Dec. 13, 2011Vol. 42, Issue 3

BSS Faculty Colloquium

Michael Jackson and the Quandry of a Black Identity

She presented an essay from a forthcoming book, Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle, edited by Christopher Smit, in which she explores the conflicting and paradoxical demands facing Jackson as he struggled to define and express his “self.”

Pinder is the author of From Welfare to Workfare: How Capitalist States Create a Pool of Unskilled Cheap Labor (A Marxist-Feminist Social Analysis) (2007); The Politics of Race and Ethnicity in the United States: Americanization, De-Americanization and Racialized Ethnic Groups (2010); and Whiteness and Racialized Ethnic Groups in the United States: The Politics of Remembering (2011). Her forthcoming edited book is on American multicultural studies. In the summer of 2008, Pinder was a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University.

photo of Sherrow PinderIn “Michael Jackson and the Quandary of a Black Identity,” Pinder explores the “peculiar” problem for Michael Jackson’s black identity, which is compounded by his history as a music star from a very young age and his role as an international pop “mega-star.” She draws upon the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, among others, as she explores the focus of her chapter: “What does it mean to be black in America?” Du Bois refers to “double consciousness,” and Fanon describes the “doubling of identity,” referring to the necessity to construct a self in the “other” and the ensuing “racial liminality,” of existing between two worlds.

“Like all blacks in America,” writes Pinder, “Jackson has difficulties in developing his sense of self in a culture that normalizes whiteness as an ontological neutral category and upholds the subject as raceless and unmarked. Normalized whiteness has created an identity crisis for Jackson that invites a negative reading, and also fuels famous comments such as ‘weird’ or, as the tabloids nicknamed the singer, ‘Wacko Jacko.’ ”

Jackson’s struggle with racial identity is played out on an international stage, and his “weirdness” in the face of blackness becomes the subject of the most excessive form of derision because “blackness constructs a body that is already defiant of social norms.”

Pinder writes: “Given that the construction of blackness relies on an absolute contempt for the lived complexities of blackness and is always reduced to an authentic otherness, Jackson’s desire to anchor himself in racial particularity, neither black nor white, is not dominated by a longing to undo blackness and retrieve towards whiteness but towards a form of racial ambiguity. Jackson’s simultaneous performance and resistance to impose racial definitions serve as an impasse between blackness and whiteness, which is locked in a symbiotic relationship of subordination (blackness) and domination (whiteness).” This “in-betweenness,” says Pinder, still signals blackness and “hence, like every black person in America, Jackson must live the color line, the racial divide, which bears witness to the existential dilemma that inhabits the very core of his sense of self.”

Pinder discusses what it means to have a racial identity and the ways in which one’s identity is defined by social norms. To be ascribed to a particular social group such as “black, women, homosexuals,” one must have characteristics that fit that group (for example, an “authentic” way of being black, such as dancing or singing, she says) and that distinguish it from the dominant group. “Because blackness is measured against whiteness and is reduced to otherness, it is difficult for a black person to develop a solid sense of ‘self,’ ” she says. “For Jackson, racial identification becomes a deeply ambivalent and fragmented process, which for the most part leads to ‘the fragmentation of identity into infinitesimal plural identities,’ to use Diana Fuss’s phrase.”

Living in a society like the United States where whiteness is normalized, Jackson, like all blacks in America, is split into this “twoness,” the black skin and white masks, says Pinder. Because race is marked on the body, the black man “suffers in his body quite differently from the white man.”

Pinder’s lecture, “Michael Jackson and the Quandary of a Black Identity,” provides a constructive starting point to analyze the implications of normalized whiteness and how it has impacted Jackson’s racial identification process. Because blacks experience their being through a normalized whiteness, racial identification, for the most part, “becomes a pathological condition.” Jackson’s numerous plastic surgeries are illustrative, says Pinder. More fundamental, from Pinder’s lecture, we get a good idea of the existential dilemma that inhabits the core of Jackson’s being.

Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications