Mum’s The Word.

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Here are some more thoughts, from some more Mummers, on that same local #BlackLivesMatter page:

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Also starring in this year’s parade: this guy:

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… who was caught on camera screaming “Fuck the gays!”

He’s part of the brigade that performed this sketch:

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…. before members of the same group allegedly assaulted this man…

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… who was committing the alleged offense of walking his dog while gay. 

Oh. And my friend took these pictures:

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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.

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And in my own city, as the Daily News’ Stu Bykofsky wonders,

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.

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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:

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and this, in 2016, is in every way a byproduct.
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White people, I can’t speak for you all, and I would never pretend to. I can only speak for myself.

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.

**
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46 thoughts on “Mum’s The Word.

  1. It’s hard to read about the daft shit that people espouse, because it’s awful and stupid and ugly. But I don’t cringe inwardly as a white person, because as you rightly point out, dominant culture is rarely held responsible for its fringe whackos. Although, these days, it seems like that fringe is getting awfully damned big. It behooves us to rise up from our silent spaces and make our presence known – those that believe that the path should lead to more, not less, compassion and critical thinking and that fear will not define who we are.

  2. Thank you. Excellent blog. I particularly appreciate all the evidence you’ve embedded. Hard to argue against that. (though I’m sure folks will still try)

  3. Yesterday, when I was commenting on some misogynistic comment a bloke made (the topic was a law that made women showing nipples a crime, and it affects women who are breast feeding, and the guy made some REALLY stupid remark about the law not targeting breast feeding but being a good idea to protect women from “promiscuous women” who might steal husbands) and after a few go-rounds in which he called someone else stupid, I finally called him out on his poor grammar and spelling – AFTER he insulted a male nurse and tried to claim mental superiority by stating he was in medical school. Apparently, that was racist of me as a white Anglo-Saxon. Who knew?!

    Sigh. Judging by some of this guy’s other comments, if he could tell from my photos that I’m fat, he would have honed in on that instead of my skin-color.

    But everything you’ve said in this post is absolutely true. Racism is still a huge problem in the world, and if it weren’t, he wouldn’t have equated my criticism with racism. If there were no reason for a Black Lives Matter movement there wouldn’t BE one. If people didn’t make comments about what a horrible job our current president is doing, and when asked to specify, come up with nothing better than “I hate his policies” without being able to pinpoint a single policy or why they disagree with them, we could con ourselves into thinking we’ve evolved more. If a 12 year old child wasn’t SHOT DEAD in an OPEN CARRY state for carrying a TOY gun, by police officers who were then exonerated, we might all believe that racism wasn’t a thing.

    But it is still a thing. I hope it won’t always be, but pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away.

  4. Pingback: Mum’s The Word. | musnadjia423wordpress

  5. Thank you for yet another wonderful post. Years ago the city wanted to shut down the Mummer’s Parade because it cost so much money. I signed petitions to keep it going. I have friends from college who performed in one of the top 10 brigades. When I went to the parade I saw aliens, birds of all kinds, pirates. None of these racist themes (I might have missed them as I only wanted to see the fancy brigades). And now I feel in some part responsible. I don’t want the Mummers to go away, but I don’t want to support racism, or abuse, or any of these negative things. Philadelphia can and should be so much more. I am happy to see that the Mummers are speaking out about it. That they are going to try to enact some change and some sensitivity. I am hopeful that they really will (because I believe that all people are inherently good or want to do good, just my world view). And I will try to talk about it. Try to do my part.

  6. I wish I knew you when I lived in Philly. I loved the Mummers. We went to their parades every year. They even performed at a big family party–indoors! They were larger than life. But when I went to the Mummers Museum on a corporate outing (this was in 1990), I couldn’t shake the idea of the KKK out of my head. There is something about dressing up and being in a group that makes ordinarily amazing people do stupid and mean things. Add alcohol into the mix, and you’ve got a really big problem. I never said or did anything about this niggling feeling I had, and when I first started reading this article, I thought, “Well, maybe I should rethink those old beliefs.” Unfortunately, you took me right back to 1990. Like you, I hated the idea of pointing out the ugly underbelly of a beloved tradition. Unlike you, I did nothing. There’s no easy answer to problems like this. But the more light we shine on the shadow side, the less of the shadow side there is. Thanks for an amazing post, as usual.

