I try to avoid the occasional dust-up involving media personalities, since I do not really care about their comings and goings. But the recent flap over Megyn Kelly’s comments expressing puzzlement as to why white people wearing blackface is seen as racist is worth noting. In this case, she was saying that if someone wanted to be Diana Ross for Halloween, then what was wrong with making her face black? As a result of her comments, it appears that she is being fired by NBC. Before coming to NBC, Kelly had a long history at Fox News of racist dog whistles, via statements proclaiming that Santa Claus and Jesus were white.
She also paired her statement of blackface with a statement about people of color wearing whiteface makeup, saying “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” and wondering why this was so. But that symmetry is phony. By coincidence, a few days ago I watched an episode of Dear White People that addressed just this issue, in which a college literary society whose membership is entirely white, decides to host a blackface Halloween party. When the head of the society is upbraided by a black student, he makes the same parallelism argument as Kelly, to which the black student replies that black people wearing whiteface is “not a thing”.
This puzzlement is deeply disingenuous. I recall how when we were visiting New Zealand many years ago, my younger daughter, who must have been in her early teens, told us in a horrified voice that she had seen a blackface doll and was shocked that people would own such a racist item and display it openly. The doll in question was a ‘Golliwog’, a children’s literary character, which was inexplicably popular in the UK and its former colonies and was for a long time adopted as the symbol for a popular brand of jam. This article describes how it became popular and later became a source of controversy. It is thought that the racist slur of ‘wog’ used by the English for people of color likely derived from Golliwog.
My point is that if my daughter at a young age could immediately see that the doll was racist despite never having been exposed to it before and not knowing about the historical role of blackface in minstrelsy, surely an adult like Kelly who has grown up in the US with its racially tense history would know the same. I think she did know but was playing the usual “I’m only posing the question” card that is pretty much standard operating procedure at Fox News, where expressing puzzlement over something that is clearly wrong has long been a conscious strategy.
Wearing black face was long a staple of minstrelsy and has a deep association with the denigration of people of color. To act like that can be simply erased is ridiculous. Samantha Bee gets an expert on the history of blackface minstrelsy to explain this yet again.