Jimmy Fallon was advised not to apologize for wearing blackface. Why he did it anyway

Christi Carras
Jimmy Fallon addressed his history with blackface again on "The Tonight Show."  (Karen Pulfer Focht / Associated Press)

Jimmy Fallon's return to "The Tonight Show" began on a serious note, reflecting on "what is going on in our country" and addressing a controversy that erupted last week after video resurfaced of Fallon in blackface.

"I'm not going to have a normal show tonight. I'm going to have a different kind of show," Fallon said Monday. "I'm going to start this personally and then expand out because that's where we all need to start: with ourselves and looking at ourselves in the mirror."

A week ago, Fallon issued a brief apology on Twitter for wearing blackface while impersonating Chris Rock for a 2000 "Saturday Night Live" sketch, calling the decision "terrible" and "unquestionably offensive."

"I had to really examine myself — really examine myself — in the mirror this week because a story came out about me on 'SNL' doing an impression of Chris Rock in blackface," Fallon continued on Monday's show.

"I was horrified — not at the fact that people were trying to cancel me or cancel the show, which is scary enough. But the thing that haunted me the most was, how do I say I love this person? ... I'm not a racist. I don't feel this way."

Fallon then said he was advised "to just be quiet and to not say anything" about the incident for fear of further criticism. At first, Fallon said he followed the advice, until he didn't.

"I realized that I can't not say I'm horrified, and I'm sorry, and I'm embarrassed," he said. "And what that small gesture did for me was break my own silence. ... Silence is the biggest crime that white guys like me, and the rest of us, are doing.

"We need to say something. We need to keep saying something. ... We all need to be talking about this."

Fallon then welcomed onto the program NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who called the host's opening monologue "powerful."

"Most importantly, that's about courage," Johnson said. "In this time of many people searching for answers and just the display of anger and hopelessness ... more people need to speak about where they are with a really authentic voice, and I think you did that."

Johnson also offered some tips to the white community on how to keep the conversation going and how to be actively anti-racist.

"Racism is a learned behavior, and for us to unlearn a behavior we have to be honest about it and create spaces where we can talk about it," he said. "Peer-to-peer conversations, using one's platform to promote a more positive outlook at life — as it relates to other people's uniqueness and difference — becomes important.

"[Being anti-racist] means that you are actively fighting against racism — that you are consciously doing things to stop the spread of racism. We also understand that racism is structural. It's institutionalized. And that as much as you benefit from that structure and that institution, you fight to remove that structure and those institutions so others can have a level playing field."

Later, Fallon chatted with CNN anchor Don Lemon, who also praised the comedian for his introductory remarks.

"Your open — wow. Bravo, brother," Lemon said. "That's exactly what we all need to do, is examine ourselves. And that was really honest and very brave of you, and I appreciate you having the depth, really, to do what you did in that open."

Fallon's confessional comes as the police killing of George Floyd has spurred protests across the country and prompted an outpouring of discussion about racism and allyship.

"We can't go back to the way we were," Lemon said. "Even before this death happened with George Floyd — with the pandemic, Jimmy — we weren't going to go back to life the way it was. And now that this happened, we can't go back. So this is a time for us to change."