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Mummers after sensitivity training: I can see how Caitlyn Jenner skit was offensive

IN JANUARY, after the Mummers Parade went regrettably viral - one skit, mocking Caitlyn Jenner, had been punctuated by antigay slurs, while another, with a Mexican theme, incorporated brown-face makeup - a contrite leadership pledged reform. They would undertake outreach work and trainings, they said in a statement.

IN JANUARY, after the Mummers Parade went regrettably viral - one skit, mocking Caitlyn Jenner, had been punctuated by antigay slurs, while another, with a Mexican theme, incorporated brown-face makeup - a contrite leadership pledged reform. They would undertake outreach work and trainings, they said in a statement.

And while they might not stop impersonating ethnicities, at least they'd do it with greater sensitivity by consulting members of those ethnic groups they planned to impersonate.

Nearly 11 months later, a great deal has changed - while other things, to the chagrin of some parade fans, remain more or less the same.

Hundreds of Mummers have attended trainings on LGBT issues, the nature of satire, and cultural appropriation. The city has undertaken a formal theme-review process. And the city and Mummers have dissolved the Philadelphia Division, created in 2016 to attract nontraditional and ethnically diverse groups, in favor of incorporating them into existing parade divisions.

"It's really unprecedented. We've never done this much work from one year to the next in terms of training and education," parade director Leo Dignam said.

But as the String Bands announced their 2017 themes, some saw cause for concern.

"We were saddened and disappointed to see such themes as 'Native American Indians,' 'Chinese' and 'Pacific Polynesian,' " the Vaudevillains, a comic brigade, wrote in a letter to Mummers leadership this month.

"These themes appear to engage in cultural appropriation, and we are very concerned about the potential to offend and alienate, not only the Philadelphians that we seek to engage and entertain, but also the wider, national audience that is increasingly aware of our unique, diverse, and important local tradition only through narrow reporting of the few insensitive performances that occur each year."

For those attuned to such things, there has been potentially offensive content in almost every parade in recent memory.

In 2013, there was an Indian-meets-American-Indian performance related to outsourcing, and a minstrel-themed performance with images of blackface. The 2015 parade had public urination, a Cowboys vs. Indians skit and a Wench Lives Matter sign.

Such incidents aren't new, but they have proven highly combustible fodder in the Instagram era.

The fix the Mummers outlined in January was to require clubs planning an ethnic theme to have an adviser or participant of that ethnicity "to guarantee respect." The statement added: "These names will be made available to Division President, and to the media upon request."

Requests for those names to Tom Loomis, the division president for the string bands, went unanswered.

George Badey, a spokesman for the Mummers, said there aren't advisers, per se: "We don't just have an adviser and have some person of ethnic descent say it's OK. It's important that we look even closer than that."

What there has been, is the city trying to support and educate the Mummers without impinging on their constitutionally protected right to free speech.

Dignam is personally reviewing each proposed performance, including theme, costume and makeup, and suggesting tweaks as needed. The deadline for submitting themes was recently extended from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, since many comic groups don't begin working until later in the year.

"With a devil theme, there was red and black makeup, and we suggested they maybe just stick with red," he said. But his ideas are just that: suggestions. It's up to the groups whether to follow them.

He knew of one instance in which a string band consulted an adviser: "They reached out to a group from the University of Pennsylvania for Chinese studies and got them to approve everything."

In the interim, many Mummers have attended trainings. The city brought in actor Jennifer Childs (whose comic alter ego is "Patsy from South Philly") to present on satire. Nellie Fitzpatrick, the city's director of LGBT Affairs, has led more than 300 Mummers in discussions about gay and transgender issues. And Rue Landau, head of the city's Human Relations Commission, brought in consultants to run diversity and inclusion training for Mummers leadership.

"It was the first step in drawing a baseline of understanding," Landau said. "The hope is also to get together some of the Mummers clubs and leadership together with a group of Asian American advocates and leaders, Latino advocates and leaders, and also African American advocates and leaders."

She wants to create a forum for a dialogue. "But at the end of the day, it's on the Mummers to police themselves," she said.

At LGBT trainings, Fitzpatrick said one goal is to make sure that, at the least, lack of information is no longer an excuse for performances that cause offense. She appears to be making progress: Many Mummers expressed surprise when they learned how and why slurs can be hurtful, she said.

Chuck Tomasco, a 50-year parade veteran and president of Landi comic club, said the workshop was enlightening.

Back in January, he didn't see what was so offensive about the Caitlyn Jenner skit.

"I actually personally thought it was pretty funny," he said. "But I didn't look at it through the eyes of being a minority."

His goal this year is to avoid controversy altogether. His Barrels Brigade was toying with a Disco Knights concept, a middle-ages-meets-1970s mash-up.

But Danielle Redden, a captain of Vaudevillains, said it's unclear how thoroughly those lessons are trickling down beyond Mummers leadership.

Communication is a challenge, she said, because the Mummers organization is so diffuse. And when she does talk to Mummers, she said, many don't agree that all cultural appropriation is problematic. "They feel they're doing it from a place of respect and celebration: It's not in a mocking kind of way," she said.

But Rich Porco, who heads the Murray Comic Club, said he thinks the Mummers' viral moments are behind them.

"Everything's been addressed. We've had meetings. We've had sensitivity trainings. We've tried everything," he said. "We know we're not going to please everyone, but we sure tried."