  7. Hi Katherine,
    Yet another beautiful eloquent thoughtful post. I’m new to your list, but really really like getting your newsletter. It’s important. Thank you. I hope your New Year is going well.

  8. Overall, a great post, thanks! But I have to take exception at your own comment about mummers not seeing the irony of wearing feathers and sequence while attacking gays. So you are saying all gays wear sequence and feathers, that we are all drag queens? Hate to have to state that as a gay man – I have never worn drag or anything even close to it. So unless ALL gays wear feathers and sequence, how is that statement not also bigoted? Not hating on you – in fact I think I reinforce your point that we often say things without thinking…and even our allies screw up.

  9. Thanks for your post. I am the co-captain of a comic mummers brigade and we’ve been in dialogue with other mummers on the issues you bring up. But we know much more needs to be done. We issued a statement with a list of actions mummer leadership could take…..

    Statement by Co-Captains of Vaudevillians New Years Brigade regarding the acts homophobia, transphobia and racism in this year’s Mummers Parade

    These types of displays have no place in a parade we can be proud of. We know that the majority of mummers perform joyful, comic and entertaining routines without resorting to themes that use gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation as a punchline. We appreciate the Mummer tradition of political parody, but it should not come at the expense of alienating many Philadelphians and prohibiting them from feeling welcome at the party. As Mummers, we understand the extraordinary effort it takes to lead the city in a public celebration of moving forward into the New Year. However we know that there are those in the parade who choose not to embrace this joyful, inclusive spirit and we believe that all Mummers and the institutions that support the Mummers Parade must take responsibility for this and act accordingly.

    We call on the leadership of the Mummer’s Association as well as the presidents of the various clubs and divisions, to take action to discourage these types of themes and behavior.

    These actions could include:

    — A complete and transparent overhaul of the judging process. Groups using racial/ethnic caricature, and blatant displays of homophobia, sexism and other forms of hateful speech.should not be winning awards, they should be disqualified.
    — Groups who officially exclude women from performing should be penalized in the judging process and score lower than groups who are welcoming to all.
    — Develop an approval process for themes in advance of the parade.
    — Groups whose individual performers engage in hateful speech should be immediately disqualified and suspended from the parade the following year.

    We call on PHL 17, Sugarhouse Casino and the City of Philadelphia to take strong action to penalize insensitive routines and hate speech.

    We call on all mummers to work together to put on a parade the City can be proud of.

    Signed,
    Vaudevillain Co-Captains Danielle Redden, Natasha Smith, Sarah Micklow and Adam Leeds
    Contact:
    danielleredden@gmail.com
    (267) 243-5231
    http://www.facebook.com/vaudevillainsnyb

    Link to statement: https://www.facebook.com/vaudevillainsnyb/posts/10153271202048244

  10. I guess the hardest thing for me is HOW to talk about it. I was at a friend’s house for Christmas dinner, and someone asked how I liked living in Raleigh. I said some pros and cons, but also added that it’s the most well-integrated place I’ve lived in. Of course, there are racists here, but it’s way less socially segregated than just about anywhere else I’ve lived. Then the man sitting next to me said, “Well, if it’s not well integrated up here, it’s not white people’s fault.” How do you even respond to a comment like that? It was Christmas dinner and the first time I’d met this man. Everyone kind of got silent and moved on. And I knew I SHOULD say something, but I couldn’t figure out how.

