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November 11, 2015

After racism allegations, Mummers accepting ethnic groups

Philly tradition trying to expand base by becoming more diverse

Following increased scrutiny that Philadelphia's annual Mummers Parade is plagued with insensitivity and even racism, the New Year's Day event will be accepting ethnically diverse groups for the first time in its history this year.

The Associated Press reported the decision Tuesday after parade leaders met with Philadelphia's Commission on Human Relations. AP notes that participation has dropped in recent years, and the effort to reverse that trend is underway as a Mexican heritage organization is already on board for this year's event. More from AP:

The change will help ensure the 115-year-old tradition - often called the city's version of Mardi Gras - continues and thrives, Mummers spokesman George Badey said.

Among the new participants is the San Mateo Carnavalero, a Mexican heritage organization.

"The Mummers aren't being dragged kicking and screaming into this," Badey said Tuesday. "The Mummers are full partners in this quest to make the parade more diverse."

For those unfamiliar or new to the region, the Mummers aren't only known for sometimes being less than politically correct. The parade does have a rich history, dating back to the 17th Century in its origins.

Every year, groups donning fancy costumes perform skits, dances, and music, competing for first in a number of categories. The groups are often comprised of friends and family from the same neighborhoods or heritages, and they rehearse relentlessly for their performances. Take a look at last year's string band winner, the Fralinger String Band:

But the parade also gets a bit of a bad rap. Attendees have a history of getting blatantly intoxicated (a family member of the writer frequently recalls someone asking a cop for directions while smoking a blunt in the 1980s), and the mummers themselves can party pretty hard when the song and dance are over (Disclaimer: Video contains potentially offensive material):

Then there's the alleged racism and insensitivity. A skit in 2013 featuring mostly white men wearing stereotypical Indian clothing drew the ire of many, and City Paper noted at the time that one group still made rather obvious references to the days when Mummers were still allowed to wear blackface during performances.

Last year may have been a tipping point when some paraders made light of the Black Lives Matter movement with signs that read "Wench Lives Matter."

A parade official told AP the event needs to embrace new members to survive, and it looks as though they're trying to do so by expanding their base from mostly white males.