Michael Jackson on race – and who he saw in the mirror

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.

Why?

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.

Does that mean we should take the alterations he made to his appearance as evidence that he hated being black?

Not necessarily.

Apart from the changes to his physical appearance, there is little compelling evidence that Michael Jackson tried to distance himself from the African-American community.

From Wesley Snipes in “Bad” to Eddie Murphy and Iman in “Remember the Time,” Jackson consistently featured black actors and models in his music videos. He also collaborated frequently with black producers such as Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, and Rodney Jerkins, as well as with black recording artists such as Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, and R. Kelly.

And unlike some other celebrities who express unease with racial or ethnic labels, there was never a parcel of equivocation when he talked about his racial identity.

In fact, during the same interview with Oprah, Jackson stated emphatically: “I’m a black American, I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am.”

So was Michael Jackson a unique contradiction in terms? Is it possible to be filled with racial pride and self-loathing at the same time?

Of course it is. Race is a complicated thing.

My mother, for instance, is a fiercely nationalistic Chinese woman, to the point of near-bigotry. She rarely misses an opportunity to throw a spotlight on the supposed superiority of Chinese culture and often claims that the Chinese people were inventing gunpowder, paper money, and printing presses at a time when Europeans were still living in caves.

Yet as a teenager, this same woman collected photos of Caucasian babies and longed to have white children. She eventually married a European man and went on to have three biracial daughters — including me.

Like Jackson, my mother suffered verbal and physical abuse from her father — a compulsive gambler who once pawned the wedding ring he gave his own wife to pay off his debts.

Of course, not all racial self-hatred can be traced back to an abusive childhood. Each of our individual histories and the histories of our ancestors act in concert to shape who we become and what we value. And when personal histories are complex (as most are), they often result in a racial identity that is equally complex and sometimes even contradictory.

A rush to judgment accusing Michael Jackson of being a race traitor is unfair to the complexity of his life. Unless we take sufficient time to develop an understanding and empathy for his story, it’s easy to make simplistic claims or assumptions about why he wanted to change his appearance.

From what I have been able to discover, Michael was not trying to erase his race; he was trying to get comfortable with his face. He wanted, as we all do, to love the man in the mirror. Why he never did, we’ll never know.

Millions of people around the world loved the man who wore that face, no matter how many times it changed over the years. Had he known that, perhaps he would have left well enough alone.