I never was much of a Michael Jackson fan, although I do remember the first time I saw him perform.  It blew me away.  His talent was undeniable.  Truly he was the King of Pop.

And yet I felt much of the initial coverage about his death downplayed his extraordinary talent and the effect he had on millions of people worldwide.  Many news articles referred to him as the “self-proclaimed King of Pop.”

Elvis could be the undeniable King of Rock and Roll.

But a black man who would be king was just delusional.

A lot of articles following his death talk about how Jackson “transcended” race.  But they don’t talk about who he was:  a black man.  Michael Jackson was a black man who was the King of Pop.  Not the “King of Pop” or the “self-proclaimed King of Pop.”  Simply the King.

And that made him a target. 

Much has been made of Jackson’s physical transformation over the past twenty years.  But what really strikes me is how the discussion reveals how we think about race, about blackness and whiteness.  In Jackson’s early years, he is described as having an afro and, sometimes, a broad nose.  This is compared to the “Nordic” nose and the straightened hair of his later years.

As if having an afro and a broad nose is the only way to conceptualize blackness.  Or perform as a black man.

Jackson is undeniably a black man in the Thriller era; he wears the Jheri-curls that were popular among many African Americans of that time.  His nose has obviously been reshaped. Is he therefore no longer a black man?  His love interest in the record-breaking video is African American.  (And I wondered about the imagery of him turning into a beast–was that intentional?  Or a later video in which he is a sometimes-invisible tiger?)

For many people, his rhinoplasty and hair style are the beginning signs that Jackson “wanted to be white.”  But there are two problems with this assumption.  First is the idea that white people can own certain features.  durgamom once commented on this with regard to adoption agencies advertising that children from India have “Caucasian features.”  Certainly slender noses and straight hair can be found across many racial groups.  Yet they are assumed to be “white” features.

The second problem is obviously that “white” features are assumed to be so universally desirable that any change away from the “natural ethnic” is because of self-hatred or a desire to be white.  To me this speaks of a deep underlying belief in white superiority.

When white people straighten their hair and dye it black, nobody insinuates that they are trying to become Asian.  Yet if an Asian person streaks his or her hair, they are trying to be white.  Because of course this is the standard we have all been raised to accept.  This is the obvious desired result of any intentional physical improvement.  (For that matter, it’s also a way to demean and denigrate people of color who are intelligent or educated–they’re trying to be white as well.  Because education and intelligence are the province of white people.)

But even in those Thriller days, some would have you believe that Jackson wanted to be white.

And yet he was smashing down racial barriers at that time.  He was an unprecedented cross-over artist.  It’s entirely possible that he was one of the first African American artists to be shown on MTV.  His hit was reportedly played every hour.

It was that popular.

The news articles after his death talked about how he was the romantic dream for “little black girls” everywhere.  Because of course it is only acceptable for black girls to want black men.  Not those screaming white girls you see in the concert footage.

I remember a friend hung a poster of Jackson in her bedroom along with other teeny-bopper stars.  And I remember the way her mother came in and furiously, without a word, ripped the poster off the wall and tore it to shreds.  Even at my age I knew what it meant.  But as an adult, I wonder about how the racism Jackson faced affected him.

Some years back, a friend of mine somewhat sadly wondered out loud what achievements my family might have accomplished had racism not been a factor.  I think about that with regard to Michael Jackson’s phenomenal success.  He was a black man in a white world.  He was a superstar.  It’s hard to conceive of somebody being a bigger star than he was.

But I think it could have happened.  He had the talent.  And he apparently carefully crafted his image.  It was a performance of blackness (and black maleness) that appealed to a white audience.  He was described as “soft spoken” and “gentle” and he allayed all the fears we have lurking inside our racist subconscious.

The problem is that the performance of blackness often is directed by its white audience. It is only acceptable in certain stereotypical ways.

Oh, and the skin.  Jackson explained that he had a skin disorder that caused extreme mottling.  I’ve know people who have had this; I can only imagine it is extremely difficult to cope with.  Yet again here’s the assumption of white superiority.  Because everybody wants to be white.

Did Jackson want to be white?  I only know that any answer I might give would be steeped in my own entrenched belief of white superiority.  Because I never knew the man.  Never talked to him.  Don’t know much about his work.  And yet, every time I would catch a glimpse of him in the past few years I would just feel terribly sad.

