Let's Help Heal Rudolph

Both the story and the song of "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" are ingrained in our Christmas holiday narrative. This seemingly innocent and harmless Christmas song, under closer examination, is neither innocent nor harmless. In fact, it contains an insidious message that legitimizes cruelty and stigmatizes diversity.
12/29/2015 04:29 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2016

Lately I've been thinking a lot about Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and institutionalized discrimination.

Most of us are familiar with the adventures of the reindeer named Rudolph. As you may recall, he was different from the other reindeer. He was bullied, ostracized and stigmatized because of the color of his nose. It was shiny and even at times it glowed. The other reindeer laughed, called Rudolph names, and wouldn't let him join them in any of their reindeer games. This cruel behavior seemed to go unchecked for some time and was apparently at its most benign ignored and at its most malignant condoned by the man holding the reindeer reins. According to the Johnny Marks song, Rudolph's abuse doesn't end until that foggy Christmas Eve when Santa Claus needed Rudolph's shiny nose so bright to guide his sleigh that night. The song then suggests that Rudolph met or exceeded expectations, was accepted and endorsed by the other reindeer, and awarded a place in history. Indications are that had that particular night not been foggy the brutalization of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer would have continued unchecked. Only when he proved himself useful was he allowed acceptance into reindeer society.

Both the story and the song of "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" are ingrained in our Christmas holiday narrative. The song has been recorded by popular music icons including Gene Autry, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Anka, The Supremes, Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton, Barry Manilow, Lynyrd Skynryd, Chicago and, yes, in a horrifying example of cross species insensitivity, Alvin and the Chipmunks.

This seemingly innocent and harmless Christmas song, under closer examination, is neither innocent nor harmless. In fact, it contains an insidious message that legitimizes cruelty and stigmatizes diversity.

"Hold on a minute," you say. "Get off your high horse. This is just a song."

I understand that it's 'just' a song. I also understand that popular culture, of which music is a significant element, plays a role in shaping our beliefs. Whether or not we realize it, when we happen to sing along with "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" we are lending our voice to and by extension our endorsement of this poignant example of institutionalized discrimination.

Practices, activities or beliefs accepted by a society, its members, and its organizations become institutionalized. Institutional discrimination, then, refers to the stigmatizing mistreatment of individuals or groups of individuals by a majority segment of a society. This type of mistreatment is systemic and often rooted in stereotypical beliefs. Sometimes the roots go so deep that the offenders aren't even aware of their damaging behavior.

Whether delivered with no intent to harm or delivered with practiced precision the pain inflicted by what we say and what we do is real and can result in catastrophic injuries as evidenced by the increased suicide rates, decreased access to health care, or impediments to housing and occupational achievement among stigmatized minority populations. Institutionalized discrimination can be lethal.

Before that epic foggy night, we have no evidence to suggest that even one reindeer said, "Whoa, guys. What we are doing to poor Rudolph isn't right."

Nothing suggests that even one reindeer tried to get to know Rudolph. And we certainly have nothing to even hint that Santa Claus, himself, tried to address the pain inflicted on Rudolph. Until, that is, necessity took charge of the situation and Rudolph became a hero.

There are many ways Rudolph's mistreatment might have been remedied. Santa could have stopped it at any time. Perhaps he was not aware of it busy as he must have been with the enormous responsibilities involved with his position. Rudolph might have alerted him to the situation if not directly then possibly through song or poetry or literature. One of the other reindeer could have befriended Rudolph or done community organizing or spoken to Santa Claus or educated the other reindeer.

None of those potential remedies to a systemic problem is simple. All require courage but first they require awareness. In order to stop inflicting pain we must first be aware of our behavior. In order to fix a problem we must first notice that a problem exists.

Yes, "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" is just a song. But it institutionalizes unkind behavior. And "Snow White" is just a fairy tale. But it institutionalizes the notion that women are weak and need a prince in order to truly live. And the "N" word is just a word. But it institutionalizes dehumanizing enslavement.

What we say and what we do matter. How we say what we say and how we do what we do also matter. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is nothing while we look around us for opportunities to deinstitutionalize cruelty in all of its forms.

Sometimes the most healing thing we can say is, "Hello."