Not Gonna Spend My Life Being a Color

Willa:  Last week Joie and I danced with one of those elephants in the room and discussed the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” And we began by saying we weren’t talking about skin color. This week we are. We’re going to dance with a really big elephant and address the question of why the apparent color of his skin shifted from dark to light.

Joie:  As Willa mentioned in our very first blog post, she and I have really drastically disagreed over this particular issue. For months now we have had very heated discussions on this topic, going back and forth and back and forth, and finally we seem to have met somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s important to note that we were not always on the same page on this one. In fact, we were polar opposites for a very long time, and we each felt very strongly about our points of view. But the following conversation is what finally brought us together, and made us each understand where the other was coming from…..
 

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Joie:  Well, I have a first-hand account of sorts of the turmoil that Michael must have gone through. So my mom was out of town at the funeral of a relative and, as always happens at those sorts of gatherings, it turned into a kind of family reunion. Anyway, she was startled to see a distant cousin of hers who has Vitiligo. Startled not because she wasn’t aware that the woman had the condition, but because she wasn’t aware of the new way she was treating it. Seems her condition had worsened in the past few years and her spots had grown more widespread. What she used to be able to cover up and hide with dark makeup was just too overwhelming now. So instead, she had resorted to depigmentation – removing the remaining dark pigment in the skin in order to produce a more uniform skin tone. My mother said her skin looked a lot like Michael Jackson’s.
 
So, that got me thinking about what it must feel like for a person with this disease and I tried to put myself in their shoes. Imagine this…. You are a music superstar. From the time you were a little kid you have been “major” famous. You had four number one hits by the time you were 11 years old and the world loves you. Oh, I forgot to mention that you are African American AND your career began during the late 1960’s in America. That’s right, say it loud… “you’re Black and you’re Proud!” Not only does the world love you; Black America really LOVES you!
 
Still with me? OK, good. Now imagine that the older you get, the more successful and more famous you become. You grow from a teenage music superstar into an adult music icon. You are a Rock Star! You are bigger than that Elvis guy (oh yeah, I said it!). Now imagine that at the height of your fame and popularity, your doctor tells you that you have a devastating, autoimmune disease known as Vitiligo.
 
Vitiligo is a disorder that causes a loss of pigmentation in the skin. Patients with Vitiligo develop white spots in the skin that vary in size and location. The disease affects both sexes and all races, but the distinctive patches of discoloration are most noticeable in people with darker skin tones. Because Vitiligo causes such dramatically uneven skin color, most patients experience emotional and psychological distress – especially if the spots develop on visible areas of the body, like the face, hands, arms, feet, or even on the genitals. Most patients often feel embarrassed, ashamed, depressed, and worried about how others will react. So, for an African American person who’s been in front of the camera for most of his life – and who has already been disillusioned with his own reflection because of severe acne as a teenager and a nose that he was never happy with – this diagnosis would be traumatic, to say the least. Especially if he were constantly confronted with cruel and unfair reporting from a biased media, basically calling him a liar and leading the very same public that used to love him into believing that he just didn’t like the color of the skin he was born with.
 
Sounds really awful, doesn’t it? This was Michael Jackson’s life. For years after the Vitiligo began, thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world believed that Michael Jackson was ashamed of his race and all because the media refused to believe him when he said that he had no control over the loss of color in his skin. In fact, it was only after his death when the coroner’s report confirmed that he did indeed suffer from the disease, that the world finally believed him. And every news story you read was basically saying the same thing: “Huh, I guess he was telling the truth after all,” or “Well, we finally got that mystery cleared up.”
 
OK, is it just me? Am I the only one who finds this scary? For years, this incredibly talented, kind-hearted man told us over and over that he had this condition and that it bothered him deeply because he loved his race and he was proud of his heritage and the media (both tabloid and mainstream alike) called him a liar who just wanted to be White. They laughed big belly laughs when the late-night comedians took up the charge and poked fun at his skin color and called him all sorts of unkind and hurtful things. They basically tortured him about his disease for the rest of his life, and now that he’s gone all they can say is, “Hmm, guess he was telling the truth.” I’m sorry but, I find that scary. And really, really sad.
 
