It’s been about a year and a half since Michael Jackson’s death and a little longer since I wrote a column about it for the Nichi Bei Times. (I’m putting it at the end of this post for anyone interested). In a matter of hours, MJ went from being one of the media’s favorite punching bags, to one of its darlings. From the news coverage, one might think that America pulled a similar move, hating him for years before suddenly falling back in love. But in the column, I argued that white America largely turned on Michael (as Madonna admitted to doing at the MTV Video Music Awards ), while black America poked fun at him but largely remained loyal, often defending him from unfair persecution (as Game did, “leave Britney alone” style on this song from his major label debut).
Now that there is a new, most likely awful posthumous album on its way to stores, I figure it’s as good a time as any to reflect on last year’s column. Rereading it, I notice that I didn’t really address why Jackson’s face morphed over the years and instead focused on people’s reaction to it. I didn’t bring it up, mostly because I didn’t want to speculate and really had no clue. A year later, I think I might have a little more insight.
It’s pretty certain that MJ’s changes in appearance were the result of both plastic surgery and conditions outside of his control, such as a skin disorder, lupus and a fire accident. In what proportion is less clear.
What is clear, though, is that he didn’t have a strong grip on the reality of his appearance. One particularly illuminating moment was the press conference he held in Harlem with Al Sharpton, in which he responded to people saying he didn’t think he was black, “I know my race. All I have to do is look in the mirror and I know I’m black.”
I believe he made similar comments to Martin Bashir, the known scumbag AAJA choose to be their keynote speaker at their 2008 gala.
What MJ’s comments implied is that he saw his own face, circa 2002, as looking unmistakably black. Body dysmorphic disorder makes a lot of sense considering this and would explain his appearance looking more and more Caucasian. While we tend to see race as binary, I think it’s notable how many black American celebrities, women in particular, have lighter skin tones, straightened hair and phenotypes that veer white. You can see why Jackson, in an attempt to achieve the ideal of beauty, would strive for the light-skinned, straight-hair look, not realizing he had already overshot it by miles, and looked, to most eyes to no longer be black. Again, I think it points to a disconnect in the culture, up to a point, looking “whiter” can benefit you, but once you cross an invisible line…
The original article is below…
While there are plenty of vastly more newsworthy stories to follow, Michael Jackson’s death is important and the nonstop media coverage has mostly been useless. He’s obviously hugely significant figure in music, both as art and industry, but he also represent issues tied to celebrity and race in a way no one else does. As such, I think he has a special significance to hapas and other people who live outside our nation’s concept of race.
When I was about six or seven years old, Michael Jackson was everywhere. He had a new album, “Bad,” a video game, two movies and about a million other merchandising tie-ins. It seemed like every kid at school was trying to do the moonwalk and one of them somehow convinced our teacher that watching the “Moonwalker” movie — a surprisingly violent and avant-garde series of vignettes starring MJ as an extra-terrestrial gangster who saves Sean Lennon and other kids by tommy-gunning people and turning into a sports car — was a worthy use of classroom time.
In those days, he was adored by children everywhere: in the ghetto, in the suburbs and, according to the Huffington Post, in Germany where they didn’t have MTV and his videos were shown primarily in movie theaters.
It was at some time during this era that I first heard that Michael Jackson was black. Initially, I was surprised; I had never seen what he looked like before “Thriller.” And I hadn’t necessarily assumed he was white. My classmates and I didn’t see him in racial terms the way we would later see MC Hammer; he was just Michael Jackson — postracial before there was a word for it.
As a hapa kid, most people assumed I was Latino, and many didn’t believe me when I told them otherwise. I felt Michael Jackson had a similar discrepancy between appearance and racial identity and this perceived commonality shaped the lens through which I viewed him throughout the years.
As I grappled with what race “I should be,” the greatest entertainer in the world refused to make that choice. As much as people focus on his changing appearance and the ways in which he wasn’t America’s stereotypical black man, Michael Jackson never distanced himself from black culture or black people. As hokey as the sentiment is, there is something about the line, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color,” that resonated with hapas.
He palled around with Elizabeth Taylor and Brooke Shields, visited the Reagan White House and stuck an unintentionally hilarious rapping Macaulay Culkin in his music video, but at the same time, he had a close personal relationship Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, took Teddy Riley as his primary collaborator and recorded songs with Jay-Z and the Notorious B.IG. Wesley Snipes, Chris Tucker, Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson were among the countless black celebrity to feature in his videos.
I still believe MJ deserves some credit for mainstreaming the hip-hop sound. The Riley-assisted New Jack Swing album, “Dangerous” brought hip-hop aesthetics to a top-40 audience in a way no one else had before (and the video for that album’s “Remember the Time” featured an ancient Egypt populated by black people).
