The darling Ellie Kemper. She starred as Erin in The Office, and the titular character in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Her roles have portrayed her as a kind, funny, perhaps rose-colored-glasses-wearing woman. But all roles lead back to the fact that she is lovable.
So, it came as a shock when she became the center of a slander campaign on Twitter. With 28,000 tweets making her a trending topic, she was dubbed the “KKK Princess.”
me name searching ellie kemper pic.twitter.com/Op9HBGyVdp
— the heath (2013) (@feeltheheath) May 31, 2021
Social media moves quickly, so posts spread like wildfire – exactly why Kemper found herself in the middle of discourse. Here’s why it happened, and the problem with social media conspiracies.
How the Discourse Started
This entire story began when a user tweeted about how True Detective’s Season 1 resembled the Veiled Prophet debutante ball, in which Kemper was crowned Queen of Beauty and Love. When others asked for clarification, a user responded that the Veiled Prophet was “[their] local KKK event.” People were astounded and a bit confused – what was the Veiled Prophet Ball, and why had they never heard about this? And how was it related to the KKK?
A fancy event put on by our local KKK, of which Ellie Kemper was once the Queen of Love and Beauty https://t.co/6xgwa788Ck
— Thee Hannah (@hannastasia) May 31, 2021
Twitter took off. Latching on to the controversy and running with it, 28,000 tweets came out, eventually landing on a title for Kemper: the “KKK Princess.” Accusations were thrown around; others demanded that Kemper give a response rather than hide until it’s over. But first, we must examine what the Veiled Prophet is.
The Background of The Veiled Prophet
The Veiled Prophet began in 1878, when confederate officer Alonzo Slayback and his brother created a group for white men of the upper-echelon of St. Louis. It came only one year after the Great Railroad Strike, in which Black and white railroad workers demanded better pay and ethical working conditions. The protest ended when 5,000 police members and 3,000 federal troops forced an end to the strike, resulting in 18 deaths.
It was a tragic event, but this did not stop Slayback from beginning his group. Instead, he launched a parade to celebrate the elite of St. Louis (aka, wealthy white men). Black men were not allowed to join – it was strictly for the “white male community leaders,” a slap in the face to those who had suffered or whom did not meet the “status” of these white, wealthy men.
Black People in St.Louis grow up screaming to the top of our lungs about the Veil Prophet Society. Ever so often some one from out of town writes about it. Ellie Kemper aint nothing new. Every white elite family in the state of Missouri participates in this organization.
— Tef Poe the 🐐 (@TefPoe) June 1, 2021
The point of the ball was supposedly to boost trades, while also underlining and celebrating their riches. The first parade was meant to brag; from there on out, it was a club that few could enter. Aside from crowning the Queen of Beauty and Love, who was meant to be unmarried (and therefore able to find a suitor), the Prophet was not revealed to the public. There are many rumors surrounding why the Prophet was chosen; some thought it was based on who was the richest man in St. Louis, while others hypothesized that the man who donated most to the organization was the Prophet. To this day, it remains a rumor, one never confirmed.
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Problematic, sure. The Veiled Prophet was clearly racist and classist, with its focus on the rich and white. But there are no connections to the Klu Klux Klan aside from similar garments. Was it done on purpose? Perhaps. In 1878, segregation was still a mass issue within society. It is absolutely possible that the elitist white men were engaging in this segregation, purposefully excluding black men. So, while the relationship to the KKK may have been untrue, it doesn’t change the fact that these white men were actively participating in segregation.
But It’s Not Just the Veiled Prophet
Debutante balls have long been classist and racist. The debutante balls, still around today, are designed to teach debutantes dancing and basic etiquette. Cotillions, another name for them, were specifically for upper-class white people, and occasionally middle-class black people. Individual tickets were usually $1,000 and up; lower-class black people were clearly ostracized, not high-class-enough to attend.
My family is wealthy-ish and even they never did the debutante ball thing. That’s for RICH rich people.
— Lindsay Graves (@LindsayCGraves) June 1, 2021
And it’s not just debutante balls. The Freemasons, for example, have two rules, one of which bans women from ever entering Freemasonry. Kiwanis was originally founded by men, and granted the title of a not for profit status, which was improved and began the “Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order Brothers” in 1915. Only professional men were asked, initially. In Rotary, women were not allowed from 1905 to the 1980s, when the Rotary Club of Duarte, California, admitted three women as members. (The Duarte Club’s charter status was revoked in response.)
So, Why Exactly Is Everyone Mad At Ellie Kemper?
