either an individual or group. The seeking of explanations through the lens of ‘internal conditions’ of the group or individual also leads to the narrative that identifiable perpetrators of violence are an aberration, i.e. acts by a ‘bad apple’. For example, the problem of certain patients or care receivers being verbally and physically racist to minoritised employees is often addressed as a problem of individual citizens being racist, as opposed to investigating where the mindset comes from, e.g. in political and media discourse.

Children who have discovered the reality of Santa’s fictional status are told – either directly or indirectly – to pretend, for the other children still caught-up in the spell. To be a good sport, to play along.

The child who shares their learning is labelled as problematic, disobedient (naughty, even) and should be punished (by not receiving a stocking). Attention is directed to the actions and behaviour of the individual and diverted from the collective belief and structural actions of a group.

What learning does this instil in children? To maintain the status quo? That if you discover an uncomfortable truth that doesn’t fit with the public narrative, you must remain silent, and your silence and conformity will be rewarded with gifts?

It is not the act of believing in Santa Clause, in a fairy tale that is troubling. It is the act of encouraging and rewarding pretence to maintain the status quo of a capitalist structure that benefits some groups whilst harming others, that is concerning.

People who bring perspectives critical of the hegemony are often punished.

Are we paving the path for children to grow into adults who prefer to live in ignorance to maintain a comfortable life? Who have learnt and internalised the tools of rewriting the narrative to uphold the foundations of their collective group identity, under a false notion of the greater good? Such people who might observe structural injustices and remain silent, writing it off as an individual anomaly?

Grossman and van der Weele (2017) wrote about wilful ignorance in relation to social welfare decisions and highlighted research findings that once people were aware of the adverse consequences of their actions they were willing to forego the possible benefit to themselves. They went on to state:

These paradoxical results indicate that people cultivate uncertainty about the outcomes of their actions for others in order to justify self-interested decisions ( Grossman and van der Weele, 2017, p174).

It is as though people who have a vested interested in maintaining a particular identity of a group they belong to, or identify with, are prone to seeking alternative explanations for negative impacts on social groups such as those captured in the headlines above and many more like them.

They see the world through the lens of that group identity, and rewrite the narrative accordingly. By upholding this narrative, they do not have to question uncomfortable truths about themselves or the world around them.

The routine objectification of women, the narrative of women being gatekeepers of sex, models of masculinity that include the normalcy of dominance over women, the notion of biological or culturally determined deficit racial traits are all matters related to the detrimental outcomes for women and people from racialised minority backgrounds.

Check these statistics:

4,880,000 women aged 16 to 74 in England and Wales have experienced some form of sexual assault since the age of 16, as of the year ending March 2020, the number for men is 989,000

And the numbers could even be higher. A meritocracy that encourages silence creates fear of speaking out. Or notions of victim-blaming (slut shaming) have become so internalised that women themselves may sometimes struggle to identify that they have experienced sexual assault.

1 in 100 rape cases result in a someone being charged in the same year (2021) 98% of adults prosecuted for sexual offences are men
(Rape Crisis analysis of from Home Office data 2022)

In the year ending March 2021 there were 52.6 stop and searches for every 1,000 black people compared with 7.5 stop and searches for every 1,000 white people.

77% of stops and searches of Black men (aged 16-24) in England and Wales in the year to ending March 2021 were in London.

(Home Office 2022)

Over 75% of NHS Black nurses workers reported that racism negatively impacted on their professional wellbeing. (National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing Report 2022)

A question we might consider is “Beyond the dominant everyday explanations, what other critiques are we playing wilful ignorance with and what is our equivalent of Santa’s reward?”