Originally published on June 26, 2009
Micheal Jackson was undoubtedly one of the most influential talents of the 20th century and the most glaring example of the psychological effects of coming of age in a racist society. 40 years ago – barely a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson and his brothers forced the world to contemplate the resilience of African-American culture and talent. But as Jackson came of age, his physical metamorphosis was a great distraction from his amazing talents; fans and foes alike questioned his sanity and laughed at his face which seemed more like a melting mask in his later years. Yet few stopped to ponder why he or anyone else would take the steps to physically transform themselves as Michael did.
As TV anchor Meredith Viera paid tribute to actress Farah Fawcett on NBC by describing her as “…the woman every girl wanted to look like”, I couldn’t help but wonder what some black girls might have gone through to look like her in a media educated society where Fawcett was the epitome of beauty – and how much further they would have gone if they had Michael Jackson’s money.
Michael was just as much a victim as we all are of the overwhelming media reinforcement of whiteness as the symbol for all things good, successful and beautiful. Blacks who challenged this idea were characterized as radical and threatening. Jackson himself was rewarded with greater popularity as he changed his nose, skin and hair to more Eurocentric features. Others in the entertainment industry without his resources were not so lucky. The “black models’ revolt” a couple years ago brought paltry attention to white preference in the entertainment industry. A study by professors at the University of Chicago and MIT in 2003 found that the negative stereotyping of non-whiteness was not limited to physical features but was even being applied to names. The study found that résumés with “white-sounding” names received up to 50% more responses than those with “black-sounding” names.
In the eve of his career, Jackson used his music to challenge racial stereotypes and he was even quoted as saying some top record industry giants are racist and exploitive of blacks. It seemed as if it took a lifetime for Jackson to wake up to the reality of his victimhood. But what about those of us that are left behind to mourn or laugh at Jackson’s legacy? I think it would serve us well to heed Dr. John Henrik Clarke’s advice to “reclaim the minds of our children… [because] when other people control what we think about ourselves, they will also control what we do about ourselves.”