Ellie Kemper Addresses Controversial Debutante Ball Photos, Calls Out Organization’s Racist, Sexist, and Elitist Past
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actress Ellie Kemper got caught up in the kind of Twitter scandal that makes anyone panic. Pictures were widely shared of 19-year-old Kemper participating in something called the Veiled Prophet Ball in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, where she was crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty.
Online sleuths uncovered that this was not in fact a D&D campaign but a very old organization. Slate reported that the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet was a secret society specifically organized by “white male community leaders,” and the gala was a way of “reinforcing the notion of the benevolent elite.”
It’s an annual debutante ball in St. Louis with some very strange traditions and a history that’s spotty at best … In the 1970s, they faced protests from civil rights groups like ACTION, which managed to infiltrate the ball in 1972 and unmask that year’s “veiled prophet,” who turned out to be a vice president of Monsanto. The society didn’t admit any Black members until 1979, more than 100 years after it was founded.
The connections Internet commenters made between the group and the KKK came from the pointy hats worn at the ceremony and the fact that it was very much a white elitist organization. The members may not have been burning crosses, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anti-Blackness and white supremacy at the root of it.
Kemper was crowned one of the queens of the ball as a teenager and that led to some calling her a “KKK Princess” online, a phrase that went viral. Kemper has now posted a response to all this on her Instagram, in which she denounces the organization in no uncertain terms.
View this post on Instagram
“Hi guys – when I was 19 years old, I decided to participate in a debutante ball in my hometown. The century-old organization that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionably racist, sexist, and elitist past. I was not aware of this history at the time, but it is no excuse. I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved.
I unequivocally deplore, denounce, and reject white supremacy. At the same time, I acknowledge that because of my race and my privilege, I am the beneficiary of a system that has dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards.
There is a very natural temptation when you become the subject of internet criticism, to tell yourself that your detractors are getting it all wrong. But at some point last week, I realized that a lot of the forces behind the criticism are forces that I’ve spent my life supporting and agreeing with.
I believe strongly in the values of kindness, integrity, and inclusiveness. I try to live my life in accordance with these values. If my experience is an indication that organizations and institutions with pasts that fall short of these beliefs should be held to account, then I have to see this experience in a positive light.
I want to apologize to the people I’ve disappointed, and I promise that moving foward I will listen, continue to educate myself, and use my privilege in support of the better society I think we’re capable of becoming. Thanks for reading this.”
Personally, as a Black woman, I think this is a strong apology that acknowledges what the issues were, takes responsibility, and is short and to the point. The larger issue for me is beyond Kemper, who honestly was probably more injured by being associated with Tina Fey’s brand of race-comedy being in combination with this reveal. The larger issue is how we talk about holding white people accountable for their participation in historical racist whiteness.
While I understand some, especially Black and Brown people, will roll their eyes at Kemper being 19-year-old and not being aware of the dog whistles that were howling all around her, the reality is that many white people do not grow up with a well-rounded racial understanding. Kemper comes from old money and her grandfather was one of the wealthiest men in Missouri. That is the kind of wealth that insulates you. It doesn’t hold you accountable or interrogate you.
American history is loaded with institutions that are mired in white supremacy from the ground up. Colleges, churches, and countless buildings, just as a start. I don’t get to go to my OBGYN without knowing that techniques used on me are part of experiments done on enslaved women.
If there is anything that came out of this weird dry snitching/interrogating of Kemper’s past, then it is that she gave her fellow white elites a fantastic template of how to hold themselves accountable without stepping in it. Kemper is no KKK Princess (a term that never should have made it past online chatter), but the reality is that many white people, like Kemper, do not ask questions about the reality of whiteness until they are called to do so. And many of them fail to answer the call anyway.
Considering that this particular debutante ball is still ongoing, it is good that Kemper called out their past so that no one going forward should be ignorant of what they are signing up for.
(image: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
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