“In 2000, while on SNL, I made a terrible decision to do an impersonation of Chris Rock while in blackface. There is no excuse for this,” Fallon wrote on Twitter. “I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable.”
Today, the hashtag #JimmyFallonIsOverParty is being floated with social media users calling for him to be cancelled for his impersonation. Some are making parallels to Megyn Kelly being cancelled for defending blackface costumes during Halloween.
We’ve seen this movie before and we will certainly see it again. Such are certainties in a time when quotes and videos are never fully hidden from view even as people and organizations do their darndest to bury them. The question is, should Fallon be cancelled and if so, why?
This is a difficult question at best, one that introduces plain truths, contextual blurs and a fundamental approach to consistency of character.
Plain Truth: Blackface is offensive regardless of the comedic bent and intent around its use. There was a time when non-black performers used it to present an unflattering caricature of a black person. What is more, the use of blackface in the theater was at a time when racism, slavery, segregation, and discrimination were par for the legal course. As such, the portrayal was not meant as a term of endearment but a mockery of an entire race of people who had no recourse. Pulling it out in any form or fashion is no better today, even as some try to highlight the improved relations between Caucasians and blacks and African American’s. The undisputed fact is, there is nothing funny about recalling the mockery of an entire race of oppressed people. As well, blackface is one of a million things that triggers memories of times and consequences that are still reciprocating today.
This begs the question, “Since the offense is undeniably egregious, should Fallon be cancelled?”
Contextual Blurs: Again, some have concluded that he should be cancelled because Megyn Kelly was cancelled. Except, Kelly’s initial response to the controversy was a defensive posture. By the time she came around to apologizing, the initial backlash had swollen to an irreversible high and NBC had no choice but to cancel her show. Fallon’s apology was immediate and void of excuses or backpedaling.
Of course, it is entirely possible that Fallon was more postured to reply with an apologetic tongue because the blueprint for sorry’s has been building up in the wake of #MeToo, #TimesUp, #BlackLivesMatter, and a host of other social justice movements. Of note, Kelly was an NBC employee and Fallon is an NBC employee. Translation: He may have had publicity help from the very people who learned a thing or two thousand from the Kelly debacle.
One could also point out that Kelly’s employer prior to NBC was Fox News and therefore opine that it wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that she shared similarly archaic views about race and equality.
On the other hand, NBC buried Fallon’s SNL video, purportedly with Fallon’s knowledge, this instead of addressing it in the open, apologizing for it, and moving on.
These are all ripe for discourse, translation, and judgment.
Should Fallon be cancelled for wearing blackface?
Should Fallon be cancelled because Kelly was cancelled?
Does it matter that Kelly didn’t immediately apologize and Fallon did?
Was Fallon’s response sincere or just an engineered apology from NBC’s PR playbook?
Does it matter that NBC scrubbed the clip from their SNL archives and if so to what degree? Did they scrub it to avoid accountability or out of fear of public reprisal?
Like the question of how many licks it takes to get to the tootsie roll center of a tootsie pop, the world may never know. What we do know is, we are talking more and becoming more divided with every word. What I know after facilitating thousands of national level culture discussions is that our growing division is not a result of us talking more. It is growing because our conversations are filled with bias, generalization, misinformation, and presumptions of ill intent. What is more, these unhealthy lenses are race, gender, and generational agnostic.
We need a new lens, one that invites a clearer view of the matter and the people behind it. A lens that we have successfully looked through in years past.
Consistency of Character: In 2018, Viggo Mortensen was taken to task for using the “N” word at a press junket for “Green Book.” His apology was swift and void of excuses. More importantly, his past behaviors and actions put him squarely in the seat of a social advocate,who long fought for the rights of women and minorities, among other social change efforts. As a result of these factors, he was largely forgiven. Just three months prior, John Schnatter, former CEO of Papa Johns, was ousted from his position for using the very same word. This led to some people crying foul for the differences in treatment and outcome between two white men who committed the same social sin. The rationale came down to response and consistency of character. For starters, Mr. Schnatter’s apology for using the “N” word was seen as defensive, largely because he spent more time talking about why he used the word and less time listening to understand the source of peoples angst. As well, he previously commented that NFL players kneeling for the National Anthem were to blame for low pizza sales. Simply put, Viggo’s overall character prior to the incident and his response afterwards enabled people to view his social sin differently and thus respond to it differently.
