I’m a professional costume designer and theatre artist by trade.
I live in Philadelphia, a city that I love.
And so on my first New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, despite being about as hungover as a five-pound dog turd in a garbage bag, I looked out the window to see what all the noise was about and thought, “My head is killing me, I want to barf, and also … wow. I know exceptional work when I see it.”
Welcome to the Mummer’s Parade.
To someone who doesn’t live in Philadelphia, this tradition might not make a lot of sense. Hell, I’ve lived here for years and I still don’t totally understand it. But I accept it, in the same way as “I’m getting milk from the fridge” is a useful shorthand for “I’m drinking the white stuff that comes out when you squeeze cow’s boobs.” I’ve now lived here long enough that I say, “The Mummer’s Parade,” and not, “That thing where thousands and thousands of people dress up in sequined, feathery costumes, and parade down Broad Street on New Year’s Day and make a lot of noise and wave umbrellas around and play instruments and perform choreographed routines and they’re almost all working-class white people whose families have participated in this for generations, and also it’s a big excuse to get publicly shitcanned drunk in the street because it’s weirdly socially sanctioned on this one magical day of the year.”
If you’ve never seen the Mummers before: the parade is great. It’s boozy and wild and raucous and also, it’s incredibly indicative of time, energy, practice, and hard work. I know firsthand how long it takes to sew a sequin (or six thousand). Just imagine strapping a fifty-pound garment on, donning your instrument, and then playing it in rhythm while dancing to a choreographed piece of music with a hundred of your closest friends during a televised broadcast. That takes effort, and practice, and I love it, and I know why others do, too.
It’s FUN. It’s hella fun. And the pursuit of fun is something we can all get behind. Let’s just call it what it is: fun!
We can also call it what it is, too: Racist.
Homophobic, too. Sexist, for sure.
But we’ll say it all again, for good measure: incredibly fucking racist.
You know how when incidents involving race (say, the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice or literally any of the young dead black men who are losing the lottery against being alive, young, and black — you know how when those things happen, you remark on them to your white friends, and they sometimes say things like:
“Okay, sure, that’s a horrible tragedy, but where’s the outrage from the black community about black-on-black crime? What are they — you know, black people — what are they doing about that?”
And you can say things like, “What makes you think black people aren’t protesting black-on-black crime?” or “You know, many crime victims are victimized by people they know, and our nation is incredibly segregated as a result of institutionalized racism tracing back to slavery,” and sometimes those points are heard, but sometimes, it turns to something like:
“I just think they –“ or “They all –“ or “But if they only –“
And you try to say something like, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t use the word “they” to mean “literally all black people in America?”
This is, of course, almost always the moment when the conversation derails completely. Emotions run hot. There’s no quicker way to make someone feel defensive and shameful than to point out that a presumably nice, kind, decent person… can also be a bit of a racist.
White people, raise your hands if you’ve ever been the only white person in the room, and asked to speak on behalf of your race.
No? Maybe one or two of you in the back of the room? Okay.
We’re an enormous category, us white people, and we’ve got some all-stars on our team: Ben Franklin, the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Amy Poehler. JJ Abrams. Jennifer Lawrence. Most of our historical figures, authors, filmmakers, musicians, writers, and current pop stars. We’ve also got the Unibomber, a staggering number of mass-murderers, Trump, Bieber, Flo from the Progressive commercials. 245 million others, give or take. It’s a mixed bag.
Black people get Aretha Franklin and Oprah and Audre Lorde and Duke Ellington and Obama and Ta-Nehesi Coates and plenty of writers and musicians and athletes and pop stars. They’ve also got Cosby and Kanye and OJ and that rapper who posted a dick selfie on Instagram. It is also a mixed bag.
The point that I’m making here is that no one can be a spokesperson for an entire group. I’m white, and yet I can’t explain the popularity of ugly sweater parties, Donald Trump, or mayonnaise to you. (I mean, in fairness, mayonnaise is goddamned delicious. But I digress). I’m not a policy expert on the campaigns of Hillary Clinton or an aficionado of the films of Wes Anderson. So if you ask me what I think of any of those things, I can tell you what I think… but I can’t tell you on behalf of all white people.
I say this because of a comment I read, from a Mummer, on a Facebook page of a local political activist group. They were planning a peaceful protest on the sidelines of the parade, with the stated goal not to disrupt the action, but to call attention to the parade’s historic racism, and recent current events that they wanted to remain in the national conversation.
I am going to tell you some stories about some individual Mummers now, and I would like to remind you that some of these Mummers are lovely and many are hardworking and talented and some of them are the Mother Theresas of Mummering and some of them dressed their white children in brownface and stuck a sombrero on their heads and didn’t seem to think there was a problem with that.