I remember watching the Oprah Winfrey show years ago – way before she ever interviewed Michael – when her friend, Maya Angelou, was a guest. And I don’t know why this stuck with me but it did. Ms. Angelou said that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. She reasoned that they know themselves a whole lot better than you know them so, when someone tells you who they are, believe them! It sounds so simple. Yet, Michael told us over and over again who he really was, but no one ever believed him. That must have been so frustrating for him!
 
Willa:  Joie, that is really powerful, and I absolutely agree with everything you just said. But I don’t think the story ends there. If we continue to imagine ourselves in his shoes, imagine you’re Michael Jackson, a deeply spiritual person who said numerous times that he felt he must have been given his talent for a reason – that he was put on this Earth and given his tremendous talent to fulfill some higher purpose. And he becomes a superstar, but he’s much more than that. He’s not just a famous singer and dancer. He’s also a transformative cultural figure who leads people to think differently about race, and he takes that very seriously. Can You Feel It, the first video he produced and developed, from initial concept through final production, beautifully expresses the idea that we are all one people, regardless of racial differences, and he returns to that idea again and again in his work. This is a concept he thought about extensively and cared about deeply.

And then, at the height of his fame, he discovers he has Vitiligo. And it is devastating and traumatic, as you say, and he begins wearing a glove and dark makeup. But the disease keeps progressing. More and more of his skin is losing its pigmentation – on his face, his neck, his arms, his whole body. And it is horrifying to him. But he’s a strong person with deeply held convictions, and he’s an amazing artist, with an artist’s sensibilities. And maybe he begins to wonder if he was given Vitiligo for a purpose as well, if there’s some reason why he has been put in this incredibly difficult position. He’s the most famous Black man ever, celebrated for promoting pride in being Black, and now his skin is literally turning white. How ironic is that? But it highlights a crucial issue as well. He’s been telling us for years that racial differences don’t matter – that we are all one people regardless of skin color. And now, the color of his skin is literally changing from dark to light.

Racism against Black people in America is nothing more than a web of lies that have been told and retold for centuries, and that we as individuals have more or less internalized to some degree. But at the heart of this web of lies is one central lie, the lie that all others radiate out from:  that Black people and White people are essentially different. That is the lie at the very center of racism in America. And growing up in the South in the 1960s I received a lot of conflicting messages, but still I was told that lie over and over again in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways:  you shouldn’t swim in an integrated swimming pool, you shouldn’t drink water from a water fountain immediately after a Black kid, you shouldn’t borrow a Black girl’s comb (which I did one time when I was “old enough to know better”). The unstated reason is that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially different and should remain separate. That was the message I was told again and again growing up in the South forty years ago.

But when Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, he proved that is a lie – he proved that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially the same – and he struck a shattering blow at the very heart of racism.

I have a White college friend who grew up with a Black housekeeper. One day the housekeeper was working in the kitchen and cut her hand, and my friend, who was just a child at the time, was shocked to see that her blood was red. Before that, she had assumed her blood was dark – as dark as her skin. My friend told me this story several times, generally with a laugh at how silly she’d been. But despite her laughter, I could tell this story was very important to her. It was one of those rare “Ah ha!” moments when your perceptions flip upside down and you’re suddenly forced to question things you thought you knew to be true.

When Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, I think he created an “Ah ha!” moment like that on a global scale. He had told us repeatedly through his music and his videos that we are all one people, regardless of skin color, and now he had a chance to prove it artistically. He could prove in a way that cannot be denied that our bodies are essentially the same, and he could do it in a way that even a child could understand. That is an incredibly powerful message, and he seized an opportunity to illustrate and broadcast that message in a way that had never been done before. And he expanded the definition of art in a way that had never been done before either. That’s why he was so misunderstood.

