The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star Ellie Kemper was trending on Twitter last week for all the wrong reasons. In 1999, when she was a freshman at Princeton University, Kemper was crowned the “Queen of Love and Beauty” at “The Veiled Prophet Ball,” a St. Louis, Missouri institution founded by two former Confederate officers who started the organization in 1878 as a method of maintaining “class control,” according to historians. “The ball was aimed at reassuring the city’s elite of their exclusive status,” wrote a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist in 2004.
While that particular illustration is from the 1800s, and the Veiled Prophet costume remained creepy but less Klan-like in the years that followed, the revelation of a young Kemper’s involvement in the ball prompted many Missourians to share stories of the organization’s ongoing issues with class and racism and its fraught history in the city:
The ball was desegregated 20 years prior to Kemper’s participation, but the meme of Kemper as a “KKK Princess” had gone viral. On June 7, Kemper issued a statement to Instagram in which she apologized for her involvement, and took accountability, writing, “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. I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved.” Kemper’s father was CEO and Chairman of Commerce Bank at the time, and the ball is explicitly for the daughters of the city’s wealthy elite. She thoughtfully continues:
I unequivocally deplore, denounce, and reject white supremacy. At the same time, I acknowledge that because of my race and privilege, I am the beneficiary of a system that has dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards.
There is a very natural temptation, when you become the subject of internet criticism, to tell yourself that your detractors are all wrong. 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.
Kemper ends her statement with an apology to those she’s disappointed, adding, “I promise that moving forward I will listen, continue to educate myself, and use my privilege in support of the better society I think we’re capable of becoming.”