Ellie Kemper is publicly apologizing for participating in a debutante ball hosted by an organization with an "unquestionably racist, sexist, and elitist past" when she was a teenager.
"When I was 19 years old, I decided to participate in a debutante ball in my hometown," the actress and St. Louis native said in a statement posted on social media Monday, referring to the Veiled Prophet Ball. "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 ignorance is no excuse."
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Office star, now 41, added, "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."
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images Ellie Kemper in 2018
Last week, an old newspaper clipping resurfaced of Kemper, who hails from a prominent Missouri banking family, being crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the 1999 Veiled Prophet Fair (officially rebranded as Fair Saint Louis). She quickly came under fire on social media, with some commenters labeling her a "KKK princess."
The Veiled Prophet Organization was founded in 1878 by and for the white elite in St. Louis, with restricted membership. (Two of the group's architects, Alonzo and Charles Slayback, were former Confederate soldiers.) The first Black members weren't admitted until 1979.
"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," Kemper said in her statement. "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."
She continued, "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."
Kemper concluded by apologizing "to the people I've disappointed" and promising to "listen, continue to educate myself, and use my privilege in support of the better society I think we're capable of becoming."