Saturday, June 27, 2009

It Don't Matter if You're Black or White...or Maybe It Does

I'm already tired of the coverage. The second full day after Michael Jackson's sudden and surprising death, and it is still a half-page headline on Today's "big news?" His body has been moved to the mortuary. Really? I mean, I understand the mourning period, and he was an amazingly talented man...but the media is keeping the coverage alive simply for ratings, that much is by now clear.

And yet here I am, writing one of what I'm sure are countless blog posts regarding his passing. But mine is not to review his greatest hits or greatest dance moves or to lament the untimely loss of such a great entertainer. No, I'm interested in the reactions other people had to his death--and the differences I saw in race among those reactions.

*Disclaimer: this is in no way a scientific survey, but instead just a commentary on what I noticed on my Facebook (800+ "friends") and Twitter (following 1800+) streams.

See, if there was a news posting or Tweet that wasn't about MJ, it was in the extreme minority. Everybody was talking about it. Most were the standard: RIP MJ, etc. Basically just acknowledging it. There were those in shock, who wondered if it were really true. There were those who seemed to go into deep mourning, with messages of lament and loss of a childhood icon, a hero gone. And there were those who flat out said they felt no sorrow, who made (in my opinion) tasteless jokes, who were proud to say they were happy he was gone. The difference between those last two groups--those in lament and those in ambivilance or joy? Race.

Those who seemed to mourn the most, to enter into reflection on MJ's influence on our culture, and to appreciate what he had contributed to the world, were mostly people of color. Those who made jokes about naked children, who celebrated the "death of a pedophile," who proclaimed no sadness at the loss, were white.

I'm not sure why this surprised me, but it did. Now, I'll be the first to acknowledge that MJ had his issues. The first thing I prayed for after learning of his death was that he'd found peace and freedom from his demons. But there is also no denying what a genius--and I don't use that word lightly--he was, not only in music and dance, but marketing, publicity, and fashion (hello, one glove?).

And I'm not sure why there's such a disparity. Of course I expected a mix of reactions, given his controversial life, but to have negative reactions be on such a clear racial lines...?

Then again, perhaps it's not that only white people viewed him that negatively, but that people of color, and especially those in the black community, felt they would be lambasted if they reacted that way to such an icon.

I don't have answers, just observations. If anyone can provide insight or noticed the same, please share!

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  1. First of all, I think it's complicated. Everything about Michael's life was complicated. The poor man lived his entire life as a celebrity, but not just any old celebrity, a superstar pop king. That's a tough spotlight to live your entire life in. He struggled mightily with his identify, in terms of his age, in terms of his race, in terms of his gender and/or sexual orientation. And his struggle was public. Everyone saw it. It was a huge burden.

    I think the disparity, and I am by no means an expert on MJ's life, but I think for African Americans, MJ was a black pop icon that was popular to all Americans regardless of race. It could be argued he was the Barack Obama of pop. He as an African American who made it to the top in a white-dominated pop world. It was impressive and enjoyable to all, but a source of inspiration to African Americans, much like Barack is today. For whites, more recently they seem to focus intently on his broken, depressed and confused existence and believe whole-heartedly he was a pedophile. Now, I am not completely convinced he was a pedophile. I really wonder if he was struggling with getting older in a way that none of us can understand. He was a pop star at age 5 and I am not sure that he ever wanted to leave his childhood. I mean he named his ranch after Neverland. Peter Pan anyone?

    So, I think the disparity has everything to do about the racial lenses we still use when we view the world. African Americans were inspired and never forgot how they were inspired. Whites thought he was a great musical talent, but were more fixated recently on his demise and forgot about what he had previously contributed to pop. And he was not the inspiration to whites that he was to African Americans. While I see the disparity too and I don't wish to disacknowledge it's reality, I am also warmed by the number of (mostly educated) whites who see the full picture and mourn his death, rather than ridiculing him. It gives me hope that through education, people can learn about the invisible rules and unpack that invisible napsack of white power and privilege permeating all of our institutions. It gives me hope we can rewrite it all, the institutions, our collective history and how knowledge should be constructed going forward. There is hope and MJ, despite all of his torment, contributed toward that change.

  2. you have to read this --