Does it matter if you’re black or white?

How Jacko's creeping whiteness coloured perceptions of the popstar, long before he was accused of anything else.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Culture

As soon as news broke of child molestation charges against Michael Jackson, in the minds of tabloid sub-editors the diminutive ‘Jacko’ flew into immediate proximity with the perjorative ‘Wacko’. The words sprang together like love and marriage, horse and carriage, kettle and African-American.

Even Tom Sneddon, the district attorney for Santa Barbara who is due to bring Jackson to court in January 2004, referred to ‘Wacko Jacko’ – although he later apologised for using the phrase.

Child sex abuse charges, as Jennie Bristow has pointed out on spiked, are now the favoured form of celebrity bashing (see Michael Jackson: Get real, by Jennie Bristow). But celebrities who have been bashed in this way are not necessarily charged with being ‘wacko’ too. In the annals of the tabloids, Jackson first became weird more than 15 years ago, soon after the release of Bad in 1987. The perception of him as more mad than Bad was confirmed by Martin Bashir’s TV documentary, aired in February 2003. So the dubbing of ‘Jacko’ as ‘Wacko’ predates not only the current legal charges against him, but also the charges brought in 1993, which were dropped after an out-of-court settlement.

If alleged child abuse is not the main reason for casting Jacko as wacko, what other factors have contributed to his public image as pop’s King Lear? Is it because Jackson frequently covers his face from prying eyes and supposedly noxious gases? But so do many Muslim women and metropolitan cyclists, neither of whom are generally regarded as wacko.

Is it a result of Jackson’s adoration of childhood? But if being a 45-year-old aspiring to the condition of childhood are sufficient grounds for suspicion of insanity, then Tony Blair’s cultivation of wide-eyed innocence, the notion that museums should aim their exhibits at a pre-teen reading age, the American management theory that invites CEOs to pretend they are a kid again, and the transatlantic cohort of ‘adultescents’ (fortysomethings who refuse to grow up), are all equally certifiable. Far from marking him out as a man apart, Jackson’s infantilism is in keeping with a widespread trend, even if his wealth has allowed him to indulge it to an unusually extravagant degree.

One of the factors that may colour public perception of Jackson is his whiteness. The period of his supposedly increasing wackiness is also the period in which his appearance has become decreasingly Negroid – suggesting that his becoming white has contributed to the perception of him as more weird than wonderful.

The flat nose and dark skin of the boy from Gary, Indiana, who in the days of the Jackson 5 was as exceptionally talented as he was typically African-American in appearance, have given way to the pert features and ghostly pallor of what seems to be a Caucasian visage constructed through plastic surgery. Jackson claims that his current skin colour is derived from vitiligo, a dysfunction in pigmentation, and that his only surgical operation, on his nose, was undertaken in the interests of his singing voice. Even if these denials are true, and Jackson’s appearance is the result of medical conditions and their treatment rather than a deliberate strategy of facial reconstruction, in the public imagination he is still the black man who made himself white.

When shopping in my local superstore recently, I overheard a woman instructing her partner to fetch a copy of Number Ones, Jackson’s latest greatest hits CD, because it includes tracks made ‘when he was still black’. Over the past 15 years, probably the best-known black man in the world (51million people bought his 1983 album Thriller) has become distinctly more white, and considerably less popular. There is an ‘Uugghhh!‘ factor in respect of Jackson’s white face, whereas 15 years ago his appearance was more likely to invite admiration.

In an age when ‘transgressive’ identities are widely celebrated and often officially encouraged, Jackson’s black-to-white transgression is problematic. Are we witnessing a rearguard defence of white supremacy against the hubris of a rich, black buck? This interpretation informs the vocal support which Jackson recently received from rappers P Diddy and LL Cool J, r’n’b singer Alicia Keys and former Martin Luther King aide Jesse Jackson. But it seems more in keeping with the last century, especially the first half of it, when widespread adherence to the cultural values of white supremacy would almost certainly have prompted hostility to Jackson’s transgression on such grounds.

But in the half-century since Norman Mailer published The White Negro, the trend for whites to take blacks as their cultural role model has moved from the bohemian fringe of New York’s Greenwich Village, through Swinging London’s Soul craze and Punk’s identification with ‘niggers’, to the Trustafarians of well-endowed Notting Hill and the Wiggas of creative Clerkenwell and SoHo. Today, neither Buckingham Palace nor the corporate boardroom are divorced from what Mailer called ‘the cultural dowry’ of ‘the Negro’. When a House of
Windsor princeling recently dressed like a homeboy, the Sun ran the headline ‘Yo! Highness’. Multiculturalism has become as much the rallying cry for the private sector’s branded goods and corporate image as it has for post-Macpherson public policy.