    • I think the best response that kind of comment is to seek understanding of why the individual feels/thinks that way. You can say something like, “I don’t understand. Please tell me more about this/why you feel this way.” I learned this from a guy, who does a whole lot of racial healing workshops (Tod Ewing),15 years ago and it’s very useful.
      Our culture tends to urge us all towards the confrontational. And why is that? It surely does not lead to enlightening discourse, just everybody getting uncomfortable (at best), plus it keeps us all up in our emotions – back in our reptile brains – where we cannot take in new information/hear any facts .If we’d think about it, even when folks are wrong, does it help in any way to confront/attack them for what they think? Surely it would be better to create some kind of positive relationship – even if it’s just for the duration of a meal – and try to first listen, respect and understand.
      Every time I have employed this strategy, I have been surprised at the positive things that happen. Of course, for this to work, you yourself must actually be interested in what the other person has to say, rather than just waiting for an opportunity to show him how wrong he is. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. Sorry to write such a book. 🙂

  11. You are taking the stupid and disgraceful actions of two stupid ass fucking comic brigades and labeling the entire parade and tradition of it as racist. Go eat a fucking mayo sandwich you fuck

  12. I love the effort you put into this ! I really enjoyed your work . I am a white male , mummer, I hold a degree in African American studies and am member of new sound brass which is a mixed race , mixed gender brass band that also plays in the mummers parade . The of issues of race , gender and sexuality require a complex response, we as collective people have yet to tackle that complexity . And until we do we will continue to see instances that call us to that work .

    What makes a mummer is the act of mumming not birthright. The parade and mummery is open for anyone to engage, elaborate and create. Some are uninformed , ill-intentioned strappers that illuminate their own bigotry and chisel a deep line of pain into the face of mummery. But others enhance the parade with creativity, skill, magic, cheer and an unspeakable joy. My prescription for those whom feel alienated or targeted by the parade, is to start your own clubs and create your own joy.It is your right to make meaning. Good or bad mummery is what we make it. And despite public perception , the tradition does not belong to a neighborhood, ethnic group or individual. So catch the spirit and add your own twist. This is not a delicate tradition because philly is not a delicate city. You have to be rough with it. I applaud you for being rough with it !

  13. Thanks for bringing this to light. My first post I am reading from your website and I definitely look forward to reading more. I hope it brings more awareness and understanding for many.

  14. Thanks for writing this down, the message that not all white people are ignorant and racist must be spread! And for the mummers – I hope their lives will make more sense in 2016, despite them attacking those who cannot defend themselves from their supremacist ideology. I prefer to attend to events that have no racial or sexual prejudices. I’m just reading Sinclair Lewis’s book Kingsblood, and despite all of the stupidity these people express, I have to admit that the situation is way better than it was half a century ago.

  15. …i want to hug you SO F*CKING HARD right now.
    …and i will be quoting/posting/sharing/forwarding this blog from now on whenever this subject comes up, because you have a done a MASTERFUL job at conveying something i have angrily, and nowhere near as eloquently, been trying to convey in many arguments over the years.

  16. eu vi um documentario aqui no brasil sobre os negros da Alemanha, como eles sofrem preconceito por causa da cor de sua pele, até eu fiquei pensandosobre o documentario, também achava que todo alemão é branco, como a midia nos impoe a pensar errado!

  17. Pingback: Buckle up. Truth travels fast. | Riddle from the Middle

  18. Two things: 1) Yes, thank you, I’m tired of arguing I’ll just share a link from your page.

    That was the serious thing, 2) Wow..that sure did not go where I expected it to go after the first paragraph. I’m thinking now of that half and half penguin meme on reddit now.

  19. Pingback: Mum’s The Word. – Ayfer Yalincak – Travel, Cooking, Photography, Grandchildren

  20. Pingback: Mum’s The Word. – Ayfer Yalincak – Travel, Cooking, Photography, Grandchildren

  21. It makes me sick that people still act this way. What a fool and just a plain jerk. It was hard for me to watch the video because I wanted to punch the guy and I’m not violent at all! Thanks for sharing. Mike

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