Has Jimmy Fallon made racist statements or demonstrated racist behavior prior to or post his blackface skit in 2000? If such things exist, they will be exposed — as they should. After all, an apology is only as meaningful as the character demonstrated by the person making it. Until then, we have a decision to make. Do we look at Fallon’s consistency of character or do we focus on this incident and cancel him accordingly? The answer to this question may be tied to whether or not you see what he did as a matter of racist ignorance and poor judgment or as a straight line case of racism. Based on what we know today, it would difficult to presume the latter without making a rush to judgment — a negative one to boot.
This is the part of the discussion where I acknowledge how easy it easy for a white male to infer his an act of ignorance and poor judgment; this instead of calling it an act of racism. Blackface is racist, there are no two ways about it. This does not make Fallon racist and thus chalking his act up to one of racism would be oversimplifying what occurred — again, based on what we know today.
Racism: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
All indications point to an SNL team making a blackface skit and deciding that it was a good idea to put it on television. This did not happen in the age of movements that have made it all but impossible to plead ignorance about sense and sensibilities on the matter. This happened 20 years ago. It was racist then but there are no indications that Fallon had racist intentions or that he knew it was racist but did it anyway.
Again, saying this as a white male is easy. Guess what else is easy? Presuming that Fallon is a racist and that is apology was insincere. It is also easy to call for his cancellation based on these presumptions. It is even easier to conclude that anyone who does not agree with cancelling him is racist at worst or an enabler of racism at best. Perhaps easiest of all is to conclude that his intent doesn’t matter, nor does the timing of the incident. That the only thing that matters is that he did something that was racist.
This is perhaps the most sensitive topic to tackle on this particular matter.
Truth 1: We have taken baby steps on the road to equality and equity.
Truth 2: We have given passes to Caucasians for racist behaviors, actions, and words.
Truth 3: The realities of these two truths makes it easy for people who rightfully tire of the slow road to meaningful progress to call for Fallon’s cancellation. They may say:
- “If we don’t cancel him, it shows that the behavior has no consequences.”
- “We need a zero tolerance, I don’t care how long ago or why they did it. This stuff has got to stop.”
It is hard to argue these plea’s. After all, black men are still being gunned down and black people are having the police called on them for selling bottled water or sleeping in their own dorm room. Something’s gotta give.
Still, what is the path to learning and healing? Is that path different for people who have demonstrated a strong consistency of character? If it is not, should it be? If not, where is the growth? Two weeks ago, I was teaching an iteration of Unconscious By Us training when a student asked me the following question:
“Do you see a way that race relations, equity, and individual growth can occur on our current trajectory?”
My response: “Our current trajectory is one in which we listen to respond, judge from a place of negative intent, generalize by default, and fall into bouts of absolutism. Does that answer your question?”
Her response to my response: “I agree. I find myself wanting to help people grow, providing they are willing to grow. Otherwise, anyone who shows poor judgment or ignorance will be banished, never given the opportunity to demonstrate their character.”
This was spoken by a black female Doctorate student attending Georgetown University. She is 31 years old.
That was then, this is now.
I will go back to the title of this article: What do we do with Jimmy Fallon?
We take him at his word until he gives us a reason not to. We don’t presume that he is a racist because he did a racist thing. We don’t cancel him for something he did 20 years ago at a time when the average American person was ignorant about the historical relevance of blackface. If information pops up over the next several days that indicates racist behaviors and actions beyond this blackface, we cancel him immediately.