When Jackson no longer performed within what white people considered acceptable limits, they turned.  And they were vicious.

Now he is dead.  And people are still using him to talk about how blackness and gender should be performed.  And revealing the white male superiority at the heart of it.

I read in the paper of a teen who hanged himself after years of bullying.  And I think of Michael.

17 thoughts on “Michael.

  1. Yes, thank you for this – a fine essay.

    What I really wonder is what it was that Michael Jackson had that made it okay with so many white people for him to cross over. How did that happen, anyway? I mean, his talent was amazing, and I do not mean in any way to minimize that, but I have to think there must have been something more, some kind of – cultural opening, I don’t know – that allowed him to be what he was to so many people. It’s not like there aren’t other extremely talented black men walking the earth. Maybe he snuck under the radar because he was “only” a kid when he started out, and thus less threatening. I don’t know, but I wonder.

  2. human, that’s an interesting question. I was thinking about other crossover artists and could only come up with Prince and maybe Stevie Wonder. Maybe it had to do with the combined factors of youth of his fans, the civil rights movement, the explosion of visual media, in addition to his non-threatening manner?

  3. I do think that the onset of MTV (which started in 1981) may have played a huge role; my own experience speaks to the power of video in providing me access to a variety of music I might not have been exposed to by radio alone. I’m thinking of the number of pop artists that “crossed over” in the early to mid 80s besides MJ & Prince: Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Run DMC, LL Cool J…

  4. BTW, as far as I’m concerned, this line says it all: “I read in the paper of a teen who hanged himself after years of bullying. And I think of Michael.”

  5. Resistance, I love, love, love this post. Thank you.

    I admit, I did think Michael Jackson wanted to be white, or was a product of colonizied mind stuff, I couldn’t figure him out.

    I saw the video of him on you tube where he talks about how the police treated him, what his arms looked like after they abused him with handcuffs and then putting him in a toilet covered with feces for forty five minutes, omg, it’s so bad, really sad.

  6. I don’t know what was going on in Jackson’s mind. But the idea of “wanting to be white” is steeped in white supremacy. I have a real problem especially with white people declaring that people of color want to be white. Instead of speculating about what Jackson did, maybe we should look at how fucked up our society is.

  7. Resistance, I know you don’t want to be white. But do you want to be Chinese, yes please? We are really special bunch of people :-)

    You know what else annoys me. It is the assumption that everyone wants to live in the U.S.

    A white relative insisted that their Japanese exchange student was so in love with American/western culture that she knew the girl was going to do anything she could to leave Japan someday. She also knew that her Japanese mother could not provide the opportunity that the girl deserved. Also she said the girl loved her American cooking more than she loved Japanese food.

    Keep laughing.

  8. Wow this was powerful. Especially this:

    > The second problem is obviously that “white” features are assumed to be so universally desirable that any change away from the “natural ethnic” is because of self-hatred or a desire to be white. To me this speaks of a deep underlying belief in white superiority.

    You know, I’ve ALWAYS been bothered by the way people talk about eyelid surgery as Asians wanting to be white. But I never quite knew how to express why it bothered me. But this really sums it up.

  9. Thinking about this some more. You could be right, resistance. And Psychobabbler, surely MTV was important – I have to think it was – but they had to play black artists in the first place and he was the first, was he not? I was too young to be a witness to that history, but from what people say it was because he was so popular already that they couldn’t NOT play him.

    I’m trying to think about how this works for me personally. I am a musician; I love music; but I learned to sing mostly in church, and I sing like a white woman. I always loved to listen to black gospel style music, and many black pop artists draw from that style. But I hear it not as something that I could do but as something I could never manage to do myself.

    Watching video of Michael Jackson dancing, though, that’s somehow different. Seeing him and hearing the music makes me feel as if I, too, could move as if I were walking on air, yes, me, this fat white woman approaching middle age. I can’t figure out why that is, why I don’t feel apart from and separate from his music as from the music of other black artists. Maybe it’s just the fact of growing up with it. I remember sitting on the living room floor with my brother listening to the Thriller album when we were young. He loved it more than I did.

    I don’t know that it’s a very useful reflection, though, other than on a personal level, since I can’t really justify generalizing from my own experience. And it still doesn’t explain why I responded differently to him than to other black artists I listened to growing up. It seems like this is important though, so I shall have to keep thinking about it.

