By Ellen McGirt
Updated: October 24, 2018 10:50 AM ET

Megyn Kelly caused an uproar on her NBC morning show “Megyn Kelly Today” on Tuesday during a segment featuring a discussion that should never have been attempted. The subject? Racial sensitivity in Halloween costumes.

The catalyst was the news of one school’s attempt to ban costumes that could be problematic, including those depicting indigenous people, “cowboys and Indians,” Mexicans in sombreros, and of course, white people in blackface.

But Kelly just wasn’t sure why it was inappropriate for white people to darken their skin when donning a costume. “What is racist?” she asked her three white conversation partners, TV host Melissa Rivers, former first daughter and journalist Jenna Bush Hager and MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff. (The latter two gamely tried to right the ship before abandoning it, for what it’s worth.)

“What is ‘racist’?” she asked her three white conversation partners, TV host Melissa Rivers, former first daughter and journalist Jenna Bush Hager and MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff. (The latter two gamely tried to right the ship before abandoning it, for what it’s worth.)

“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,” Kelly said. “Back when I was a kid, that was okay, as long as you were dressing up as a character.”

Of course, it was never okay. She just didn’t know it.

Things went downhill from there. Later, after being roundly criticized on social media, Kelly sent an apologetic email to her NBC colleagues.

“I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong, and I am sorry,” she wrote. “The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep. I’ve never been a p.c. kind of person, but I understand that we do need to be more sensitive in this day and age.”

She continued: “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.”

As a reminder, Kelly also has been on the record saying that both Santa, a mythical figure, and Jesus, an actual brown-skinned Middle Eastern man, are white.

It should shock no one that a conversation about race and history conducted entirely by people who are either unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the topic—or who are unwilling to correct a charismatic television star in her own house—would go sideways. And, Kelly was smart to respond quickly. When you Google your own name and it auto-completes “blackface,” you know you have a problem.

Blackface simply cannot be separated from its white supremacist roots. It began in the 1830s as a comedic performance of “blackness” by white people who used costumes, exaggerated speech and insulting stereotypes to mimic and degrade enslaved black people. And it pretty much stayed in that basic zone. The first widely known blackface character was “Jim Crow,” who helped spawn a lucrative sub-genre of entertainment that lasted for generations.

“These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice,” explains this catalog entry from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Things got worse during the Great Migration when black people began to travel the country in search of jobs and equality and bumped up, often violently, against the stereotypes that had taken root in the psyches of white Americans. “New media ushered minstrel performances from the stage, across radio and television airwaves, and into theaters. Popular American actors, including Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney donned blackface, bridging the minstrel performance across generations, and making blackface (racial parody, and stereotypes) a family amusement.”

See? It feels like it’s okay. And what popular media figures say and do matters a great deal.

I hope longtime readers won’t mind me resurfacing this expressive video from Akala, the UK-based rapper, artist, author and activist who tackles the issue of race and imagery in this excellent op-ed video. “Racism is a business,” he begins, in his where he makes the link between everyday racism and the centuries of image-making that reinforces the idea that one race is preferable to another.

“White Jesus” gets a shout-out, as does the slave trade, white savior motifs in films, the news media’s willingness to portray black people as drug dealers and thugs, and the multi-billion dollar skin bleaching industry. I’d add the normalization of blackface mockery to the list. “Now in the context of global injustice, these might seem trivial, but in fact, these daily hostilities lay the ground for much larger systemic violence.”

I’m all for more understanding, love, sensitivity, and honor. But let’s not forget that the “divisive time” we’re living through is a feature, not a bug.

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