Want to Solve the Mummers’ Diversity Problem? Just Call It “The White Heritage Parade”

Owens: Rather than force the event to represent the whole city, let it keep celebrating its culture of whiteness.
"Make Mummerica Great Again" truck at the 2017 Mummers Parade. | Photo by Ernest Owens.

“Make Mummerica Great Again” truck at the 2017 Mummers Parade. | Photo by Ernest Owens.

It’s a new year, and the older I get, the more I have begun to realize that some stuff won’t change because it really doesn’t want to.

Case in point: the Mummers Parade, the age-old Philadelphia tradition that marches along Broad Street every New Year’s Day. You don’t really need me to detail the parade’s racist, anti-LGBTQ, sexist, and culturally insensitive history — there have been plenty of reports in the past of Mummers in blackface, and some mocking transgender individuals and uttering sexist/racist/homophobic slurs.

But 2017 was supposed to be different. After last year’s event was hit with public outcry and protest over some spectacles that went too far, city officials were finally ready to step in and offer participating groups some sensitivity training.

At the time, I was personally over the controversy — I simply felt the damn parade was an embarrassment to the city and should finally end. But I had only ever watched it on TV — some Mummers and long-time spectators told me that experiencing the event in person would change my perceptions. So this year I got up at 9 a.m., went to Broad Street, and stayed the entire time.

And my perspective did in fact change as a result: The parade should exist — but not as an event geared toward representing the city at large. I witnessed a unique culture and vibe that made me realize the Mummers Parade should be rebranded as a White Heritage Parade — for it’s really a celebration of whiteness in all its glory and disgust.

Being there as a black man was almost voyeuristic — I could tell, given the sea of predominately white performers and attendees, that I was not the audience. There were a few black and Latinx families present, but the ones I spoke with were either there because they were kin to one of the few black/Latinx performers in the brigades or were just trying to see what all the fuss was about.

I watched for hours as white crowds were enchanted by the antics of white performers. The skits were tamer than last year’s, but it was obvious that some parade-goers missed the more controversial moments. “Make the Mummers Great Again,” some groups chimed during the performances. An older white man next to me in the crowd complained that the Mummers this year were a “bunch of wussies” and that “they were so lackluster.”

The crowd wasn’t shy about expressing itself. Attendees enjoyed Mummer-themed retellings of American history that celebrated only white figures and moments. Smiles and cameras broke out when a group of performers dressed up as Native Americans did an awkward tribal dance. But when a brigade came out denouncing president-elect Donald Trump with signs that read “not my president,” someone near me was annoyed that “they brought politics up.” Cheers resumed when performers taunted Mayor Kenney with calls to “Make Mummerica Great Again.”

I saw no blackface, but there was greenface with an afro. And yes, a young white Mummer was publicly drinking out of his backpack and greeted his white friends cheering at him from the sidelines with “What’s up, my nigga?” across from my section.

Of course I was shocked, but what could I do? The boy ran back to his troupe before I could even process what I had just heard, but it was clear my black presence did not matter or even register. I was obviously in their world right now, and I just began to roll with the punches.

The parade snaked through various levels of cultural appropriation — there were Aztec and traditional Latin-themed performances done by performers who clearly weren’t Latinx. Crowds of white Mummers danced and grooved to black line-dances and music without any black Mummers around to help them stay on beat. And the only time we finally saw black, Latinx, and LGBTQ troupes were at the very end of the parade as the crowd began to shrink and head to the bars. The “diversity” segment of the parade was short-lived and symbolically given the back seat at an event that had mocked their presence throughout the entire affair.

At this point, it became very obvious that for five hours I had not been in the Philadelphia I have called home for nearly seven years. But I didn’t leave yet, as I was curious to see what else happens during the Mummers parade that the television screen don’t show. Long story short: It was St. Patrick’s Day all over again. Public drunkenness, lewd misconduct, and all of the other things that would cause my black body to be stopped and frisked went unchecked by the Philadelphia police. What better confirmation of the double standard of white privilege than a bartender I heard saying “Boys will be boys” as he stepped outside for a smoke?

As the sun went down, some in the parade crowd harassed drivers attempting to turn a corner. At this point, I don’t even have to describe their racial identity — what other group in Philadelphia could carry on like that in public and not be harshly penalized?

At 7 p.m., I headed home. It was clear that regardless of the sensitivity training videos the city had provided, the culture and nature of the event will not change. The crowds are white, the themes are white, and the legal benefits and privileges bestowed upon their misconduct favor white attendees. “Diversity” at the parade this year had to be enforced and tolerated, not accepted and embraced. When the city had to step in to regulate the conduct of the parade, it should have been obvious that it had always been tailored to a certain demographic — white people. And for all intents and purposes, it should simply be a parade for them.

Stu Bykofsky was right when he once made the point that “[t]he Puerto Rican Day Parade is mostly Hispanic. The Odunde celebration is mostly black. I don’t recall complaints that they were not ‘diverse” enough.’” Cultural-themed parades don’t have to be “diverse enough” because they are intended to showcase a particular group for attendees interested in learning more.

Perhaps if the Mummers parade more accurately rebranded itself into a White Heritage Parade, then maybe this majority-minority city could see what a segment of white people in Philadelphia think of them and the rest of society. Despite being sometimes offended, I learned a lot about white Philadelphians and their privilege. At this point, who can deny that, as we enter a Trump presidency, we could all stand to learn more about one other?