Brow Beat

Megyn Kelly Is Who We Thought She Was

Her blackface comments were not an unexpected outburst or a mangled attempt at contrarianism.

A cutout of blonde Megyn Kelly, looking off camera, set against a maroon background.
Megyn Kelly Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Fortune.

Megyn Kelly Today is likely toast, according to reports from CNN and the New York Times. The former Fox News star’s NBC morning show has been lagging in the ratings, with an even smaller audience than the less-buzzy hour of Today it replaced with great fanfare in September 2017.

“Happy Friday!” Kelly said at the start of Thursday’s show, a pre-taped episode; another will air Friday, with no guarantee Kelly will return on Monday. She is reportedly in negotiations with NBC about wrapping up her show by the end of the year. Prior to this week, it was already looking like Kelly’s show was destined for the trash pile. After drawing the ire of co-workers and critics for defending Halloween blackface on air on Tuesday, it will be a whole lot easier for the network to justify taking her off the air.

Those familiar with Kelly’s work at Fox—including, presumably, NBC executives and her talent agency, which also dropped her this week—know her blackface comments were not an unexpected outburst or a mangled attempt at contrarianism. Rather, they were an accurate representation of her views on race and racism. Here’s what Kelly said:

What is racist? Because, truly, 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. Back when I was a kid, that was like, OK, as long as you were dressing up as like a character. … There was a controversy on The Real Housewives of New York with Luann [de Lesseps], as she dressed as Diana Ross, and she made her skin look darker than it really is, and people said that that was racist. And I thought, like, who doesn’t love Diana Ross? She wants to look like Diana Ross for one day. I don’t know how that got racist on Halloween. It’s not like she’s walking around [like that] in general. … I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people.

To summarize the Kelly perspective on blackface: There’s no difference between a white person doing a race-related thing and a black person doing an equal and opposite race-related thing. It’s sad that white folks’ norms and practices around racism have changed, because the old ones were all in good fun. And too many people get unreasonably offended by the benign behavior and opinions of “normal” people.

Kelly has made all these points before at Fox News, a network far kinder to, shall we say, antiquated views on race. When she leveled charges of racism on The Kelly File, they were almost exclusively raised against black people for allegedly discriminating against whites, often as part of an anti-white conspiracy that included Barack Obama and former U.S.
Attorney General Eric Holder. (Black people wearing whiteface is the same as white people wearing blackface!) She complained about all the fuss over racist emails sent by Ferguson police officers, claiming that such emails were typical of “companies in America, whether they are public or private.” (Why are people making a big deal out of stuff that used to be OK?) She condemned Oprah for saying America has a problem with racism when the talk-show legend is “a billionaire thanks in large part to American viewers loving her—white, black, brown, you name it”—and raised doubts that the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers had anything to do with race, suggesting that Black Lives Matter demonstrators adopt “a civilized route” rather than protesting in the streets. (Everyone’s too offended!) Kelly has also claimed that Black Lives Matter protests pose a threat to “average” Americans. (“Average” Americans, like “normal people,” are white.)

But even before Kelly left Fox News, she’d started rebranding herself as a palatable figure to a mainstream, more centrist audience. A few years after she accused Oprah of being ungrateful for the nonracism American viewers demonstrated by loving her, Kelly praised the media mogul for declining to “play the race card” or “the gender card” on her road to fame. That comment came in a flattering Vanity Fair profile that heralded Kelly’s rise from cable-news firebrand to mass-market network star, in which she compared herself not only to Oprah but Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. She engaged in some highly publicized gentle ribbing of far-right misogynists, which made her look like a raging feminist in comparison to the other personalities at Fox. Once she got to NBC, Kelly declared that she was “kinda done with politics for now” and lamented that there was “so much division, so much outrage” in the country, as if she’d had no part in making white, conservative Americans fear a nation overtaken by lawless immigrants, nonwhite Santas, and black communities with an “anti-cop, thug mentality.”

It’s hard to say whether Kelly’s Halloween costume segment was a simple case of her true self coming out in spite of its new venue, or a deliberate attempt to gin up controversy and goose ratings by going back to the formula that brought her immense success at Fox News. Either way, on Wednesday, producers were scrambling to salvage whatever reputation Kelly might have retained among viewers turned off by racist appeals. Her normally majority-white audience was replaced with a strikingly multiracial crowd that gratefully applauded her apology—“The country feels so divided and I have no wish to add to that pain and offense”—for that “whoops, I endorsed blackface!” moment.

Kelly’s decision to part ways with Fox News wasn’t motivated solely by her desire for a larger audience. It was also reportedly prompted by the network’s support for Bill O’Reilly, even as he mocked Kelly for coming forward with sexual harassment allegations against former Fox chairman Roger Ailes. Now, Kelly is clashing with co-workers again—this time with Today’s Al Roker and Craig Melvin, black men who dismissed her emailed apology as not good enough and her blackface comments as “indefensible,” respectively. Kelly, it seems, has found herself on the opposite side of a workplace dispute in which one employee pooh-poohs another’s experience of identity-based discrimination. This time, her audience isn’t big enough or loyal enough to protect her.