This launched a six-minute discussion with “Today” contributor Jenna Bush Hager, MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff and former “Fashion Police” host Melissa Rivers — one that would soon go viral.
Kelly kicked things off by mocking the University of Kent in Britain, which wants to ban students from dressing up like cowboys. “The costume police are cracking down like never before,” she said. When her co-hosts pointed out that some Halloween guidelines make sense (for example, dressing up like Harvey Weinstein would be creepy), Kelly agreed, but added, “I don’t want the University of Kent telling me I can’t do it.”
“You can’t wear anything Mexican-based,” she continued. “You cannot dress as a Native American. That’s apparently been some rule for a long time. You can’t dress as a nun. I mean, isn’t the purpose of Halloween to dress up and pretend you’re something other than yourself?” The studio audience applauded loudly.
This went on for a while, as Kelly also dismissed the recent anger over a “sexy ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ " costume (“Get over it, wear what you want"). Then Soboroff noted that “freedom of expression is a beautiful thing. So is freedom of speech.”
“It’s part of why I like living in the United States of America,” he said. “You can dress like an idiot, act like an idiot, and actually dress and be a racist — then somebody should say something to somebody. But you should still be able to dress like a moron.”
“But what is racist?” Kelly asked. “Because truly, you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Like, back when I was a kid, that was okay, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
“If somebody feels like something is offensive to them, you should say it and that’s fair game. And you should be able to take it if you’re going to dress up like that,” Soboroff responded.
“Yeah, you gotta be able to take it,” Kelly agreed.
The conversation continued as Rivers lamented the fact that some people dress up like Nazis now, and Bush Hager added, “I think there are limits on how far you want to go, 'cause you’re making people feel bad.” No one elaborated on Kelly’s blackface comment until she brought it up again.
“There was a controversy on ‘The Real Housewives of New York’ with Luann, as she dressed as Diana Ross, and she made her skin look darker than it really is,” Kelly said. “And people said that that was racist. And I don’t know, I thought, like: Who doesn’t love Diana Ross? She wants to look like Diana Ross for one day? I don’t know how that got racist on Halloween. It’s not like she’s walking around in general."
“I have not seen it. But it sounds a little racist to me,” Soboroff said.
“I haven’t seen it either, but if she wanted to look like Diana Ross, she should have dressed as Michael Jackson,” Rivers said, as the studio audience erupted in laughter.
“I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being, like, normal people these days,” Kelly said.
An excerpt of this discussion soon went viral on social media, as many were in disbelief that Kelly had to ask the question about “What is racist?” and pointed her to the history of minstrel shows that started in the 1800s, where white actors wore blackface for degrading performances.
Late Tuesday afternoon, NBC released an apologetic email that Kelly sent to NBC staffers, as she stated she was led to “rethink her own views” after speaking to colleagues and friends. (The full letter is at the bottom of this story.)
“To me, I thought, why would it be controversial for someone dressing up as Diana Ross to make herself look like this amazing woman as a way of honoring and respecting her? I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong, and I am sorry. The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep,” Kelly wrote. “I’ve never been a ‘pc’ kind of person — but I understand that we do need to be more sensitive in this day and age. Particularly on race and ethnicity issues which, far from being healed, have been exacerbated in our politics over the past year.”
But plenty of others had already weighed in:
This incident also reminded viewers of the time Kelly, the former Fox News host, definitively stated on her show in 2013 that Santa Claus was white.
Here’s the full email Kelly sent to colleagues:
“One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get the chance to express and hear a lot of opinions. Today is one of those days where listening carefully to other points of view, including from friends and colleagues, is leading me to rethink my own views.
When we had the roundtable discussion earlier today about the controversy of making your face look like a different race as part of a Halloween costume, I suggested that this seemed okay if done as part of this holiday where people have the chance to make themselves look like others. The iconic Diana Ross came up as an example. To me, I thought, why would it be controversial for someone dressing up as Diana Ross to make herself look like this amazing woman as a way of honoring and respecting her?
I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong, and I am sorry. The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep.
I’ve never been a “pc” kind of person — but I understand that we do need to be more sensitive in this day and age. Particularly on race and ethnicity issues which, far from being healed, have been exacerbated in our politics over the past year. This is a time for more understanding, love, sensitivity and honor, and I want to be part of that. I look forward to continuing that discussion.
I’m honored to work with all of you every day.”