In a blunt critique by Christina Cauterucci of Slate.com, Ms. Kelly is quoted as saying of Ms. Winfrey,I don’t know Megyn Kelly from a hole on the ground. I don't think I'd heard of her until her very public dust-up with Donald Trump. Therefore, I don’t have any background into her thinking about race and gender. She may very well look down on other women and non-whites as wallowing in victimhood of one sort or another - it’s an opinion that exists in the real world, and there’s nothing about being a journalist (or anything else) that precludes someone from holding it. The fact that a statement she made about Oprah Winfrey “suggests” that she “probably” believes it, however, is not enough to take her to task for.
“In all her years coming up … [Winfrey] never wallowed in any sort of victimhood. She didn’t play the gender card and she didn’t play the race card. She was just so good we couldn’t ignore her.”
First, whether she knows it or would be willing to admit it, that statement suggests Ms. Kelly believes a significant number of people of color have succeeded by playing the race card, or by demanding things they weren’t qualified for due to past victimization. I find this extraordinarily offensive. It probably reflects her personal opinion about the hot-button affirmative action issue, and definitely plays well with her staunchly conservative audience. But from someone yearning for broad appeal in the 21st Century, I agree with Christina Cauterucci that it’s a decidedly outdated and isolating stance.
Rachel Jones. Megyn Kelly and “The Curious Case of Color-Blocking”
One of the recurring problems that the United States’ history of discrimination has created is the continuing expectation of prejudice. Megyn Kelly’s complementary statement aimed at Oprah Winfrey was significantly wordier than it needed to be, but, as quoted by Ms. Cauterucci by way of Ms. Jones, doesn’t actually include any accusatory language. Yes, there is the implication that there are people who wallow in victimhood, and play the gender and race cards, rather than being too good to ignore. But we understand that this actually happens in the world, just as there are people who used Jim Crow to their advantage to elevate themselves to places that they would have otherwise been unable to reach. But the fact that the implications of a statement suggest that someone probably believes something is different from direct evidence that they believe something.
Yes, overt racist and sexist sentiments are, for the most part, out of fashion in the modern United States - there are people who can still get away with dealing in direct “isms” in the public sphere - but compared to 50 or 75 years ago, the landscape is much different. But tribalism in humanity is unlikely to have died so easily. And this suggests that there are people who would like to go around saying that significant women and minorities have advanced themselves through demands for things for which they are not qualified, but don’t, because they’d rather not suffer the consequences of doing so. The expectation that people harbor prejudicial attitudes, and, importantly, want to communicate those attitudes to others, can lead us to scrutinize people’s words for evidence of what we expect to find. I understand the stereotype of the typical Fox News viewer as an older White person who waxes nostalgic for an imagined past in which everything was wonderful and White males were the only people who truly mattered. And I understand the idea that as a media personality for Fox News, there is a certain expectation that Ms. Kelly holds at least some of the attitudes that are attributed to Fox viewers. So I understand the rush to judgement when Ms. Kelly’s words appear to fit the expected pattern.
But it’s still a rush to judgement, one encouraged by our own understanding that we live in a world where people routinely rely on coded language to put down people they don’t like, while at the same time retaining deniability. There are times, however, (and likely very many of them) when those denials are authentic, because it's unrealistic to presume that other people are no less hung up on prejudices, and other people’s understandings of them, than we are. If we understand that the systems through which advantages are handed out is game-able, if not openly corrupted, why would we expect that other people wouldn't see things the same way? If we have an expectation that race and gender are important to other people, why do we expect those other people won’t realize that - and if we understand that it’s bad for race and gender to be important to someone, of course they are going to present themselves, however clumsily, in the light in which they wish to be seen. If we recognize that, we can cut them a break, rather than using it to bootstrap our own prejudices.