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raceAhead: Megyn Kelly Gets Blackface Wrong

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.

On Point

Black women are less likely to follow a breast cancer follow-up treatment planA recent study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, identifies a possible reason: Black women are less likely to be able to afford the costly endocrine therapies that are prescribed for certain types of breast cancer than white women. It can cut the risk of recurrence in half, but needs to be taken for years after initial treatment. Although more research is required as to why the women stopped or took breaks from the treatment, the risks are clear: Breast cancer is less common in black women, yet they’re about 40% more likely to die from the disease than white women. NPR

The Republican candidate for governor in Georgia is worried about people exercising their rights in leaked audio
In an exclusive report, journalist Jamil Smith reviews leaked audio from a fundraising event for Brian Kemp, the Georgia Secretary of State and the Republican nominee for Georgia governor, in which the candidate expressed concern over his opponent’s get-out-the vote efforts. According to the audio, Kemp said that Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams’ voter turnout operation “continues to concern us, especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote.” He’s concerned about absentee ballots, in particular. Most of it would be boilerplate political commentary, except for the fact that Kemp as Secretary of State is responsible for ensuring that Georgia citizens can freely exercise their right to vote.
Rolling Stone

Here are some questions to ask as you’re touring colleges with your already nervous pre-freshperson
Debra Mashek, a psychology professor and executive director of Heterodox Academy, an independent academic consortium that promotes viewpoint diversity in higher education, offers six intriguing questions to ask as your family hunts for a college that actually welcomes diversity of thought. You don’t need to get a completely informed answer to get a sense of what the culture is like; even a quizzical answer to—Are the professors open to differing opinions? Are students welcome to share their views even if others might disagree?—might be instructive. But one really stood out to me: How often do students of different political orientations host events together? That speaks less to political commandeering and more to a true willingness to understand each other.



The Woke Leader

Let’s all go to the baths today
You will want to book a flight to Japan immediately after reading this lovely piece by Hanya Yanagihara, who shares her tentative and joyful experiences with ofuruor the extraordinary Japanese public bath ritual. “One might not appreciate just how extraordinary the country’s devotion to soaking in a steaming tub of water is until one realizes that Japan might be the only industrialized nation in which virtually every citizen (in this case, 127 million people) participates in a daily event,” she says. She describes the sensory delights, the all-enveloping aesthetic, the communal peace and the overwhelming “Japanese-ness” of it all. “It is a time and place reserved for pleasing the senses, for enjoying the luxury of feeling, for the wonder of experiencing the simplest, most satisfying sensations: heat, water, scent.”
Town and Country

Innovation needs diversity to thrive
Ali Merifield the head of client services at Mirum, a digital creative agency, has published an essay that encourages leaders in search of innovative ideas to steel themselves for discomfort and awkwardness ahead. Diverse teams, “might slow down process and expose some shortcomings and weaknesses elsewhere in the system,” she says. “Problem solving and product development won’t be as comfortable, or as much fun, as working in a homogenous group straight out of the same social, cultural and educational background,” she ways. But it’s that comfort and familiarity that causes teams to fail. By falling back on an initially easy rapport, assumptions go unchallenged and new perspectives fail to surface.
Campaign Live

What actually happens when we say ‘I don’t see race?’
Writer Zach Stafford explains that it’s not a compliment when someone “forgets” he’s black. “[T]he smart ones quickly realize that complimenting someone on not being black is actually pretty racist, so they switch gears,” he begins. Then he explores the still very popular notion that it’s better to declare that you’re going to ignore the race of others. “’Colorblindness’ doesn’t acknowledge the very real ways in which racism has existed and continues to exist, both in individuals and systemically,” he says. “By professing not to see race, you’re just ignoring racism, not solving it.”
The Guardian


In this day and age people are so sensitive that no matter what you do, somebody is going to make a big deal out of it. Me doing that had zero malicious intent … I get that race is a touchy subject, but not everybody is that way. Media tends to make a big deal out of things. If that was disrespectful to anyone, I by all means apologize. That was never my intention. It never crossed my mind.
Jason Aldean on wearing blackface