At the level of cultural discourse – which is by no means the same as the day-to-day reality lived by non-white or non-Western people – ‘black’ culture is now privileged. In becoming white at a time when colonial terms of approval such as ‘that’s white of you’ have been discarded in favour of supposedly black accolades like ‘cool’ and ‘bad’, Jackson is guilty, not of rising above his natural station, but of lowering the cultural tone by the lightening of his skin. To have been black and become one of the ‘Stupid White Men’, in the title of Michael Moore’s best-selling book, is seen as perverse. In the public mind, such peculiar behaviour is one of the factors which lends vicarious credibility to accusations of sexual perversion, whether or not these are groundless.

The privileging of ‘black’ culture means not only that traditional prejudices have been brought down a peg or two, but also that some of the merits of modern society have been demoted and denigrated as well.

In An American Dilemma, his authoritative review of the race question at the mid-point of the twentieth century, Gunnar Myrdal observed that blacks were allowed to be successful in particular areas such as popular culture, but were denied full access to general fields such as industry and government. Drawing on Myrdal in an afterword to Really the Blues, the autobiography of possibly the first White Negro, clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow, former Trotsky bodyguard and subsequent sci-fi writer Bernard Wolfe recognised ‘negrophilia’ as the flipside of ‘negrophobia’: whereas the former reflected the sense in which black performers were idolised, the latter represented the extent to which blacks were only allowed either to perform or to perform menial tasks. There was a ‘tyranny of expectancy’, Wolfe concluded, in which the performative itself became menial: blacks were expected to deliver a stage performance that was in tune with white expectations of what a black performance should be.

In the modern context analysed by Wolfe and Myrdal, it seems that the generally advanced character of Western societies was guaranteed only by the particularly limited social position accorded to black people and other oppressed groups. In order for all white males to be formally equal and for white workers to be free to sell their ability to work wherever it would fetch the best price, black people had to be moulded into a particular social group that was defined by the denial of ‘universal’ rights and the imposition of specific identities. The colouring of blacks, ‘people of colour’, was the precondition for the colourlessness of white men.

Moreover, in the culture of modern times, the new (white) man was as nameless as he was colourless. Thus the man made by Doctor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s eponymous tale, had no name – just like Clint Eastwood’s gunfighter 150 years later. But black people were always named, whether as ‘Rufus’, ‘Sambo’, or, most oppressively, ‘Nigger’.

So during the modern period, the particularisation of black people has been the constantly recurring invert of the universal character – real yet flawed – of capitalist society. The bourgeoisie claimed that society was open to all, even though its very existence depended on the exclusion of particular social groups.

However, members of today’s ruling elite no longer lay claim to universalism, preferring to defame it by distancing themselves from earlier periods. The turn to ‘black’ culture, which may have had the effect of increasing hostility towards a whitened Michael Jackson, is one instance of a general trend away from universal claims, even when they are partly justified, towards a celebration of the particular. From ‘secondary victims’ to ‘creatives’, everyone wants to be seen as special today; no one willingly admits to being part of the general population. Instead of the ‘tyranny of expectancy’ observed by Myrdal 50 years ago – where the predictable performance of musicians and others from a particular social group was called upon to validate the universal character of everyone else – now there is the tyranny of particularism, in which we are all expected to validate ourselves by performing the supposed uniqueness of our identity.

Blacks, among the most prominent of those who were already particularised, that is made special, by modern society, are now the putative beneficiaries of the general denial of universality – except that it is hard to see how any group of people really benefits from the degeneration of the society in which they live.

Yet the tyranny of particularism would go some way towards explaining why many people find Jackson-lite loathsome. By his very appearance he is a negative image of a time when white was not only right, but also the bearer of rights that everyone agreed were of the highest order. ‘Universal’ rights – rights that were not conferred on everyone but nevertheless originated in the genuinely universal aspect of capitalist society – were until fairly recently seen as more important than the claims of specific communities and particular identities. Now the pecking order is reversed, and universalism not whiteness is all but invisible – except when the spectre of Jackson appears.

Losing the particular identity of a black celebrity, and moving towards the whiteness which used to be the way that the general condition of humanity was represented, is one way in which ‘Jacko’ is seen to be ‘Wacko’. Possibly the best song-and-dance man in decades is now more widely known as a weirdo, in part because his white face is so out of step with the downbeat rhythm of recent cultural history.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA); and White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also coauthor of Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Prion Books, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today