Megyn Kelly Apologizes for “Blackface” Comments

TV host Megyn Kelly apologized yesterday for comments she made earlier this week on her talk show about blackface.

First, the offense: In her morning talk show, Kelly and three guests were discussing inappropriate Halloween costumes. Noting the criticism of actress Luann DeLesseps for dressing as Diana Ross for a Halloween costume party last year, Kelly questioned why it was considered racist for a person to dress up as someone from another race: “Because truly you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface at Halloween or a black person who puts on white face for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was okay as long as you were dressing up as a character.”

The reaction: This quickly became the trending topic on Twitter, with most users finding Kelly’s comments inappropriate and offensive. Her NBC colleague Al Roker demanded a public apology, noting that blackface carries “a history going back to the 1830s minstrel shows to demean and denigrate a race. … I’m old enough to have lived through ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy,’ where you had white people in blackface playing two black characters, just magnifying the worst stereotypes about black people — and that’s what the problem is and that’s what the issue is.”

The apology: Kelly first emailed an apology to her NBC colleagues. Then yesterday, she apologized at the start of her daily TV show before a live audience:

“I want to begin with two words: I’m sorry. You may have heard that yesterday we had a discussion here about political correctness and Halloween costumes.

“And that conversation turned to whether it is ever okay for a person of one race to dress up as another — a black person making their face lighter or a white person making theirs darker, to make a costume complete. I defended the idea, saying that as long it was respectful and part of a Halloween costume, it seemed okay. Well, I was wrong and I am sorry.”

“I have never been a ‘PC’ kind of person, but I do understand the value in being sensitive to our history, particularly on race and ethnicity. This past year has been so painful for many people of color.”

“The country feels so divided, and I have no wish to add to that pain and offense. I believe this is a time for more understanding, more love, more sensitivity and honor, and I want to be part of that.”

Many in the audience, including people of color, stood and clapped when she finished.

The analysis: First, what’s good about this apology: I believe she is sorry about this mess. She admitted she was “wrong,” and she seems to understand that she contributed to the problem instead of to its solution, expressing a desire to behave differently from now on. She was emotional as she was delivering it: this was heartfelt.

What’s not so good: The comment about not being “a ‘PC’ kind of person” is a bit jarring. I think she’s trying to be honest—that she’s not going to say things she doesn’t believe only because it’s expected. But it could be interpreted to mean that she believes this whole matter is only about “political correctness” rather than genuine offense.

“This past year has been so painful for people of color.” I found this phrase also jarring. I expected her to say that it’s been painful for all of us as we wrestle with racial tension in the U.S. Suggesting that it’s been painful for some people implies that it hasn’t been painful for the rest. I don’t think that’s what she meant – surely she too has been grieved by the police shootings of unarmed black men, the church murders in South Carolina, etc. I think she was trying to express empathy. She didn’t quite do it.

What could’ve made it better: Good apologies are specific about the offense and the attempts to avoid it. I wish she’d added a line specifically about how damaging “blackface” was, like repeating what Al Roker noted – that it’s perpetuated the worst stereotypes about black people. I wish she had acknowledged that it all seemed okay “when she was a kid” because anyone who objected then was silenced, their criticism suppressed. She could’ve expressed gratitude that people speak more freely today, even if it’s to criticize her, because that’s how she learns.

It takes courage to make a public apology, because it’s fraught with minefields. It’s even more stressful when your job is on the line. We can all learn from Megyn Kelly’s example.

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