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Opinion: Rudolf the Adorable Discriminated-Against Reindeer

It was only until Rudolph had something to offer that he was accepted…

By Shaley Howard

You know the story – Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. But have you ever really considered what’s happening in this story? Here is a young little reindeer born with a glowing red nose. Not exactly certain about the biology behind this but we’ll just go with it. When his father sees him for the first time, instead of embracing his all-too-unique son’s nose, he’s embarrassed and covers it up with mud. Later on, Rudolf is playing with his ‘friends’ and his fake nose pops off revealing his secret glow-in-the-dark nose to the world. After being ridiculed incessantly and ostracized, Rudolf shouts, “Stop calling me names!” The lead reindeer instructor even chimes in adding, “From now on gang, we won’t let Rudolf play any more reindeer games”. Finally, there’s Santa, yes-dear old Santa, who comments how disappointed he is in Rudolf’s Dad. Wow.

It was only until Rudolph had something to offer that he was accepted. He had to prove himself in order to be accepted as ‘normal’. It’s funny to me how we celebrate this classic Christmas tale and applaud the ending when Rudolf saves Christmas instead of seeing how fucked up the story is really. Rudolf was different and therefore faced blatant discrimination. Everyone else was accepted and never had to prove themselves worthy. And don’t even get me started on the island of ‘Misfit Toys’ where all the rejected toys are banished to live out their days. I mean, isn’t the island essentially for everyone that’s marginalized and not allowed in the castle?

To a certain degree, I believe it’s not fair to judge things out of context or from a different time period. I am however, one to point out the idea of being different in this culture, more often than not, is negative. Anyone who isn’t a cisgender, able-bodied, white, straight male, on some level had to fight for equality and be seen as ‘normal’, many of us to no avail.

We live on a planet that is incredibly diverse with all kinds of wonderful unique species, all different and beautiful in their own way. And human beings are no different. We come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Yet instead of embracing diversity, we see things through the lens of prejudice and discrimination. We judge each other on everything: race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, body size, class… The list of discriminations we create is never-ending. Yet ultimately, these are fabricated ideas.

There is some fascinating science behind why people have this ‘birds of a feather flock together’ mentality. Moreover, it’s usually unconscious. Early in life, we develop heuristics, (mental shortcuts), to learn, organize and simplify our world and experiences. As humans trying to understand our complex environment our brains need to place things, including people, into categories. In our evolution, this actually helps us to respond quickly and possibly survive. An example might be when we see a stick on the ground in our peripheral vision. We often jump back, as our minds instantly, without thought, interpret that stick as being a snake. This quick mental shortcut has enabled many humans to avoid the deadly outcome of a venomous snakebite. Of course this mental shortcutting is happening at lightning speed. In fact, the body sends almost 11 million bits of information to the brain to process every second. Every second. Our conscious minds are able to process only about 50 bits of information per second. From an evolutionary point of view, this sort of instant assessment can be extremely useful. However, the other side of this coin is we can end up oversimplifying with dangerous societal consequences.

We are also deeply uncomfortable with ambiguity. Anything outside a person’s ‘norm’ can be unconsciously seen as a danger or threat. This emotional response may push our perceptions to a more defensive, closed-minded view of the world. There’s a psychological phenomenon called, ‘out-group homogeneity biases’. People within ‘their’ group of people are able to see diversity and difference. But outside their group, they see other people and groups as homogenous. There are many of examples of this kind of behavior. The one I’m familiar with and have heard numerous times is, ‘All butch lesbians look alike’, when in fact we don’t at all.

The real consequences arise when we combine these mental shortcuts with culturally derived meaning, ie prejudice. These passed down beliefs and values come from our families, friends, media and world around us. This kind of prejudicial misinformation then leads to stereotyping, bullying and discrimination of those around us that do not fit into our perceived notion of ‘normal’. Therefore, anyone outside of societies ‘normal’ appearance or behavior now faces an uphill battle of having to prove themselves worthy. Cue Rudolf.

We do have a choice however. We may not have much conscious choice when it comes to the snap judgements our brain makes (although repeated exposure can certainly help), but we do have a choice when it comes to what we teach and share. Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, fat shaming….all of these are ideas. They are manufactured ideas and the actual phenomena has to do with the negative meaning we give them.

One of the great things about humans is our ability to make conscious choices. We can point out prejudices. We can speak out against bullying and move towards anti-discriminatory social norms. We can change laws to be more inclusive, fair and equal. And most importantly, we can choose to be more empathetic towards one another.

Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was just like his flying reindeer buddies. The only difference was he had a glowingnose that lite up – genius. Was he a victim of discrimination? Yes. But his story is a great example of the need to embrace diversity. A little reindeer pioneer perhaps leading the way not just for Santa on a foggy night, but for everyone to see how diversity is a wonderful gift. He illuminated the prejudicial world around him while winning our hearts. And, come on, he did save Christmas.

SHALEY HOWARD is an award winning LGBTQ+ activist in Portland Oregon. She writes a blog, Adventures of a Butch Dog Walker and runs a pet care business called Scratch N’ Sniff that she absolutely loves!


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