The rush to cancel Ellie Kemper is based on a lie

Ellie Kemper.
Ellie Kemper. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Actress Ellie Kemper of The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is "under fire after photos of her being crowned queen of a 'racist and elitist' ball resurfaced," says Buzzfeed. Oh, but it's worse, The A.V. Club informs: Kemper "is yet another rich white celebrity with a racist past." The Root says the pageant she won was "basically" a "Klan Ball," quoting in its headline Twitter users who accumulated thousands of likes and retweets by calling "KKKemper" a "Klan princess."

This is all very exciting stuff, but it has the significant problem of being largely false, maybe libelous.

Kemper, now 41, did win a pageant when she was 19. She is part of a wealthy southern family and has enjoyed many resultant advantages. It's possible there are racists in her family tree, perhaps by the standards of their day and likely by the standards of ours. We can also stipulate that rich white dudes' proclivity for secret dress-up clubs with strange names — the "Queen of Love and Beauty" pageant was sponsored by the "Veiled Prophet Organization" — is a deeply weird way for adults to do male bonding and community events.

But the specifics of a story like this matter a lot. Calling someone a "KKK princess" is a huge allegation and if untrue, as all the evidence here suggests, a pernicious charge. This Veiled Prophet group had a white hooded costume in the 1800s, but it predates the visually similar Klan costume by about four decades. There is no organizational link. That's not to say there's nothing racist or elitist in the group's history, but Kemper has not been burning crosses and murdering people. Indeed, by her time, the Veiled Prophet was 20 years post-desegregation — not long, though I can imagine it feeling that way at 19. As Slate notes, "at least some [pageant] competitors ... have been Black," and her participation should not "damn Ellie Kemper."

Instead of digging up this sort of story, Americans would do better to praise exceptional, ahead-of-its-time goodness. This frenzy over what appears to be, at most, average youthful incuriosity (in 1999, should Kemper have Asked Jeeves about the organization's history?) or perhaps compliance with parental demands is malicious sensationalism.

Or maybe it's libel. Eventually people will get sued for this type of rumormongering. I expect those lawsuits — like the defamation cases brought by voting machine companies against right-wing outlets perpetuating former President Donald Trump's lies about election fraud — will produce a sudden interest in specifics.