One of the main themes of the articles that I’ve been curating for my Compassionate Resistance series has been the importance of trying to see through the eyes of the other, to help make sure they are included and not shut out. Too often in our post-Trump nation, some of us try to take the easy way out by pretending that the needs, issues, and traditions of minority groups matter less than our own personal comfort zones.
Last December at Walt Disney World, Ryan and I had an experience that speaks to this. Not only in the immediacy of the event, itself, but also in the discussion of it later on a popular Disney fan forum. First and foremost, we enjoyed our last-minute holiday trip to WDW. Although Disney makes a strong effort to be inclusive of other religious traditions during December, we went knowing that there is probably no place on earth that celebrates Christmas as festively or thoroughly as Disney World. As Jews from the outside looking in, it was all massive fun, including the Christmas-themed musical show at our favorite Epcot restaurant, the Biergarten.
Except for that brief, jarring moment when the band invited the audience to sing along to the historic German Christmas carol, Silent Night, rather forcefully telling us we should do so because “everybody knows the lyrics,” implying that there were no valid reasons not to join in. Ryan and I looked at each other at that moment knowing exactly what was happenin. Although being converts originally raised Christian, we certainly knew the lyrics, but we equally certainly did not sing them.
Some of you are already on the bus with me and know where we’re headed together, which means you also know I’m really writing this post for those who don’t understand where I’m going yet. So for those of you who are wondering what the big deal was, let’s begin to unpack things.
First, assuming that everybody would know the lyrics was to assume that everybody in the restaurant was Christian. For old standard song or not, why would somebody not raised Christian know the lyrics by heart to a religious Christmas carol? In the middle of Epcot in the middle of Walt Disney World in the middle of America in the 21st century, that’s a faulty assumption to make.
Second, even if irrespective of their personal religious tradition, everyone in the restaurant knew the lyrics, that still doesn’t mean that everyone would be willing to sing them. Silent Night, a song of great beauty, tells the story of the birth of the central figure of the Christian religion identified as the personification of God. But other religions don’t abide that story, and their adherents can’t sing such lyrics in good conscience. Observant Jews and Muslims, for example, cannot sing about the birth of a “holy child,” because our religions don’t harbor that belief.
Some of you still don’t get it, and I understand that and want to recognize that. It was the same way when I shared the story of that moment in a popular Disney fan forum while we were still at Disney World. Some people pushed back hard, saying it was no big deal. After all, most people in the United States are Christian, and we were at Disney World during December, and Silent Night is an iconic German Christmas Carol and we were at the Biergarten.
According to some of the people who pushed back, not only shouldn’t we have felt left out or surprised or off-put in any way by the highly loaded invitation to sing, but as members of a minority community, we should already have been prepared to deal with situations like this by simply smiling, not complaining, and letting everyone else have their fun. Other people read into us having felt excluded to mean that we didn’t want the song to have been sung at all, and slammed my original post with aggressive, angry rants about how I was promoting the alleged “war on Christmas.”
The most amazing part of sharing our feeling of being left out during an otherwise amazingly inclusive and joyous weeklong visit to Disney World on a Disney fan site was the closed-mindedness of so many of the responses. When you hear liberal hearts bandy the term “privilege” about, sometimes it’s hard to get a clear picture of what privilege looks like in action. This is a good example of privilege in action. Pointing out that something was un-ok and unnecessarily made you feel un-included, and being told that you don’t have the right to decide what isn’t ok for you or to recognize and name what might be hurtful in some way to you, because you aren’t a member of the majority and only members of the majority get to decide those things for everyone else.
It’s a knee-jerk reaction. The problem is, we’re usually so addictively attached to our own personal comfort zones that we seldom realize when we are responding on autopilot like that. And it’s a really difficult thing to get through to someone who is responding with automatic anger and indignation to try to bring them to the awareness that they haven’t actually heard what you said at all.
White people who believe and vociferously defend that white people have any right to determine what is or isn’t racist for people of color? Are astounding examples of such comfort-zone-on-autopilotness.
With that in mind, I don’t expect to get through to everyone who is reading this post. The bottom line is that you either respect and honor other people the same way that you expect others to respect and honor you, or you don’t. If you don’t, there’s no way I could get through a bubble of selfishness like that. That’s an ethical and a spiritual problem, and some day either the circumstances of your life will snap you out of it or, eventually, your maker will.
But if you do you honor and respect the other, then there is no reason to exclude them. There is no reason to tell them they should have seen it coming. There is no reason to tell them to just smile and bear it. There is, however, every reason to embrace them. The lack of doing so, I think, says a lot more about how people who go about their lives shutting out the other really feel about themselves.
The solution that I suggested in the forum, that the exclusively self-directed folks were unable to absorb even reading it from the screen directly in front of them (see again: knee-jerk reaction), was simply for the band to have invited to sing along “everybody who cares to” instead of “everybody”period. An invitation like that would have excluded no one. But of course, an invitation like that, though amazingly simple and simply compassionate, would also be an admission that not everyone on the planet is exactly like everyone else. And in post-Trump America, some people are going to horrifying and unethical lengths to make sure that admission — which is nothing more than an admission of reality — doesn’t happen.
Not included among that number, of course, is Disney. When I sent an email to guest services describing that jarring moment and asking them simply to consider a more inclusive invitation to sing, I got a phone call back to thank me for my suggestion and to let me know that it was being forwarded to the management team of the Biergarten. Will that 15 seconds of the show change because of it? One email won’t necessarily change the World. But I never assume one email can’t, either. More important than anything else is that Disney, at least, listened and responded with an open mind.
A thing, I think, perhaps as difficult as recognizing your own privilege is learning how to check it. So here’s another suggestion. Should you ever find Disney World is more tolerant of others than you are, it’s probably time to rethink some of the assumptions you harbor about the world, and especially about yourself. Christmas comes but once a year. But our need for each other’s understanding and compassion endures every minute of every hour of every day of our lives. That’s what it means to be a member of the beloved community. And the truth is, you’re a member of that community whether you like it or not.
It’s a small world, after all.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.