The deplorable history of blackface in America

There are many ways to offend people today. Sometimes, the offense is timeless — in bad taste no matter when or where. Such is the case with the idea of a person dressing up in blackface. It’s demeaning, it’s nasty and it’s racist. Period.

NBC Today star Megyn Kelly should have known all of that when she defended a white person’s choice to get made up in blackface, or a black person’s choice to get made up in whiteface, on her television segment aired on Tuesday, Oct. 23, during the 9 o’clock hour of the “Today” show. Her supposed repentance, broadcast the very next day, was on the verge of teary but lacked sincerity. She said she should have known better. Yes, she should have. We should all know better.

The history of blackface goes back to the minstrel show, which debuted in America roughly 175 years ago.

Minstrel shows had white and black actors in blackface ridiculing and satirizing blacks with the worst of stereotypes. The burlesque-type comic skits had actors with faces blackened by burnt cork demean blacks’ behavior, accents and appearance — in racist plot lines — in what was considered high entertainment of the day.

The History Channel summed up what minstrel shows were all about rather well:

“The shows often portrayed black people as naive, dim-witted buffoons who sang, danced and drank the day away on slave plantations. In spite of their racist content, minstrel shows quickly became the leading source of information — however flawed — about blacks. In fact, for several decades, minstrelsy was the lens through which whites viewed black America.”

What does it say about Kelly that she was blind to the harm going blackface could do today? That’s coupled with the fact that when she was  back at Fox News Channel, she said flatly that both Santa Claus and Jesus were white. Really? How can she be so sure? Certainly the assumption that white men were, and continue to be, the only ones in positions of power perpetuates such prejudices.

There’s a whole world of cultures out there. There are different races, different religions, different ethnicities — all equally important and all equally relevant.

Kelly was swiftly removed from the air following her comments. Repeats of her show were televised instead, and within days it was announced that “Megyn Kelly Today” was being canceled entirely. NBC had to act fast, as the optics surrounding Kelly’s statement were decidedly not good.

The American public, eager to find common ground with one another, deserves better. 

Kelly has been a powerful voice for the conservative movement — and that’s fine. It’s important all sides of the political spectrum are represented in the media. In the past, she’s also shown gumption by standing up to then-candidate Trump during a presidential debate. That took courage, and we were impressed. But, this… this latest turn in Kelly’s career seems to be indicative of a latent racism that colors her perspective on all things. And that could be dangerous. 

This world needs more understanding, more acceptance, more fellowship — not less. When people say the wrong thing and act inappropriately, they should be called out, if only so others understand the issue. 

Blackface is wrong. Those who don’t agree, or don’t understand why, need to revisit our history and reconsider why race relations are so tenuous in the U.S. We can’t stand idly by while such harmful beliefs are propagated. We must speak out loudly. We must reject racism —and the hate it leads to — in all its forms.