The ‘Exotic’ Three Wisemen

Previously on this blog, we’ve discussed the predominance of white Santa and white baby Jesus. But in a white default world, when do characters of color make an appearance in the Christmas story we tell?

On the occasion that nativity scenes do contain some amount of diversity, it is usually in the characters of the three wise men. These kings traveled from a far off land, and it seems are the only ones that have been ‘otherized' enough to be people of color at the foot of the manger. The message here is that they are ‘exotic’—they are not one of us.

So common is this type-casting that children make lasting associations based on Christmas iconography:

“Its Christmas time in Detroit, 1961. I was 3 years old and in the bank line with my Mom. There were 3 black men in front of us in line, talking and laughing amongst themselves. I had never seen, nor let alone been exposed, to people who didn’t look like me. All I had known is what was in picture books at home, and we had pictures of the dark skinned men who visited Jesus in the manger. Being an inquisitive little chatterbox and fairly smart, I asked these 3 fellows if this was who they were… What did I know? My Mom wanted to dive under a desk in embarrassment. Luckily for us, they laughed in what I hope now is amusement at the innocent question of a 3 year old toddler.”

There are some traditional reasons for the magi’s representation. In Europe, the three wise men often represent each of the contents: Africa, Europe, and Asia (being a primitive culture, Europe was unaware of the other four continents during the time of the tradition’s origins). Thus, in paintings and in live nativity scenes, at least one of the Magi is usually black--most often through the use of blackface.

But the biblical account describes the Magi as traveling from the east, not from the continent to the south and west of Bethlehem. And despite repeated requests to stop the use of blackface, the tradition continues. Indeed, in Germany some have observed that “this use of blackface is a missed opportunity to be truly inclusive of Afro-Germans in German-speaking communities and contributes to the equation of 'blackness' with 'foreignness' and 'otherness' in German culture.”

God sent His Son into the world as poor, brown, member of an oppressed society. This is who we should identify with and celebrate. Rather than perpetuating exclusion and ‘otherization’ in our manger scenes, we could be celebrating the truly inclusive Body of Christ.

Do you have a nativity scene in your home? Who is represented in it? Who is missing? 

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