    Sorry to ramble on!

  10. Thanks for the article and the platform to have this discussion. You are right on in that racism, white superiority, and white privilege is internalized by all. The media helps to set the “norm” via images of mostly White people having money and power. This is a very complex phenomena rooted in a long history of racism, slavery, white superiority, media images, and class biases. The article is good, but it is too simplistic. Just because you recognize internalized white superiority does not mean you can get away from it, nor that MJ was able to recognize or avoid it. Although I did not “know” MJ, I followed him from his first days as a child myself growing up and first hand experiencing the Civil Rights Movement. What you do in this article is reflect your perspective about someone who internalized self-hatred and beliefs about white supremacy from the perspective of what is the norm in America.

    Yes, he was black on the inside and in his heart, but he portrayed an image that he believed was what people around the world thought beautiful. I also think he may have had issues with being a man and preferred the idea of being a woman. He never had children of his own, why? He always was worried about his weight, why? He wore makeup in later years and worked hard to keep a feminine (soft) look and voice, why? He was a very troubled man whose childhood was stolen. His father was emotionally abusive and his mother submissive. I think there is much more to him than the internalized race; I think he simply hated himself and his life.

    I feel bad for him. He suffered so much at the hands of media. At once he had to be the role model and superstar that millions of black men will never be and the acceptable (though eventually a highly distorted) image for white people and for other people around the world who only know the U.S. via Hollywood and black people via those who were subjected to Apartheid, who are viewed as uncivilized tribal people, or who are infected with HIV.

    The peak of his career was when he looked the most beautiful, but white, not black. As a kid, he was famous in the U.S., not other countries, maybe because technology was not that wide spread. The point is, he more than likely had internalized self-hatred that had deep roots in racism, sexism, and classism. Even Elvis Presely was mocked and hated by white people for acting and dancing like a black man, albeit mostly by older white people. Nonetheless, this reflects the degree to which white supremacy, stemmed by racism and a relatively recent history of slavery, that continues to be deeply rooted in our society that Michael was challenged to negotiate as but ONE black man who made it big. There are a handful of other people of color who have made it and are making it big in America, but none made it as big as MJ. Most coming out of Motown Records never received the respect, fame, or money they deserved. Most died very poor having been robbed of their music. It was not until the late 1980s that people of color began to cross the color line in significant numbers, especially U.S. born Latinos, with many, if not most, being descendants of Native Americans, African Americans, and/or Europeans (read White people). History had much to do with what happened to MJ, all of it be it personal, societal, or cultural.

    Dr. Mago

  11. Dr. Mago,

    I also grew up during the same time period, I was a child but I still remember JFK, MLK, Vietnam War, Kent State, Woodstock,SDS, Stokely Carmichael, Black Power, and I also remember how my older sister only attended 45 days of high school and still graduated, why? Because after MLK was murdered, the schools where I lived had fights and chaos on a daily basis.
    We were a model city, with government grants for integration that also included art teachers, drama teachers, all kinds of extra stuff that other schools might have had but we wouldn’t have had it without that money.

    I also lived in NYC at the height of MJ’s career, and believe me, he wasn’t suffering from skin cancer at that point where anyone would have known, this was the mid-eighties, he was not at his “whitest” until later. He even says in the following you tube interview that it started around that time.

    Michael Jackson said we was proud to be Black.

  12. Hi Kathy, you are correct in that he was not at his “whitest” until later. What I meant to say was this was when he began his move to toward whiteness, the peak point where he had internalized self-hatred and perceptions of white superiority that lunged him into wanting to become what society perceives as “white.” The physical features he took on are characteristic are those largely held by the EuroAmerican race, even if they don’t “own” those characteristics any more than I own my almond shaped eyes and brown skin color as a member of my race/ethnicity. For me, my physical characteristics are attributed to a Mexican heritage, although in actuality, I am Native American. Thanks for helping me to set the record straight.

    Dr. Mago

  13. Oh yes, internalized self-hatred resulting from internalized racism does not negate one from claiming to be proud of his/her race. He did much for minority people around the world through his music. I do not want to discredit his wonderful contributions through my posting. Obviously, he was a very complex and trouble man with extraordinary talent. I will always listen to his music and admire his strength and ability to become such a monumental figure in our society.


    Dr. Margo

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