Most sentences that begin with “When I was a kid…” to complain about the crazy modern world don’t end well for the speaker. If it’s just a blowhard uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, his grudging audience of maybe a dozen family members has already tuned him out after those five words. But if you’re Megyn Kelly with an audience of 2.4 million on NBC, the ending of that sentence will live on long after Uncle Know-it-all is snoring on the sofa in a pumpkin pie-induced coma. What she says matters because it enters the social unconscious as a splinter that festers into an infection in our cultural values. Kelly’s doe-eyed defense of wearing blackface for Halloween as not being racist is classic: “What is racist? When I was a kid, that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
For a popular public figure with a law degree, she really is way too comfortable ignoring simple logic. Her statement is the common logical fallacy of “appeal to tradition” that suggests that because something happened in the past, it’s good, true or beneficial. Like bleeding people when they’re sick, or women not voting or slavery. Nostalgia is not an excuse for promoting bad behavior. If it were, we wouldn’t have made marital rape illegal— which we didn’t start to do in the U.S. until the mid-1970s (with it being illegal in the entire country by 1993). Why? Because legal and biblical “tradition” held that it was a wife’s obligation to have sex, and therefore she couldn’t withhold it. Even Tevya, despite his rousing rendition of “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof, had to adapt to the way the world was evolving.
“What is racist?” Kelly asked. That’s a fair question, because the answer can sometimes seem complicated. Some people like to declare they are color blind with statements like, “I don’t see color. I don’t care if you’re black, white or purple.” That’s a lie no matter who says it. We all see color and we all make snap, often inappropriate judgments, even if we don’t want to. This isn’t racism, but racial awareness. The Broadway musical Avenue Q says it well in “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”:
Everyone’s a little bit
Doesn’t mean we go around committing
Look around and
You will find,
No one’s really
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face.
Based on race.
It’s part of our innate fight-or-flight response to identify what’s safe and what’s a potential threat. That’s why some black people have one way they act around white people, a more homogenized version of themselves, and another when they’re around other black people.
It’s less important that we all have that initial reaction than what we do about it. I look at it the same way I look at heroism. A hero feels fear, but overcomes that fear to act nobly. We may feel that twinge of bias, but then we overcome it to act compassionately. Acting out of moral conviction rather than childish fear is the basis for civilization.
The complication is that there are two major categories of racist: ignorant and deliberate. The ignorant racist may behave in bigoted ways because they don’t realize that what they are doing or saying is genuinely offensive. They could be a warm and wonderful human being but completely clueless of how they are negatively affecting others. Often, when they learn that they were inadvertently behaving badly or held inaccurate beliefs, they will feel shame and change their behavior. The deliberate racist is proudly ignorant and wishes harm to their target.
In Megyn Kelly’s case, it would be difficult to sustain an argument that she was ignorant of the blackface controversy. We’ve had many examples of it in the past few years (Ted Danson, Luann de Lesseps, Kylie Jenner, Julianne Hough, etc.) with all the usual pundits, myself included, explaining publicly why this is a hurtful and insensitive display. She’s an educated person with a news background, so there’s no way she is not informed on the issue. Which means she deliberately, without regard to the harm she would inflict on people of color, chose to pull out this old controversy. Not quite a hate crime, but hate crime-adjacent.
Should she be fired? In the best of all possible worlds, yes. Either she deliberately was racist in order to juice her flagging ratings, or she was too dumb to know it was racist, which is inexcusable for a newsperson. Either reason is grounds for dismissal. However, this is not the best of all possible worlds, and NBC might have sent her a mixed message when hiring her. Kelly made consistently racist statements while at Fox News, so when NBC hired her in 2017, its executives were saying: We’re rewarding your racism on Fox by paying you $69 million over three years. Then when she does the same thing that got her that mega-payday, NBC suddenly expresses socially conscious outrage. Not quite racist, but racist-adjacent. Firing Kelly does not wash away everyone’s past sins, but it’s still a cleansing moment.