“One of the great parts of getting to sit in this chair is getting to discuss points of view. Sometimes I talk, and sometimes I listen. And yesterday, I learned,” Kelly continued. “I learned that given the history of blackface being used in awful ways by racists in this country, it is not okay for that to be part of any costume, Halloween or otherwise.”
Indeed, Kelly received intense criticism for her comments Tuesday, as she vented during a panel discussion about “political correctness gone amok.” When the subject of racist costumes came up, Kelly asked, “But what is racist?” and added when she was growing up, blackface was okay “as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
She also defended “Real Housewives of New York” star Luann de Lesseps, who got backlash for darkening her skin for a Diana Ross costume. “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,” Kelly complained. “It’s not like she’s walking around in general.”
As Twitter responses poured in Tuesday, (“Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi: “I cannot believe the ignorance on this in 2018. You are on national television.”), Kelly apologized in a statement. Then, on Wednesday, Kelly’s “Today” show colleagues also slammed her comments. Co-anchor Savannah Guthrie acknowledged it was “uncomfortable,” as Kelly was an NBC News employee.
“Most of the online criticism addressed the fact that there were no people of color represented in that panel,” correspondent Morgan Radford said; Kelly’s panel Tuesday included Jenna Bush Hager, Jacob Soboroff and Melissa Rivers. “But this learning moment really gifted us the opportunity to have this conversation in a public discourse.”
“The fact is, while she apologized to the staff, she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country,” said weather forecaster/co-host Al Roker. “Because this is a history. Going back to the 1830s, minstrel shows. … I’m old enough to have lived through ‘Amos 'n' Andy’ where you had white people in blackface playing two black characters and just magnifying the worst stereotypes about black people.”
Craig Melvin, the “Today” news anchor, said there was some online criticism that the controversy was “political correctness run amok,” which was not the case.
“That’s silly and it’s disingenuous, and it’s just as ignorant and racist as the statement itself,” Melvin said. “And in addition to her being a colleague, she’s a friend. She said something stupid. She said something indefensible. … I guess it was an opportunity for us to learn a little bit more about blackface. But I think a lot of people knew about blackface before yesterday.”
On her show about 90 minutes later, Kelly invited TV hosts Roland Martin and Amy Holmes to have a further discussion about the history of blackface and just how offensive it is to consider that as a Halloween costume.
“I think the problem is, for African Americans, we know the history, and too many white Americans don’t know or won’t accept it. And the reality is, it is American history, yours and mine,” Martin said. “You look at blackface. White entertainers wore blackface to mimic African Americans, to caricature African Americans. Look at minstrel shows. Black performers were forced to wear blackface because whites did not want to see the humanity of black people. So, therefore, they had blackface.”
“The problem is, too many of us grew up learning history, and not actual history,” Martin continued. That’s the problem that we have to accept. And when we are grown and educated, we have to go beyond what we were taught and what we learned in our households and say, ‘I better be fully aware of real American history,' as opposed to being in denial about what actually took place in this country.”
The audience applauded. “And the other piece of it is that seeing a white person darken her skin, even for a costume, today, evokes that past,” Kelly acknowledged.
Holmes admitted she “cringed” when she saw the headlines Tuesday. “I did understand the idea of: ‘But I love this character! I love Diana Ross!’ or any number of African American characters and real people historically,” Holmes said. “But even there, Megyn, Hollywood also has a disreputable history hiring white actors to play ethnic minorities because of racist casting practices. … Even if it was meant to be respectful or thoughtful and reflective, it reflected in our culture a nonacceptance of ethnic minorities in media representation.”
The conversation continued for more than 10 minutes as Martin and Holmes talked about racism that persists; Kelly mostly listened. Holmes concluded, “The last part is, I can play Diana Ross. I’m sorry, Megyn, you can’t.”
The audience chuckled at that, but Martin countered, “Megyn, you can play Diana Ross, just like you can play any other character. But you just put on a gown, grab a fan and then have big hair, you're fine. But that's the mistake we make when we say, ‘I want to cross that line.’”
“There are lines,” he added. “And there’s history and there’s pain, and when we acknowledge that, we can learn and grow from it. As long as we, as Americans, live in denial and act as if that stuff does not matter, then we will continue to have this problem in the next 400 years.”