In recent weeks, protestors in cities across the United States and Europe have toppled statues of historical figures who participated in, or even fought for, slavery and the slave trade. While at first, the focus was on monuments to the most egregious offenders, such as Confederate generals, a critical eye has now been turned to statues of others who played a role in upholding systemic racism. One of these targets is Jesus—when he is depicted as white.
The idea that white representations of Jesus uphold racism may go too far for some Christians (particularly white Christians). After all, Jesus is not from the modern era, and Jesus’ physical appearance is depicted in various ways, and often reflects the culture of the artist. Indeed, Jesus is usually portrayed to look like the people of the society from which the artwork originates. So why should anyone take issue with Jesus depicted as white?
Many American Christians today likely imagine Jesus as looking something like he does in Warner Sallman ‘s famous painting, “Head of Jesus”—with blue eyes, blonde hair, and light skin. It’s probable that Mary, the Apostles, and other biblical figures and early Christians are pictured in much the same way. The stories of the Bible take place in the region we now call the Middle East, and ancient Christianity was centered in the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe. The people in these regions were not white: they usually had dark hair and olive-colored skin. (Though some try to argue that Jesus was a Jew and therefore white, this is incorrect. Not all Jews are white, and Jews who are white have not been and are not always perceived as white in the United States. Additionally, unlike many Jews today, Jesus was not of European descent.)
Is it a problem when white Christians imagine all these revered figures as being white? Yes, I think it is.
If we lived in a vacuum, one in which there was no white supremacy, no colonialism, and no racism at all, then there should not be any problem with Jesus, Mary, and other saints portrayed as white, alongside other racial depictions of them. We live in a world of systemic racism, however, and depictions of Jesus as white must be seen in that context. We are not a country of white people; we are a diverse country, where—not surprisingly—depictions of Jesus are overwhelmingly white. If God is not a white man, then why do we often portray him as one?
I am not advocating for the destruction of artwork that depicts Jesus as white, but I’m not advocating keeping it all either. It is necessary for individual communities and parishes to examine their artwork, its history, and its meaning in the world today to determine if it collectively upholds or fights systemic racism.
I am, however, advocating that individual families and religious education programs examine how Jesus (and other saintly figures) are portrayed to children. This includes artwork, videos, and especially books. Even though I live in a multicultural area with a very diverse Catholic community, in my experience and research, Jesus is almost always depicted as white in Catholic books for children.
For example, this is a picture of a children’s books display at the bookstore at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, taken last year:
The illustrations for our Catholic children’s books need updating.
From my experience researching children’s Bibles, I can say that Catholic children’s Bibles are similarly white. Their illustrations often date back to the mid-twentieth century, as you might notice from some of the covers in the photo of the book display.
The predominance of white illustrations in these books is not only a diversity problem; it’s a white supremacy problem. Nancy Larrick showed over fifty years ago in her important essay, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” how efforts to publish books for children with illustrations of Black characters were opposed, and how characters that were originally written and/or illustrated as Black were changed to be white. She describes an angry letter published in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger from a white woman about the illustration in a book of nursery rhymes that accompanied the words, “Three babes in a basket/And hardly room for two/And one was yellow and one was black/And one had eyes of blue.” She said, “I was horrified when I was reading to my innocent young child, and behold, on page 15 there was actually the picture of three small children in a basket together…and one was a little Negro! I put my child and the book down and immediately called the owner of the drugstore and told him he would not have any more of my business (I buy a lot of drugs, for I am sick a lot) if he didn’t take all the rest of his copies of that book off his shelves.” Larrick gives another example of a publisher who said she received great opposition to an upcoming book featuring a Black child, so she contacted the author and artist and “the racial switch was made.” The main character of the book was changed to be white instead. Finally, some publishers found it easier to avoid books about Black characters due to low sales and consumer complaints. One stated, “The books [about Black characters] won favorable comment … but the effect on sales was negative. Customers returned not only these titles but all stock from our company. This meant an appreciable loss and tempered attitudes toward further use of Negro children in illustrations and in text.” Attempts at diverse racial representation in children’s books were strongly opposed, so children’s books depicted an “all-white world.”
When the vast majority of Catholic children’s books show Jesus as white, it becomes especially troubling. He and many other important figures in the history of Catholicism weren’t white, so the illustrations are historically inaccurate. Only about 6 in 10 United States Catholics are white, so it isn’t enough to say that this artwork is representative of the culture either. (If it were, Jesus would be white in just over half of the books, not virtually all of them.) This artwork, therefore, is not benign. It is a relic of white supremacy, and it continues to uphold white supremacy.
In Open Wide Our Hearts, the 2018 USCCB pastoral letter on racism, the bishops provide many small ways individuals, families, parishes, and leadership can work to fight racism. These calls to action include teaching children about race: “Here we call on our religious education programs, Catholic schools, and Catholic publishing companies to develop curricula relating to racism and reconciliation. Our campus ministers should plan young adult reflections and discussions that strive to build pathways toward racial equality and healing.” They also write: “We can provide experiences for children that expose them to different cultures and peoples. We can also draw upon the incredible diversity of the Church worldwide in providing education within the family and make it clear that God dwells in the equal dignity of each person. We ask all the faithful to consider ways in which they and their families can encounter, grow, and witness through an understanding and commitment to these values today. In turn, we pledge to provide tools and resources to facilitate those efforts.”
Catholic publishers can begin to implement these recommendations by including more racial diversity in the illustrations of children’s books, and this will benefit our children in many ways. First, they will have the educational benefit of learning about Christianity as a global religion that did not originate in Europe or the United States. Additionally, young Catholics of color will find themselves better represented (and accurately so) as they learn about their faith. Take, for example, one young boy who, when he first saw Jesus depicted as Black like himself in the book Christmas Gif’, exclaimed: “That baby Jesus looks like me. I could be the baby Jesus!”
There is also an important benefit for white Catholic children who regularly encounter Jesus, Mary, and others as brown and Black: humility. Larrick wrote about the harm on white children who primarily see white characters in children’s books: “Although his light skin makes him one of the world’s minorities, the white child learns from his books that he is the kingfish. There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books.” This problem is multiplied when the characters in question are revered saints and especially Jesus.
I hope Catholics can unify around the bishops’ recommendations for children from Open Wide Our Hearts. Race already permeates children’s religious materials, actually, but unfortunately, it is overwhelmingly white. I could imagine a religious education program responding to their recommendations by adding a single unit on race, for example, while the children are meanwhile inundated with images of white people representing the history of the Church and Jesus himself. Catholics – especially white Catholics—need to go out of our way to avoid introducing children to Jesus, Mary, and other biblical figures and saints as white to play our part in fighting systemic racism. Instead, children’s exposure to different cultures and peoples should include Jesus, along with other figures from the Bible and the history of Catholicism.
 Rudine Sims Bishop, Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2007) 164, referring to Charlemae Hill Rollins, Christmas Gif’ (New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1993).