However, unlike other aging entertainers adapting to new musical styles, he didn’t try to adopt the clothing fashion that went with it (is anyone else tired of 40-year-old rappers in BAPE hoodies and hipster jeans?). There was no video of Mike in Chucks and a Raiders cap; he kept his own unique (and decidedly not racially-coded black) wardrobe throughout his career.
He took on a number of progressive causes (albeit in the most glossy and mainstream way possible), racism chief among them. For a beta-male hapa teenager in a predominantly black high school (with strong Asian/black racial tensions) there was something liberating about watching this pale-skinned dandy singing about various social injustices and marching with other people of color in a Spike Lee-directed music video.
Part of what threw people, I believe, is Michael’s insistence on the brotherhood of man, regardless of race. His utopian ideas of racial unity were referenced in several songs and videos, most notably “Black or White.” Even after giving an inflammatory speech in Harlem, with (who else) Al Sharpton by his side, criticizing the music industry’s exploitation of black artists historically and today, MJ ended his remarks by saying “remember, black or white, we are all brothers and sisters.”
To mainstream society, these Pollyanna notions of race are mutually exclusive to blackness — America likes its black people “irrationally” angry.
Though no one really knows (and it really doesn’t matter) whether it was willful in any way, Michael Jackson’s appearance did change in a way that made him look “more white.” Within a couple years of “Thriller,” the mainstream media, and every hack comic in show biz, had decided that MJ’s changing appearance meant that he wanted to be white. But there was always something troubling about this narrative and the tone in which it was discussed. The people on TV condemning him always seemed to be implying a couple things.
The first is that there is no legitimate reason a black man, particularly one so beloved by the world, would want to alter his appearance in such a way.
The truth, though, is that when “Thriller” came out black music was not popular in the suburbs the way it is now. As Spike Lee told NPR following Jackson’s death, “MTV was lilywhite… they didn’t play black artists’ music [before Michael Jackson].”
By the time Jackson “broke the race barrier” his facial features had already been altered in a way that made them more closely resemble white phenotype traits and his skin tone was lighter. Jackson was at his most popular when he was at his most racially (and sexually) ambiguous (I believe his more “feminine” appearance may have minimized backlash against his “effeminate” mannerisms that he may have experienced had he retained his more stereotypically black and masculine features — and also allowed him to be attractive, at least subconsciously, to fans of any gender).
While you can argue that his popularity can be attributed to the fact he was making his best music at that time, even today black music sells better when it is packaged with a white face — reference Dr. Dre and Eminem, Black Eyed Peas and Fergie, and Timbaland and Justin Timberlake if you need convincing.
If Jackson looked the way he did on the cover of “Off the Wall,” then “Thriller” might not have been the crossover hit record it is today. This is, of course, an uncomfortable subject for many, and instead of confronting that, it’s easier to dismiss Jackson as a weirdo whose actions say nothing about the greater society.
America often loves its weirdos; however, Michael’s morphing features are always discussed as if he was doing something incredibly sinister. The changes are characterized as a major infraction, but it is usually not specified against whom. When an explanation is given, detractors usually say changing his appearance was harmful to himself.
The problem with that argument is that directing that kind of ire at a person usually doesn’t indicate you genuinely care much for their wellbeing. That kind of scorn is usually reserved for someone who is harming others. What I would guess is that the people most upset by Jackson “turning white” felt affronted. Sometimes, it seemed like what they really meant was “a black man might have unparalleled fame, fortune and talent, but he can’t be white.”
The people who would not buy black music when it was attached to a stereotypically black face but then became fans when his looks were ambiguous didn’t like when he started to look uncomfortably white. From that point on, his relationship with white America remained adversarial until his death. The allegations of sexual misconduct, the strip search and the parading of Jackson in handcuffs all can be read, if one chooses, as mainstream America reminding Jackson of “who he really is.”
In an interview with CNN, his brother Jermaine Jackson even said that MJ’s “consciousness has become a threat to society.” Jermaine Jackson linked increasingly harsh press coverage to his brother’s leaving Sony Music and publicly indicted them, in particular company head Tommy Mottola, for mistreating black artists by giving them unfair contracts. Mottola also verbally degraded black artists, Jermaine Jackson claimed, stating that Mottola called rap producer Irv Gotti a “fat black n—–.”
In the end, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey taken not too long before his death this year, three quarters of Blacks, Hispanics and Asians still considered themselves fans of Michael Jackson. More than half of the whites did not.
As people who often benefit from our racial ambiguity, but sometimes suffer when we try to claim full racial citizenship, hapas can, in some small way, say we understand the late king of pop.
Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s been published in the Oakland Tribune and has written for New American Media’s YO! Youth Outlook and the Nichi Bei Times. He is a research manager for the Health Horizons Program at the Institute for the Future. He also edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine and contributes to Nichi Bei News.