NBC fired morning show host Megyn Kelly this week for talking about blackface and Halloween costumes. She asked why it was no longer okay for a white person to dress up as a black character. She talked about her childhood here in the Capital Region and how it seemed to be ok back in the 80s to dress as someone like Diana Ross.
Immediately, the twitterverse exploded with calls of racism and ignorance. NBC responded by firing her.
But does raising that question make Megyn Kelly a racist? Or was NBC, still stinging from the Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein scandals, quick to do damage control in an attempt to get back in the public’s good graces? Or were there ongoing issues with Kelly behind the scenes and this gave them the ammunition they needed to pull the trigger on her exit? I suspect all of the above.
Her ratings have been ok. They started off rough but after some tweaks to the format, she seemed to find her niche and settled into a somewhat decent show. Ratings were better. That 9-10 am timeslot is notoriously difficult to find any level of success in, and NBC has struggled for years to come up with a solution. Luring Megyn Kelly away from Fox News seemed to be the perfect solution. In reality, it has been a nightmare from the beginning.
From insulting Jane Fonda by a question about plastic surgery that the actress has talked about openly in the past, to interviewing Alex Jones about why he makes up conspiracy theories about devastating stories like Sandy Hook, to calling out those on her own network who have been outed by the #metoo movement, there has been no shortage of controversy surrounding Megyn Kelly at NBC.
But let’s get back to the fireable offense: racism.
During the discussion of costumes and dressing up, she referenced her childhood. I am only a couple of years younger than Kelly. I also grew up here in the Capital Region in the 70’s and 80s. Can we all just take a look at what life was like then?
The Jeffersons. All in the Family. Does anyone else remember the Sambo’s restaurant chain? If not, google it. Richard Pryor standup. Black and white culture was on display everywhere from storylines on sitcoms to cartoons like Fat Albert. It was ok for a white kid to laugh at Fat Albert in the 80’s and now that has become taboo. White shows like the Brady Bunch and Family Ties were offset by black shows like Good Times and the Cosby Show. Now, each show has to be culturally diverse within itself. Just take a look at the cast of NBC’s new show Manifest. Inter-racial marriages and same sex relationships that aren’t part of the storyline are all subtle efforts to become more culturally sensitive.
And now, let’s take a look at NBC itself. In middle school, we walked around citing lines from Buckwheat, the Eddie Murphy character from NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Someone would start singing “Wookin pa nub” and it would immediately send us into fits of laughter. That would never fly now.
NBC also showed Billy Crystal transform himself into Sammy Davis, Jr.. Wait- a WHITE person dressed up as a BLACK person? Well, that was 1984, right? I was 11. Megyn Kelly would have been 13. Those are the images we saw growing up. It WAS ok then. NBC showed it. That is what she was talking about. It WAS ok for a white person to play a black character. NBC showed it, in multiple skits, in multiple episodes, in multiple years.
And even as recently as 2008, Fred Armisen darkened his skin, and played President Barack Obama… on NBC.
So if they are going to fire Megyn Kelly for being a racist for even raising the question, they need to look through their archives and see what they have done to add to the confusion about what’s ok and what’s not. In 2018, we need to be able to have these discussions, to reach a common ground about what’s acceptable and what’s not, and come to an understanding about why. A better strategy for Kelly would have been to include some of her black colleagues in the discussion. Those who condemned her immediately after - Al Roker and Craig Melvin - would have brought in a valuable perspective. We need to actively engage in these discussions, with both sides represented, rather than just shutting it down entirely. It needs to be OK to talk to each other openly, honestly and respectfully.
But it has to be done the right way.