Ellie Kemper, known for her roles in The Office and Kimmy Schmidt, has faced serious backlash online after photos of her winning a controversial pageant, accused of having Ku Klux Klan (KKK) relations, surfaced. Kemper was named queen of the 1999 ‘Veiled Prophet Ball’ —a debutante ball annually held each December in St. Louis, Missouri. The ball is overseen by the ‘Veiled Prophet’ whose identity is kept secret. Many social media users voiced their shock at the photos.
In the viral photo of the Kimmy Schmidt star, Kemper is seen wearing a long white gown paired with matching white gloves; the 1999 newspaper caption of the photo reads, “Elizabeth Claire Kemper, as the 1999 Veiled Prophet Queen of Love and Beauty, is attended by her pages.” She was a 19-year-old Princeton student at the time when she was announced as the 105th winner of the ball. The controversy surrounding the story has led many online to dub her a ‘KKK princess’ although that is not the title of the award.
Although many deny there is little evidence to prove a direct link to the KKK, that does not mean it doesn’t have a racist history. The organisation is known for its past of banning black members and often only represented the wealthy white elite. In fact, they didn’t admit black members until 1979. The ‘Veiled Prophet Ball’ was founded in 1878 by Confederate cavalryman Charles Slayback. The accusations of KKK links also come partly from photos found in an 1878 edition of the Missouri Republican paper, where the ‘Veiled Prophet’ is seen wearing a long robe and pointy hood—a close likeness some suggest resembles KKK hoods. He is also seen holding two guns.
Many are arguing in defence of Kemper, stating there is no evidence to prove the connections to the KKK and no proof that suggests she herself is a racist. It doesn’t seem as cut and dry as the headlines suggest. Perhaps it’s a little more complicated. Just because it may not have ties to the KKK does not mean it is not racist, as one Twitter user writes, “So the veiled prophet is a major institution in St. Louis rooted in a deeply troubling past; to call [her] a KKK princess isn’t wrong but also not right.”
While another Twitter user wrote, “Ellie Kemper can say what she wants but you’re not about to convince black people any group of white people founded in 18 whenever isn’t the Klan pooh sorry.” An organisation does not need overt links to the KKK in order to prove it is racist— like most American history this community cannot escape its white supremacist past. The St. Louis’ Cultural Resources Offices, writes that ‘The Veiled Prophet Organisation’ was “created by white male community leaders” to “[reinforce] the notion of a benevolent cultural elite.”
Kemper was never actually named a ‘KKK queen’ and has shown no known evidence of her own racism. The problem doesn’t lie with her specifically. It lies in America’s systemic institutional racism and its failings to prevent organisations like this from taking root. Although this may not reflect on the actual character of the Kimmy Schmit star, it highlights how many white people—specifically white celebrities and the wealthy—have benefited from the inherent white supremacist and elitist structures of society.
For a few years now, many have described the generation Z as sensitive, lazy and addicted to social media. While some of it is most definitely true, we’ve recently started seeing gen Z as the one that will change things. Now, as the Black Lives Matter movement carries on protesting in the US as well as in the rest of the world, we wonder if gen Z could actually be the generation that tackles systemic racism.
To answer this, we asked the gen Z live platform Yubo to share a few of our questions with its users. The poll was conducted between 9 June and 15 June and had Yubo survey over 13,000 people aged 13 to 25 years old in the UK. This allowed Screen Shot to get gen Zers’ opinion on the movement of protest that followed George Floyd’s murder in the US.
From the poll’s results, 7 statistics stood out as clear signs that gen Z could well be the generation of change.
In order to achieve any kind of change, we need to accept that there is something wrong in the first place. That’s why we asked Yubo’s gen Zers residing in the UK whether they felt like black people were treated differently than white people. In other words, we wanted to see if they could admit the existence of white privilege.
In response, 4 out of 5 gen Zers said they believe that black people are treated differently, compared to only 2 out of 3 of their parents sharing the same belief. For many, denying white privilege comes from misunderstanding the concept.
Not fully grasping how society privileges white individuals has led many to believe that black people who have suffered from police brutality somehow deserved the blame. In comparison, the new generation has been helped by social media and the internet in understanding where white privilege comes from and how exactly it benefits certain people.
While certain news outlets have made it their mission to depict the many protests that followed George Floyd’s murder as violent, many protesters have testified against these statements. We’ve discovered that, in the UK, 4 out of 5 gen Zers believe that peaceful protests are necessary to facilitate change, confirming that most new gens intend to protest peacefully and not violently. Half of their parents hold the same belief.
With the current movement still going strong, we’ve seen the protesters’ resilience and willingness to sacrifice their time and energy in a cause that is more than worth it. Despite the risk of getting arrested by the police, new gens have admitted they would be prepared to take that risk in order to make their voice heard.
While previous generations have been quick to point the finger at the US, as we’ve seen Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis do last week in an interview with George the Poet, gen Z is also calling out the UK and other countries as being responsible for systemic racism, too. Ignoring the UK’s denial of its own racism is as disingenuous as ignoring the US’ police brutality and racism, and doing so only further perpetuates white privilege in the UK.
These statistics portray gen Zers as strong protesters who are aware of systemic issues as well as willing to take action. But admitting and fighting these don’t come without its toll on new gen’s mental and physical wellbeing.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fight against racism and injustice couldn’t wait. While staying home as much as possible is still strongly recommended by governments, protesters have had to make do with their best tool in order to make their voices heard: protesting.
Just yesterday, police officers in London urged Priti Patel to impose an emergency ban on all protests during the coronavirus pandemic, warning officers were being put at risk by a wave of mass demonstrations. Although wearing masks, gloves, and keeping a two meters distance from other protesters are the best ways to avoid risk of getting COVID-19, many protesters are still concerned about their health. The situation, however, has not discouraged the Black Lives Matter movement from fighting back.
Protesting has never been easy. But now, more than ever, with the constant flow of graphic and harmful content our brains receive through social media platforms, we find ourselves on edge frequently. This has had an impact on gen Z’s mental health. As an activist, looking after your mental health is a necessary step in the fight against systemic racism.
This statistic highlights how much more effort we need to make as a generation. Protests must carry on, yes, but we also need to provide more information to anyone that might feel the need to research how to take action. Only by doing so will we start tackling systemic racism.
These protests are made of passionate, non-violent young leaders fighting for a brighter future. Those who previously criticised the new generation for being too connected, too woke or even too sensitive will be compelled to reconsider their stance soon enough.