“But what is racist?” the host asked a panel that curiously did not include any black guests. “You truly 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.”
“That was OK when I was a kid, as long as you were dressing like a character,” Kelly lamented.
Kelly pointed to the backlash inspired by Real Housewives of New York star Countess Luann de Lesseps, who used blackface while dressing up as Diana Ross—and later apologized for the offensive costume.
“I don’t see how that is racist on Halloween,” said Kelly. But her all-white cast of panelists didn’t agree.
“I haven't seen it, but it sounds pretty racist to me,” remarked NBC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff.
Jenna Bush Hager, former first daughter and fellow NBC News correspondent, added: “Me too
Nevertheless, Kelly continued: “I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people these days.”
After Kelly’s show aired, the blowback online was nearly instantaneous.
“Honestly, minstrel shows and blackface were a popular form of extremely racist mass entertainment in America up through the early 20th century,” wrote Jamelle Bouie, a CBS News political analyst. “People who comment for a living should know that.”
“You can take the host out of Fox News but you can't take the Fox News out of the host,” wrote New York Times politics reporter Astead Herndon.
Kelly’s comments also drew the ire of celebrities, including Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, who tweeted at the NBC host: “I cannot believe the ignorance on this in 2018. You are on national television. You have a responsibility to educate yourself on social issues.”
But as The Daily Beast’s own Asawin Suebsaeng reported in 2015, Kelly has a history of racist on-screen moments—accidental or otherwise.
During the 2008 election, she infamously led the Fox News charge in claiming that the New Black Panthers were destroying American democracy through alleged voter intimidation. Kelly later lamented, via the Washington Post, that her reporting on the subject had been viewed as racist.
But her most infamous moment came in 2013 when Kelly addressed her Fox primetime viewers during a segment about arguments that Santa Claus should not always be depicted as white: “For you kids watching at home: Santa just is white.”
She later added: “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man too.”
The controversy over blackface costumes resurfaces seemingly every year, prompting the same conversations on the subject before and after Halloween.
As Vox explained in 2014, blackface was long a staple of minstrel shows, which exaggerated the features of people of color for entertainment “against the backdrop of a society that systematically mistreated and dehumanized black people. They were mocking portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans were inferior in every way.”
David Leonard wrote in his 2012 HuffPost essay “Just Say No to Blackface“ that the practice “is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence.”
“From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence. It is time to stop with the dismissive arguments those that describe these offensive acts as pranks, ignorance and youthful indiscretions,” he continued.
“Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes... the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries worth of injustice.”
UPDATE: Kelly sent a memo to her NBC colleagues on Tuesday afternoon, apologizing for her defense of blackface. “I now realize that such behavior is indeed wrong, and I am sorry. The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep,” she wrote, adding: “I've never been a ‘pc’ kind of person—but I understand that we do need to be more sensitive in this day and age. Particularly on race and ethnicity issues which, far from being healed, have been exacerbated in our politics over the past year.” Kelly concluded: “This is a time for more understanding, love, sensitivity and honor, and I want to be a part of that.”