Kemper was crowned the “Queen of Beauty and Love” at the 1999 event. At the time Kemper was crowned, the ball was still segregated. Black members were not allowed until 1979, 100 years after the start. While some argue that she did not understand the connotations of being included in this exclusive event, many say that she did know. Her father’s side was wealthy, and she came from a long line of rich men in the banking industry. Kemper also attended Princeton like her mother, and she was a star in theater and track and field.
😔 I want her to come out and publicly unclaim it!! pic.twitter.com/HsBisGuvSH
— Thee Hannah (@hannastasia) May 31, 2021
Because of this, it seems unlikely that she would not know the history of the Veiled Prophet. But you must consider: she was only 19. We’ve all made mistakes then without understanding the consequences, even if we knew what we were doing wasn’t perfect. So why is she being lambasted?
Social Media and Accountability
1983 is celebrated as the birthday of the internet. And in 1997, one of the first social networking sites, Six Degrees, was born. Blogging became popular in 1999, and the 2000s were filled with MySpace. Since then, social media has blown up even more, with Twitter and Instagram dominating the space for millennials and Gen Z. The ability for information to spread quickly is exciting, but somewhat terrifying. And while it is used for accountability and education, it’s also begun being used for “cancel culture.”
— captain nick (@paininmynick) June 1, 2021
But here’s the thing. Plenty of white people did, said, and/or participated in borderline (or overt) racism. Does that make it okay? Absolutely not. But there was not the level of awareness we have today among white people, the understanding of why certain past behaviors were not okay. For example: shows like Friends, SNL, and How I Met Your Mother had their racist running jokes. Was that acceptable? Not by today’s standards. But at the time, it was simply comedy.
The good thing about social media blowing up: we can hold writers, actors, singers, and fellow colleagues and friends accountable. We can pull up facts and say, “look, this is why this is problematic to do and/or say.” No matter their race, gender, and class, everybody now has a seat at the table thanks to social media. Marginalized voices are being heard, and we’re learning more every day because of this. The bad thing about social media: many find those who erred in the participation of racism/classism, and it can lead to burning the witches, so to speak, for past mistakes.
as much as i loved unbreakable kimmy schmidt, i got turned off to it with the racial undertones. now learning ellie kemper was a KKK princess, they rly can’t come back from that…just disgusting. makes more and more sense too. pic.twitter.com/LFJ5sexjcZ
— MAYA PHANTOM (@xiamxmai) June 1, 2021
But rather than allow celebrities the chance to acknowledge their growth and apologize, people simply begin hashtags about how celebrities are over. Never mind that these mistakes were made 15, 20, 30 years ago, when they were young and didn’t know any better. (Kemper participated in the Veiled Prophet 22 years ago.) Rather than allow celebrities to demonstrate growth, social media users say that apologies are fake, and that celebrities are only sorry that they were caught. They do not have the opportunity to be genuine.
Shame on you. An utter farce. A few stupid tweets sent EIGHT YEARS ago and you punish him like this. I hope everyone on the @ECB_cricket has a 100% unblemished past that won’t come back to haunt them. He said sorry, so move on. Cancel culture has to stop. https://t.co/xCHv9gMCDe
— Julia Hartley-Brewer (@JuliaHB1) June 6, 2021
We must also acknowledge people doing better when they know better. We see more educated celebrities give back, constantly educate themselves, and open the door to further conversation. It’s crucial to give anyone the space to own up to their mistakes and change their behavior for the better. And as time continues to pass, even those who are “woke” will have to adapt to normalized behavior that they had not considered as they grow older. Each generation learns new things.
i see cancel culture is alive and well. people can learn, grow, and take accountability without having to be canceled forever lol
— marcos! (@aiurare) June 4, 2021
Ellie Kemper and Accountability
So, should Kemper be forgiven? That’s a personal question for everyone, and there will be disagreements. Kemper responded to the call-out on Instagram, saying that she “was not aware of the history at the time, but ignorance is not an excuse,” and acknowledging her privilege due to her race and class. She condemned white supremacy and racism.
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If we want celebrities to be held accountable for their past, we must give them the opportunity to reflect and open the door to understanding. If a celebrity simply defends themselves, rather than acknowledging the mistake they’ve made, that’s one thing. But give celebrities the grace to grow from their missteps. Do you want to educate or shut out someone who is trying to learn? One is productive, and one is ideal for retweets and catchy headlines. Again: this is another choice to make, and something to consider within ourselves.
What are your thoughts on Ellie Kemper being the “KKK Princess?” Should we give her and other celebrities the chance to grow? Let us know in the comments.
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