On moral courage and sacrificing privilege: When Betty White stood for inclusion in 1954

With Betty White’s passing at the age of 99, this internet meme about White refusing to ban Arthur Duncan, an African American dancer, from the cast of her television variety show in 1954, is getting wide circulation.

Of course, the social media world is full of distortions and fabrications. But this story is true.

In fact, amid the countless remembrances of White published upon her death, the Washington Post includes a deeper look into that 1954 episode, as reported by Gillian Brockell (link here):

White made a career playing sweet characters with hidden — and hilarious — grit, and that quality goes all the way back to her first televised variety show, where, as the host and producer, she defied racist demands to get rid of Duncan because he was Black.

Her response?

“Live with it.”

…“And all through the South, there was this whole ruckus,” White remembered in [a 2018 documentary about her life]. “They were going to take our show off the air if we didn’t get rid of Arthur, because he was Black.”

“People in the South resented me being on the show, and they wanted me thrown out,” Duncan agreed. “But there was never a question at all.”

And, as Brockell notes, this was a momentous time for civil rights:

This was in 1954. As in, the year the Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education decision banning segregated schools. As in, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine and the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins.

On moral courage and sacrificing privilege

By the mid-1950s, Betty White was already a pioneer, a woman getting featured roles in an emerging medium, including a variety show bearing her name. But this was long before she was Betty White, a beloved figure to many generations. As a relatively young female host and producer in what was very much a white man’s world in terms of power and control, she had a lot to lose by resisting pressures to satisfy a large, if not admirable, demographic.

And yet she was willing to sacrifice some of her hard-earned and hardly secure privilege to stand for inclusion. That’s what moral courage is about in an everyday work setting. As I wrote some six years ago:

There are many scenarios in which positive social change can occur in society, including our workplaces. With virtually any of these possibilities, chances of success will be increased when supporters of change are willing to sacrifice some of their privilege in order to advance a cause.

By privilege I refer to some advantage, by virtue of wealth, demographic status, social standing or popularity, organizational rank, legal right, and/or inherited trait. And when I say sacrificing privilege, I mean being counted in a way that could jeopardize some of that advantage. It may mean speaking up in a meeting, intervening as a bystander, endorsing an unpopular yet principled position, or otherwise doing or saying something that potentially puts one at odds with supporters, sponsors, or the in-crowd.

Betty White’s eclectic talents, comic genius, and famous quips are being rightly celebrated now. In addition, let’s remember that she was willing to stand on principle, typically in a manner that was quick to the point without being overly preachy. Among other things, she also supported women’s rights and the LGBTQ community, and she passionately advocated for the well-being of animals. In a world where way too many privileged people are unwilling to jeopardize even the smallest bits of their comfortable standing for something bigger than themselves, Betty White modeled a different example of success.

One response

  1. I appreciate this. I have read the accounts of this story, but had not equated it with the willingness of bystanders at work to stand up to bullies. You are right that we need much more courage like this.

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