Or carry signs that say #WenchLivesMatter (a wench is a type of Mummer, although what it really mostly means is dudes wearing dresses because ha, ladies, and also, ha, #BlackLivesMatter is hilarious).
Here are some more thoughts, from some more Mummers, on that same local #BlackLivesMatter page:
Also starring in this year’s parade: this guy:
… who was caught on camera screaming “Fuck the gays!”
He’s part of the brigade that performed this sketch:
…. before members of the same group allegedly assaulted this man…
… who was committing the alleged offense of walking his dog while gay.
Oh. And my friend took these pictures:
So there’s a quick ‘lil snapshot of what some mummers chose to do on their first day of 2016.
Not all mummers, of course, were running around peeing while wearing blackface, or screaming the word “faggot.” It goes without saying. I so badly wish I did not have to repeatedly say that. Of course not all mummers are racist trolls. And we know this, because…
I’m a Philadelphian and I live in South Philly and I am a white person and I share a city, a culture, and a skin color with the people who pissed on a homeless guy’s possessions, assaulted a gay dude, and donned brownface taco costumes to mock Mexican culture.
I’m a Pennsylvanian and I am a white person and I share these qualities with John Pisone, the Pennsylvania man who kicks off this video by saying, to the offscreen cameraman, “Like this, this chimp right here, this fucking nigger with a mop on his head.”
I’m an American and I am a white person and I share those qualities with sympathizers of this guy, who is currently illegally occupying a federal building in Oregon. He’s an armed anti-government protestor whose facebook feed is full of quotes from the US constitution — as well as plenty of thoughts about Muslims in America.
Let me get that out there again, because it almost needs to be repeated to be believed: there’s a bunch of dudes with guns who have taken over a federal wildlife preserve in Oregon with the intention to stay there as long as they need until their point is proven: that the federal government has no authority over them. Spokespeople for the group of “militiamen” claim they would “not rule out violence” if anyone tried to remove them from the building.
These are white men, with guns, posing with the American flag, holding up the Constitution of the United States and claiming the rhetoric of “all men are created equal.”
Some, perhaps, more equal than others.
How offensive is it really to depict Native Americans in colorful war bonnets or hillbillies in bib trousers? Have political correctness and hypersensitivity killed America’s sense of humor?
I wonder if there’s some part of the “humor” that I’m just not seeing here.
And I might share a zip code, a citizenship, and a skin tone with all of those people.
But I am not those things. And no one thinks I am.
That’s what’s so great about being a white person. People assume I’m a person. They don’t assume I’m a color. That’s also known as “white privilege.”
I will never be asked to defend any of these people, who share my pasty Irish complexion and almost none of my beliefs. I will never be asked to explain how someone of my race could possibly think it was okay to shoot another human or use a racial slur. I will never be asked to explain why white men commit the most mass murders, why white people comprise the majority of Congress and perpetually fuck that up, why white people were the primary contributors to the financial crisis. Shit, I’m likely never going to be asked why my own neighbors dressed in feathers and sequins and paraded down the street just to hate on gay people and didn’t even notice the irony.
So please: a set of guidelines for you, my fellow white friends. You may no longer ask why black people haven’t done more against black-on-black crime unless YOU PERSONALLY have campaigned your government for stricter gun regulations.
You may no longer ask why all Muslims participate in a violent religion unless YOU PERSONALLY are comfortable quoting the most violent sections of the Bible and explaining how those passages are not meant to be taken literally in a modern time.
You may no longer say things like “But the black makeup used in the parade isn’t the same as, like, blackface…” without learning that this happened first:
But white people: I am not any of those things.
And neither are most of you.
Talk about this. Talk about this with other white people. Talk about this loudly and talk about this quietly, in homes and at bars. Talk about this with white people who are ignorant, in the hopes that they will be less ignorant, although that road will be long and it will be hard and you can not control it or demand it of them. Talk about it. Talk about it. Talk about how it is all connected, in ways that none of us really understand, because it is the invisible framework upon which everything is built. Talk about it until you are sick of talking about it, because maybe other white people will listen to someone who looks and talks and has a shared experience to their own. Talk about it because humans deserve to be all treated like humans. Talk about it because no one should be mocked on television, beaten for being gay, or have their belongings peed on. Talk about it because maybe that talk will bring the tiniest bit of change or understanding.
Talk about it because you are not ashamed or afraid to have been born with white skin, but you hate that you live in a country where the same is not true for many people of color.
Talk about it because it’s bullshit. Talk about it because it’s still fucking happening. Talk about it because it’s affecting us all.
Talk about it before next year’s parade. Because that parade is a lot of fun, and I really would like to be there next year, where everyone feels safe and included, cheering and waving, having a great time.