Last Updated: Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Has SXSW Jumped The Shark?
Updated: Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Ibtihaj Muhammad. Olympic bound fencer representing the U.S., if not SXSW. Photo: United States Fencing Team

Having a U.S. president speak at this year’s SXSW festival (March 11-20) cannot diminish the festival’s latest tumble.

U.S. Olympic fencing athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad walked up to register at SXSW (March 12) as an in her invited panelist. A SXSW staffer reportedly told her Ms. Muhammad she must remove her head scarf before SXSW could snap her photo for an official ID laminate. Ms. Muhammad was shocked by the insult. After all, the U.S. Olympic star wasn’t at a Trump rally. Ms. Muhammad quickly tweeted, “I was just asked to remove my hijab at SXSW Registration for my ID badge…I can’t make this stuff up.” When she explained the significance of her headdress the registrar refused to budge. "Even after I explained it was for religious reasons, he insisted I had to remove my hijab for the photo to receive my badge," Ms. Muhammad tweeted.

SXSW organizers released a statement to the media claiming the festival does not require a guest to remove a hijab before being photographed for festival credentials. Nevertheless, President Obama, who spoke to SXSW techie festivalgoers about the future of high tech, probably wishes he had instead addressed religious tolerance and gender equality.

Ms. Muhammad did received credentials with her portrait photo taken as she wished---wearing her hijab. But, the damage was done. No amount of SXSW apologies or top management scapegoating of a lowly staffer could change what happened. After all, who trained the registration staff on how to perform their jobs and on cultural symbols and cultural diversity? That is a question SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson still needs to answer. But, first, Mr. Swenson should answer the question: Did SXSW festival management train the staff on these important issues at all? Festival management and staff training have been hot issues in the past, especially following the preventable deaths atthe 2014 SXSW festival.

What festivalgoers and the public are witnessing in this latest SXSW festival incident is how careless the management of the SXSW festival has been over the past three decades. There appears little question that the famous music and tech festival is losing its shine in the same manner as past pop culture festivals such as Woodstock, the original Lollapalooza an the Tibetan Freedom Festival. And, no amount of ink or excuses from Austin media or civic leaders will change that. After all, those parties have a local money making machine to protect and a poor public safety record to trivialize.

In the parlance of the SXSW festival, it’s time for management to reboot SXSW or face the music---SXSW has jumped the shark.

Past SXSW stories in News & Views:

- "SXSW 2015: Will Safety Finally Be The Headliner?"

- "Keith Still Enlightens on 'The Facts' (And How He Is To Be Addressed)"

- "Lawsuits Drop On SXSW Organizers (And, You Read It On First)"

- "SXSW Tragedy: Death Toll Increased To 4"

Updated: April 4, 2016

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