In "Thou Shalt Not Wear a Native American Headdress," a column posted to the Huffington Post, writer Thom Nickels has attempted to defend an Indian-themed skit, performed at a Philadelphia parade, that many people have criticized as racist.
The parade in question is the Mummers Parade, which happens New Year's Day and is noted for a historic lack of cultural sensitivity. As a story at Slate explains, in previous eras (we're talking the 1800s) the parade was rife with racism, as "members of the community 'impersonated' types, with 'Chinamen,' 'Dutchmen,' 'Red Indians,' and a blackface 'Jim Crow' making regular appearances each year." According to a 1981 article from Smithsonian magazine (put online by a group of Mummers and preserved at archive.org), "Blackface was a tradition until 1964 when official city policy ruled it out, bringing to an end the dissension that had grown between civil rights groups and the clubs."
Many Philadelphians hold their breath when the Mummers Parade rolls around, dreading the overtones (however subtle) of racism and xenophobia that tend to persist — and in 2013, they had good reason to. One group put on an ill-advised "tribute" to minstrelsy which featured a type of sanitized blackface, and some observers described white parade dancers from another group in Rastafarian dreadlocks and (perhaps) wearing blackface. (There's a blog post by Tara Murtha at PhilyNow that treats those aspects in detail.)
And then there was the skit — "Indi-sourcing" — that featured a group of Mummers dressed as Indians (the Asian kind) at a call center in New Delhi who are chased off by another group of Indians (the Turtle Island kind). No, it doesn't make a lot of sense — here, watch:
Charges that the skit is racist didn't sit well with writer Nickels. His essay at HuffingtonPost.com gets off to a provocative start: "In case you haven't heard, in Philadelphia the 'politically correct' crowd is on the warpath over a New Year's Day Mummers skit." Nickels dismisses the critics as "hypersensitive" and suggests that people should find more worthy targets for their outrage.
Nickels then goes into reminiscences about dressing as an Indian at Boy Scout camp, and playing cowboys and Indians as a young boy — although the girls, he explains, dressed as "squaws." The Boy Scout rituals "taught us to be respectful and to honor the American Indian," he writes, and playing Indian was a way of "honoring our true American ancestors in a special way." Nickels blames the fashion industry for spoiling the fun by putting "war bonnets" on sexy female models, and finishes with a story about a friend who was beaten by a Muslim who found his "Turkish sultan" Halloween costume disrespectful of Islam. "Welcome once again to our super-hypersensitive world," he concludes.
Commenters have, understandably, jumped on the piece. "Thom, you cannot honor somebody by doing something they find offensive," wrote one. "This is not hard. The fact that you can write this many words about this topic and not stumble upon this simple fact is pretty impressive, though." Another reader observed, "The First Amendment protects (to an extent) your right to be culturally tone deaf and offensive. But if you're going to deliberately provoke offense, have the guts to own it. Don't go parading your ignorance in other people's faces and then deride them as overly-sensitive when they are offended by your deliberate offensiveness."