Joie:  Willa, you make a very convincing argument. And I’m sure that, being the incredibly artistic person that he was, he probably did tend to look at things or approach difficult situations from an artistic point of view. So, you could be absolutely correct in saying that he made a conscious decision to turn his disease into an artistic commentary on racism. And you know, when we first began disagreeing over this issue I never would have imagined I’d say that but, there it is. 
 
Willa:   Well, as I mentioned in our very first blog, you’ve really changed how I see this also. This isn’t a new thing for me. I’ve been fighting this battle for years. I can remember going to grad school in the South in the mid-to-late 1980s, and almost every semester someone at some point would bring up Michael Jackson and the changing color of his skin. And they would almost always say something like, it was an incredible cultural phenomenon, but of course it was just a product of his own insecurities. He was creating this incredibly powerful cultural moment that was forcing White America, especially, to question some of our deepest racial prejudices, but he was doing it accidentally.

And I always questioned that. Why assume it’s accidental? He’s a brilliant artist, he’s been actively fighting racial prejudices for years, he’s obviously thought about this issue deeply – so why assume he doesn’t know what he’s doing? I always thought he knew exactly what he was doing, and I think the evidence backs me up. His dermatologist has said that he frequently called his face “a work of art.” And as I tried to show in both M Poetica and “Rereading Michael Jackson,” I think he tried to explain through his work – through his short films, especially – that his changing appearance began as a medical decision but became a deliberate artistic decision.

But until I started talking with you, I didn’t realize just how difficult and painful that decision must have been for him. I knew he was the object of a lot of snarky comments by White commentators that just made me heartsick. And I knew there were people in the Black community who felt betrayed by him and by the changing color of his skin. But I didn’t realize how deeply those emotions ran, or how painful the accusations of betraying his race must have been for him.
 
Joie:  Oh, it must have been horrible! I always think about his interview with Oprah when he tells her, “I’m a Black American, I am proud to be a Black American, I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride and dignity….It is something that I cannot help, ok? But when people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me….I mean, it makes me very sad.”
 
Those are his words. And the emotion in his voice and the pain on his face as he said them were obvious. But now, as I look back on that interview, I notice that he also said this during that same conversation:  “But you know what’s funny, why is that so important? That’s not important to me. I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had the chance to talk to him or read about him I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is….I mean that’s what is important to me.” 
 
So, maybe he told us then and we just didn’t listen. Maybe he was saying, ‘Yes, I have this disease and it is horrifying and no one believes me but, I don’t care because I’m going to use it to educate you anyway!’

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on September 8, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. hi, I think it is a fact Michael had vitiligo. Together with his make-up artist Karen Faye he decided to make his skin all white because all black was not working out so well. I think we’ll never know if this was purely a practical decision or Michael also wanted to make statement with it. My guess is the latter where he did not mind it to be a reinforcement of his “above the races” persona. I do understand how that can create confusion among some people in the black community who perhaps felt they could not relate to him anymore. I do not think he did this on purpose. He saw himself as a world citizen, off all races. I do think Michael was at times a little over the top in his later career. Too me he was a normal, nice sweet guy with great dancing skills and great music. When people start talking about Michael being sent by God I turn a little sick.The(history) statue for example that was brought into Europe was just too much if you ask me. I think it would have served him well, also in his personal life and for his own health, to have toned that God sent idea down a little. I think it made it more difficult for him to relate to what was going on in our society. Michael was emotionally intelligent but not in touch with what was appropriate in our society and it got him into trouble thanks to the advise of his other out of touch friend, Elizabeth Taylor. For the record Michael was completely innocent. Michaels music,especially off the wall, just made me happy and dance when things were difficult in my life and lifted me up. I remember him for that. Bless you Michael

    • You’re saying Michael was a little over the top… the HIStory statue was a bit too much… – too much for what, may I ask. People often blame him for “too much” Too much for what? For an average promotion? Well, he didn’t want it to be average. He wanted to impress, and he did. HIStory statue made a big stir about his album and tour.

