If you’ve never lived in Philadelphia, you may not know that every New Year’s Day—going back, in some form, for centuries—the city holds a carnival-esque event with roots in European and minstrelsy traditions. It’s called the Mummers Parade. And the 2013 edition, like many before it, has generated controversy. This year, the primary target for criticism (though certainly not the only target) was a musical skit featuring an apparently all-white group advocating against the outsourcing of jobs by dressing in stereotypical Native American and Indian garb. As Philadelphian Dan McQuade wrote yesterday, the event has always been deliberately subversive and provocative. But, as he himself asked, does that make this sort of thing OK?
No. “Indi-Insourcing,” the skit in question—in which the performers inexplicably dance to “Gangnam Style” and “Apache”—tries to use wordplay to comically comment on the loss of American jobs to foreign competitors. A sign changes from “New Delhi Call Center” to “New Jersey Call Center”; and “Native” Americans represent U.S. citizens, while the Indian characters are unwanted job stealers from across the globe. The “satire” falls flat, however, in its wild misappropriation of both Native American tradition and Asian culture, and ultimately highlights, not intentionally, the xenophobia that so often creeps into the outsourcing debate.
The skit looks even worse when you consider it alongside the parade’s tradition of stereotyping minority groups. In the event’s earliest days, debauchery and revelry were celebrated in the streets against a backdrop of class and ethnic tensions. The young, male Philadelphians who participated were a mix of working-class Germans, Irish, and blacks. According to Susan G. Davis, members of the community “impersonated” types, with “Chinamen,” “Dutchmen,” “Red Indians,” and a blackface “Jim Crow” making regular appearances each year. By the late 1800s, the raucous activities were moved to the more secular New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day holidays. Despite the pervasive use of blackface, some black Philadelphians did participate back then—the Golden Eagle Club reportedly marched with 300 black members in 1906, for instance—but minority participation has tapered off almost completely in the last 70 years.
Blackface was officially banned from the event in 1964, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. During this year’s event, a “tribute” to the minstrel show was performed. No dark makeup was used, but it’s hard not to see this as a sly way of holding on to a questionable tradition while whitewashing its inherent racial overtones. There are ways to honor the festival’s history without stereotyping multiple ethnic groups in the process. But the “tradition” defense doesn’t cut it. That one’s been used before.