On her NBC show on Tuesday morning, host Megyn Kelly chatted about the use of blackface in Halloween costumes — a timely topic. “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was okay as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character,” said Kelly, who attended high school outside of Albany, N.Y., in the 1980s.
Continuing with the theme, she said, “On Halloween, you’ve got guys running around with fake axes coming out of their head. It’s going to be jarring.” She later moved to an example from “Real Housewives of New York,” in which Luann de Lesseps dressed up as Diana Ross for Halloween. “She dresses Diana Ross and she made her skin look darker than it really is and people said that that was racist. And I felt 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.” Panelist Jacob Soboroff commented that the stunt sounded racist to him.
For the record, there’s no Halloween carve-out for blackface.
And that’s a reality that Kelly herself confronted in an email to colleagues on Tuesday. After receiving a considerable backlash for her take on the matter, Kelly wrote:
Dear friends & teammates-
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.
Policy at the Erik Wemple Blog is to credit TV hosts who apologize. So, credit given.
But the disavowal of “pc” credentials in a blackface apology strikes an unapologetic tone — as if to suggest that concerns about the racism inherent in the use of blackface were somehow the province of hypersensitive modern progressives. On the contrary, blackface is among this country’s most frontal expressions of racial hatred and white supremacy. It has its origins in minstrel shows, wherein white men in the 19th century would darken their faces and perform for appreciative audiences. “It was very strange for such white men to sing, ‘Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me’ — the story of an enslaved man trying to find his true love, who’d been taken to New Orleans — when the losses of a million Susannas made jobs for such white men,” wrote Edward E. Baptist in his book, “The Half has Never Been Told.” Minstrel shows, of course, pushed the idea that African Americans were dumb and primitive and inferior. “While it was organized around the quite explicit ‘borrowing’ of black cultural materials for white dissemination (and profit), a borrowing that depended upon the material relations of slavery, the minstrel show obscured these relations by pretending that slavery was amusing, right, and natural. Though it arose from a white obsession with black (male) bodies that underlies white racial dread to our own day, it ruthlessly disavowed its fleshy investments through ridicule and racist lampoon,” wrote Eric Lott in “Love and Theft: The Racial Unconscious of Blackface Minstrelsy.”
Blackface is an American racial horror, even and especially on Halloween — not some persnickety artifice of the “p.c.” crowd.
A footnote to this controversy: Kelly came to NBC News from Fox News, where she had famously declared that Santa and Jesus were white.