by Carmen Van Kerckhove, originally published at CNN.com
I got a call yesterday morning from a radio show producer asking if I thought it hypocritical for African-Americans to celebrate Michael Jackson as a black man, since it seems to many people that he spent most of his life turning himself white.
She stopped short of calling Jackson a race traitor, but the implication was clear. And it did get me thinking about the strange role that race played — and didn’t play — in Jackson’s life and career.
Race is never simple, especially when it comes to a complex artist like Michael Jackson.
Jackson often expressed in his music a hopefulness — “It don’t matter if you’re black or white” — about race relations that many found naïve. And yet had no qualms about using anti-Semitic lyrics in his song “They Don’t Care About Us” — “Jew me/Sue me/Everybody do me/Kick me/Kike me.”
We will never know what drove Jackson to alter his appearance so drastically during his adult life. Jackson said that he suffered from vitiligo, a condition that eliminates pigment from skin leaving white blotches. His dermatologist and others close to Jackson, including Deepak Chopra, have also said he had vitiligo, even though many people have expressed doubt about it, fueling debate over whether Jackson was “trying to be white.”
But what about the plastic surgery, the nose, the hair, and other obviously altered aspects of his appearance? On our blog Racialicious, Readers have been speculating about whether he was driven by internalized racism or something else: an extreme form of artistic expression, an obsessive desire to fix one’s appearance called “body dysmorphic disorder,” or a desire to erase any resemblance to Joe Jackson, his abusive father.
One of the best insights we have into Jackson’s emotional life is a television interview he did with Oprah Winfrey in 1993. He admitted then to being a perfectionist and added, “I’m never pleased with myself. No, I try not to look in the mirror.”
Whatever drove this apparent self-loathing, I don’t believe we can separate race from the equation. Race cannot be separated with precision from body dysmorphic disorder, hatred of his tyrannical father, or any potentially relevant theory being discussed right now.
Because if he hated his body, he was hating a black man’s body. If he hated his father, he was hating a black man. Race ran through it all; we cannot and should not dismiss its effect. Continue reading