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Lester Holt Dressed up as a Woman in ‘Whiteface,’ Fallon In Blackface, What Exactly is NBC’s Policy?

Lester Holt, NBC Nightly News anchor, last week covered the story of outgoing fellow NBC-er Megyn Kelly talking about blackface and whiteface, the segment for which she was ultimately booted from her show.

In her segment, Kelly responded to her co-host saying “but what is racist?” regarding the idea of politically incorrect Halloween costumes. “Because 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 on Halloween. When I was a kid that was okay as long as you were dressing up like a character.”

It was that evening when Lester Holt introduced an NBC report on the controversy.

Kelly mentioned both blackface and whiteface, equating the two, but Holt did not mention “whiteface.” Nevertheless, he is familiar with it, as the photo in this Tweet found by Mediaite shows.

That hilariously disturbing pic of Lester Holt dressed as British pop singer and YouTube sensation Susan Boyle is not just him in a wig and dress but with his face painted white, and it’s not just on Twitter but is actually available on Page Six here. The occasion was Halloween, and there are photos because it was for the Today Show on NBC. The same show from which Megyn Kelly was fired.

So on Megyn Kelly’s own specific show on the network, they previously had a person use make-up to dress in a costume portraying someone not just of a different race, but gender. And that’s not the only example.

That’s NBC’s Hoda Kotb dressed as Blake Shelton, standing with actual Blake Shelton. So she is humorously portraying a singer she presumably likes. Which was, in fact, the specific circumstance that Megyn Kelly posed on her ill-fated segment as she discussed a controversy from earlier this year on the show Real Housewives of New York.

In that instance, cast member Luann de Lesseps dressed as Diana Ross, to include using make-up to make her skin darker. Discussing that controversy, Kelly said “I felt 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 is an intriguing confluence of topics. No one should confuse the context, though. It is that context that doomed Kelly’s segment. Because there is a difference.

Blackface has a long racist past in the United States. Blackface goes back to “minstrel shows”, which were cruel, mocking, paternalistic shows where white people would slather grease on their face in a grotesque caricature and act out terrible stereotypes for the amusement of white crowds.

Although this began during the age of slavery, it amazingly carried on all the way into the mid-twentieth century. In fact, as the following passage from Encylopedia Brittanica notes, even the term “Jim Crow” itself is rooted in the history of blackface and minstrel shows.

The character of Jim Crow is thought to have been first presented about 1830 by Thomas Dartmouth (“Daddy”) Rice, an itinerant white actor. Rice was not the first performer to don rags and use burnt cork to blacken his face to present a mocking exaggerated imitation of an African American, but he was the most famous, and his success helped establish minstrelsy as a popular theatrical form that thrived from about 1850 to 1870. Rice first introduced the character who would become known as Jim Crow between acts of a play called The Kentucky Rifle, in which he performed a ludicrous off-balance dance while singing “Jump Jim Crow,” which described his actions (“Weel about and turn about and do jis so/Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow”).

So although it does relate directly to the Kelly controversy, it doesn’t make the two ideas (or costumes) the same.

Still, there is reason to question the standard upon which a network like NBC decides whether a white person dressing as a black person, to include make-up, is deemed “blackface” or is given a pass.

Glenn Beck‘s The Blaze and Ben Shapiro‘s Daily Wire (along with many other conservative sites) have pointed out that there are videos out there of Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, both of whom work for major networks, doing exactly that. Fallon, in fact, works for NBC now, and the videos show him doing so originally aired on that network.

In Jimmy Kimmel’s case, the Blaze writes, he not only dressed up and wore make-up and body paint to parody Utah Jazz player Karl Malone, but spoke “with a defined speech impediment and acts in a manner that suggests he believes Malone is less than intelligent.” It was a recurring character sketch on Kimmel’s The Man Show on Comedy Central with Adam Carolla.

When confronted with the video by Fox News host Sean Hannity earlier this year on Twitter, Jimmy Kimmel did not respond directly, but instead made an oblique reference to makeup when retweeting Hannity.

If the defense of Kimmel or Fallon is that their performances were not meant to mock the race of those they were portraying or to further stereotypes, then that is almost the same exact premise that Megyn Kelly argued.

Lester Holt’s costume isn’t comparable to blackface. Fallon’s, though? On the seeming differences in how Holt’s network NBC reacts, it does seem there are still questions to answer.

[Featured image via screengrab]

Follow Caleb Howe (@CalebHowe) on Twitter

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