On Tuesday, NBC News’ Megyn Kelly got into hot water for commenting on darkening one’s skin for a Halloween costume in order to dress up as someone of a different race. Here’s what she said:
Kelly was talking about Real Housewives of New York star Luann de Lesseps, who was called racist for darkening her skin to dress as Diana Ross. “And people said that that was racist. And I don’t know!” she said about de Lesseps. “I thought like, who doesn’t love Diana Ross? She wants to look like Diana Ross for one day, and I don’t know how that got racist on Halloween.”
Kelly then went on the air to apologize:
Her comments drew heavy fire from other media members, who suggested that Kelly was racist for failing to take the problem of dressing in darkening makeup seriously enough. Al Roker of NBC’s Today said, “The fact is, while she apologized to the staff, she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country. This is a history going right back to the 1830s minstrel shows to demean and denigrate a race. It wasn’t right.”
Now, a few things can be true simultaneously.
1. Blackface Was Horrific. The practice of racist white people donning black makeup to mock black people was a disgusting part of our history. The video of such activities makes the skin crawl. I’ve embedded such a video here to demonstrate that sensitivity toward blackface isn’t overstated in the slightest. This stuff is just the worst on every level.
There’s no question that blackface was intended to demean black people as stupid and ignorant and lesser; blackface was evil. That history is relevant to discussions of whether it is appropriate to darken one’s skin today – and it’s perfectly understandable and justifiable why black Americans say no.
2. Ignorance Is Not Racism. Kelly’s comments were ignorant, by her own admission. But that doesn’t mean they were racist. If you knew nothing about the despicable history of blackface, and you donned black makeup to dress up as Michelle Obama, that might make you ignorant, but it certainly wouldn’t make you racist or anything close to it. In fact, we could fairly say that you were making a statement against racism by dressing up as a black person you admire. The question is whether you knew about the history of blackface and chose to ignore it anyway. If so, that’s at least racially insensitive, and perhaps racist. If not, ignorance does not equate to racism.
3. Ascribing Racist Motives To Non-Racists Is Wrong. Has anyone actually accused Megyn Kelly of being a racist? Of thinking that black people are lesser, or that they ought to be mocked for their skin color? To my understanding, not a single such accusation has been levelled at Kelly – which makes sense, since any such accusation would be unsupportable. There’s no evidence Kelly is a racist, and her comments were meant to point out that dressing up as Diana Ross in admiration for black Americans isn’t inherently racist. That’s correct. But activity doesn’t have to be racist in order for it to be racially insensitive.
Here’s the bottom line: black Americans have every right to be suspicious of people darkening their skin for costumes, given the history of blackface. But immediately ascribing racism to people who have no history of racism, and who are simply ignorant of that history – people who are, in the costumes they choose, attempting to pay tribute to particular black Americans – is both counterproductive and nasty.