Is This Mummers Routine Racist?
I was struggling to explain the Mummers to a friend of mine from out of town the other day, when it hit me. “Lots of cities have New Year’s Day parades,” I told her, “and Philly’s just happens to be done by drunk amateurs.”
That doesn’t mean the Mummers are wholly amateurish. (And, well, most Mummers aren’t actually drunk, at least while performing.) Run around South Philly in the fall and you’ll see groups practicing their moves under I-95 pretty regularly. Lots of the floats are impressive. The string bands are generally pretty good. I spent a few enjoyable hours on Broad Street yesterday gawking. The Mummers Parade is Philadelphia’s annual people-watching Christmas.
But there are so many Mummers. Most are average guys. They’re students and ironworkers and cops and sportswriters and doctors and retired guys who have been Mummers for 50 years. There’s not much quality control. Not everyone is good at coming up with skits.
Let’s recap this, because it deserves it. It’s by Venetian NYA, the only club from Northwest Philly, which has a bowling alley I guess? It’s called “Indi-insourcing.” The theme, as host Steve Highsmith helpfully points out, is “bringing jobs back to America.” That’s pretty current; outsourcing was a topic during the presidential election, though the term feels so early 2000s.
A bunch of old white dudes come out, dressed in stereotypical Indian dress—I guess— and dots painted on their foreheads. They do “Gangnam Style” for some reason. (Wikipedia notes “Gangnam Style” did not chart in India.) They’re at the New Dehli call center until Native Americans raid the skit, and move the call center back to New Jersey. Everybody does the jump-on-it dance to the Sugarhill Gang version of “Apache.” End scene. (The skit, incidentally, reminds me of the video for the Tommy Seebach Band disco version of “Apache.”)
Apparently a lot of people in Philadelphia watch the Mummers on TV, because my Twitter timeline exploded at this skit. (Tara Murtha helpfully compiled a list of reactions yesterday; Philebrity’s Joey Sweeney has a rant about a few skits, including a tribute to minstrel shows.) The Mummers have a somewhat uncomfortable history, with blackface being banned only in 1964. It’s an old white Philadelphia tradition that remains predominately white as the city has become much less white every year.
This debate comes up every year, and I’m not quite sure what can be done. Part of the Mummers parade is designed to be un-PC, where average Joes can get drunk in the middle of the street, hit on women—I saw a Mummer aggressively hitting on a police officer yesterday—and generally acting out like a teenager, doing things that offend people just because. It’s a similar reason a lot of people go to Eagles games.
But unlike Eagles games, where fans acting out have actually made the Linc quite an unlikeable, hostile place to go, the Mummers parade is really friendly. Everyone on Broad Street is upbeat. The Mummers mock white culture, too, but I think it’s concerning that there are any skits that play on dumb stereotypes of people who, largely, aren’t included in the parade. The “Indi-insourcing” skit isn’t really mean-spirited, I don’t think. But Mummers should think about how unwelcoming some of the skits come across.
As an uncomfortable white doofus generally, thinking about this stuff makes me want to curl into a ball on the floor. I’m not going to join the Mummers to try to change things. The only thing I can do is what much of Philadelphia does when they see the Mummers and laugh. Ahh, mockery: That’s a Philadelphia tradition even older and stronger than the Mummers Parade.