I remember when it was cool to be a Mummer. Everyone admired my uncle for his ability to play banjo and wear makeup. And like every kid from “Second Street,” I couldn’t wait to join.
Fast-forward 30 years, and I might quit. Not only is it no longer hip to be Mum, it’s taboo. My rouge no longer makes anyone blush. Stunts of bigotry carried out in blackface and with unwelcoming signage have soured the public on the parade and sullied its reputation.
Every year, some daft punk, ignoring their own reflection in other Mums’ sequins, is caught on tape doing something censurable at the expense of a minority. And every year the Mummers condemn the behavior and promise it will never happen again.
The problem is that it keeps happening. This year, despite the parade being canceled due to the risk for COVID-19, some Mummers are planning to gather anyway, creating plenty of opportunity for another insensitive blunder.
Attempts to curb abuse, by city and parade officials, prove ineffectual. Sensitivity training has produced only meager results. And a burgeoning antiracist movement growing within the parade isn’t growing fast enough.
Philadelphians are tired of the errant behavior and same old excuses that follow. They want the parade to change, or they want it to end.
Which leads me to ask, if the Mummers know this, and many oppose this behavior, why does it continue? And is there anything they can do to gain the public’s trust, recast their image, and make themselves useful?
For starters: They should not parade in protest against the COVID-19 restrictions as some rogue Mummers plan to do. Activists who spent much of the year risking their health to open our eyes to systemic racism could easily interpret this as a parody of their sacrifice. And super-sauced frugs should not add to the work of our exhausted health-care workers.
Behavior like this is damning. It raises questions about whether or not the Mummers are genuinely interested in taking the necessary steps to carry on the tradition. As if at an unconscious level, many of them enjoy the disesteem.
Clearly, the Mummers need a different approach.
To be fair, many things make the parade hard to control. Mummery sits in an odd space somewhere between a hobby and culture. From the outside, it looks organized, projects a goal, and appears unified. From the inside, things are very different. The Mummers just happen, and not necessarily in partnership with each other.
However, what really holds the Mummers back from ridding the tradition of racism and bigotry is a misunderstanding of how these things work.
To be blunt, most Mummers don’t understand the problem. And not enough are interested in figuring it out. They don’t feel racist, so they can’t understand why the public would see them that way. They view individual acts of racism as individual problems and assume if they’re not the one doing it or getting caught, they’re not the problem.
But that’s not how it works. Racism is complex. Though it often occurs at the individual level, it is a cultural problem. In Western society, it has artificially pit Black against white and historically created a hierarchy placing white at the top. When people speak of systemic racism, this is what they mean. In America, we all live with this and play a part. We either work to combat it or escalate it.
If the Mummers are going to be of any use, they need to find themselves on the right side of this dilemma. This means examining the role racism plays in American life and understanding how it works in their culture. How an individual Mummer feels about their actions is irrelevant. What counts is the meaning of their actions in the context of the historical and cultural matrix from which the tradition emerges.
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This must be a total cultural shift in how the Mummers understand and navigate racism and bigotry. In Mummer terms, the plumes that ruffle feathers must be plucked. It is not enough to begrudgingly trudge toward “political correctness.” The parade should become a stronghold of antiracism and an example of transformation. It must become a space where bigots feel uncomfortable, and where the marginalized feel celebrated.
Mummers must embrace criticism and be willing to confront their most spiteful and bombastic members. If they can call into a sports radio show and rip their favorite team, they clearly understand the value of critique.
No longer can the parade be a hodgepodge of meaning. It must become organized. It should not be the responsibility of the public to “get where the Mummers are coming from.” The point of the tradition must be defined and clearly articulated, especially when it comes to racism and bigotry. It has lost the luxury of regarding itself as ineffable and intuitive.
Morality is on the march. The Mummers must do the work to keep up or let the parade pass them by.
Daniel Gold grew up in South Philadelphia on Second Street. He cofounded the racially and culturally diverse group New Sound Brass Band in 2013, which plays in the Mummers Parade and has a club and concert following in the region.