Host Al Roker said, “She owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country,” while news anchor Craig Melvin said Kelly’s comments were “ignorant and racist… stupid and indefensible.”
Kelly didn’t appear in person to answer her colleagues’ criticism, but on her 9 a.m. show said, “I was wrong and I am sorry. Sometimes I talk and sometimes I listen, and yesterday I learned. I learned that given the history of blackface being used in awful ways by racists in this country, it is not OK for that to be part of any costume, Halloween or otherwise.”
On her show on Tuesday, Kelly asked, “Isn’t the whole purpose of Halloween to dress up and pretend you are something other than yourself?”
“You do get in trouble if a white person puts on blackface at Halloween or a black person puts on whiteface at Halloween… like when I was a kid that was OK if you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
Talking about Real Housewife of New York Luann de Lesseps dressing up as Diana Ross, and bronzing her face, Kelly said, “People said that was racist… and I felt like who doesn’t like Diana Ross? She wants to look like Diana Ross for one day? I don’t know how that got racist on Halloween.”
As reported by NBC journalist Morgan Radford (even before Roker and Melvin commented) made clear, Kelly's comments drew swift condemnation by Twitter users, famous and not.
Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi wrote that she couldn’t “believe Kelly’s ignorance on this in 2018… this is so damaging.”
In an email to staff, though not to her viewers or the public generally, Kelly wrote, “I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong and I am sorry… The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent… I've never been a ‘pc’ kind of person but I understand we do need to be more sensitive in this day and age.”
The Today show also aired Kelly’s comments while at Fox News that “Jesus was a white man too,” and her message to America’s children that “Santa is just white.”
Only the African American hosts of Today criticized Kelly on Wednesday. Lead anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb stayed silent. Guthrie said, “It is uncomfortable. Megyn is a colleague at NBC News but it's umm…” and then threw to Roker.
After saying Kelly owed a “bigger apology” to her people of color viewers, he added, “because this is a history going back to the 1830s… Minstrel shows to me denigrate a race. I'm old enough to have lived through Amos and Andy where you had white people in blackface playing two black characters magnifying the worst stereotypes about black people. That’s what the big problem is. That’s what the issue is.”
Melvin then said of the controversy over Kelly’s comments, “There was some criticism online that this was political correctness run amok. That’s silly and it’s disingenuous and it’s just as ignorant and racist as the statement itself. In addition to her being a colleague she’s a friend. She said something stupid and something indefensible.
“I guess it was an opportunity for us to learn a bit more about blackface, but I think a lot of people knew about blackface.”
Roker added, “No good comes from it. It goes back to the 1930s, and Warner Oland playing Charlie Chan. It's just not right.”
Jenna Bush Hager, who was part of Kelly’s "Halloween" panel, denounced Kelly's “racial intolerance” to Guthrie and Kotb on Wednesday while publicizing a book she had written with her sister Barbara.
“The conversation took a turn none of us expected,” Jenna Bush Hager said. “I didn't expect it. I just have to say, of course it’s wrong. In a world sometimes filled with hate, it's more important than ever we use our voices towards love.”
Their grandmother Barbara Bush had, said Bush Hager, “compassion towards people different to her, people she never even knew. I think now more than ever we need to make sure when the conversation goes that way, towards racial intolerance, we use our voices, and we use them loudly and with grace.”
On her own show, Kelly’s mea culpa took place as part of a segment where an all-black panel—PBS’ Amy Holmes and Roland Martin—lectured her and the viewers on why blackface was racist, and then talked about racism and stereotyping more generally.
Kelly, repeating a line she had used in her message to staff, said: “I’ve never been a PC kind of person, but I do understand the value in being sensitive to our history, particularly on race and ethnicity.”
“This past year has been so painful for many people of color. The country feels so divided and I have no wish to add to that pain and offense. I believe this is time for more understanding, more love, more sensitivity, and honor. I want to be part if that. Thank you for listening and for helping me listen too.”
Kelly, who looked close to tears, was given a standing ovation, and the cameras panned to audience members, notably including people of color, applauding the remark.
“I love you guys,” Kelly told her audience, then turned to her black guests and told them she loved them too.
The show then segued into a teaching moment about blackface, rather than an interrogation of Kelly’s words and why she had said them, and her past statements that Jesus and Santa were white, which had featured on the main Today show segment.
Kelly and her producers had clearly decided to not dwell on that, turning the controversy into a show of contrition on her part.
Kelly sat and listened as Martin and Holmes lectured her, talking about the history of blackface, and how and why that demeaned black people. Then the conversation turned to the issue of racism more generally.
Hollywood’s history of casting white actors in people of color roles was referenced; as was white people’s predominance in the media. Martin said race was “embedded deep in the DNA of America.” Holmes said there should be widespread challenging of racial stereotypes.
“I can play Diana Ross. I’m sorry Megyn, you can’t,” Holmes told Kelly.
Kelly broke her silence to conclude the segment. “For my part, I have been listening and learning. I’m grateful to have this conversation today.”
She laughed ruefully, as she added, “And for those who reached out to me via Twitter, I heard you too.”