      I can’t understand it when people blame Michael for going beyond the limits – it was exactly what made him a legend. Being not ordinary, being eccentric, being sometimes out of touch with reality is a part of being genius. Yes, from our average person’s perspective he should have tried to conform the society harder, he should have tried to be more like us. Then he surely would have avoided many problems in his life. But without being true to himself, would he be as great, as creative, as adored by fans? No. In a sense, all his suffering was the price he had to pay for his enormous talent, his exceptional position, and his power over people. It couldn’t be any other way. And moreover, he UNDERSTOOD that he had to pay this price. This is what he meant when he was talking about being “sent”. He was talking about understanding his exceptionality and he price that comes with it, understanding his own role in the drama that unfolded.

    • I don’t blame Michael for anything. He was constantly trying to improve himself without being held down by anybody and that’s great. And your right to say that his success was a result off that. But he did not need the statue for example to get my attention. He already had that and his music was and will always be great. I just wished that at a few critical moments in his life better decisions would have been made so he’d still be with us. In 1993 Michael took the advice from his lawyers to pay chandler off just to get rid of it. Bad advice. It made him look guilty and he should have fought it right there. You cannot do that to Michael Jackson and get away with it. After 1993 Michael would not change his lifestyle just because people claim things, he is not guilty so why should he. People like Elizabeth Taylor also convinced him of this. I just wished he had had more sensible people around him who could get through to him (wich was sometimes very hard I hear) that for his own protection he should have put up some boundaries, first one outside his bedroom. Matt Lauer(today show) said it right. He should have avoided any suspicion not because he was guilty but to protect himself. It is very easy for people to make accusations and very hard for people like Michael to defend against that. Lets be clear, everything that happened to him was because of other peoples bad intentions not because of his own character. But Michael was also down to earth and intelligent and I wished he had recognised this threat. I am not going along with your “this is what had to happen to Michael because of his greatness” theory. I believe it could have been avoided at some critical moments. Sorry for being off topic.

      • Hi Hugh. You know, I think that we can all agree that if Michael had only made a few decisions differently, things might have turned out very differently for him. And I agree with you that he should have tried to avoid any suspision after 1993 and set up some boundaries.

        However, I can’t agree that the HIStory statue was ‘too much’ as you stated above. Michael was known for being over-the-top and larger-than-life and that is why we loved him so much! Because he was other-worldly and ‘sent’ in a way. No other artist around has the kind of universal appeal that Michael commanded. In fact, if any other artist were to attempt that kind of over-the-top promotion today it would fall very flat but, Michael could get away with that sort of thing simply because he was so ‘god-like’ in the entertainment field.

      • Hi Hugh. I just wanted to add a quick note and say I understand that longing that things had turned out differently in Michael Jackson’s life. I feel that too. There were times writing the book when I just cried. But I also see what Morinen and Joie are saying about that willingness to challenge social norms being part of his character, and defying social norms sometimes makes people uncomfortable and it can put you at risk. He couldn’t predict the future any more than we can, and I think that at each step of the way he tried to make the best decision he could.

        For a long time I thought as you do that settling the 1993 case was a mistake – it left him vulnerable to suspicions and more allegations. But as I researched the case and learned more of the details of what exactly was going on, and as I tried to see things from his perspective and from the perspective of that boy, Jordan Chandler, I began to change my mind. In fact, now that I know more about the situation he was in, I’ve come to agree with him. If I were in Michael Jackson’s position in 1993 and faced the choices he was faced with, I would settle. It’s very hard for me to write that knowing how things turned out, but I think it was the best decision for him and for that boy.

        Thanks a lot for posting. You’ve really led me to think about some things.

      • If we look at the events closely, of course there were moments of bad judgment and turning points where it seems that many troubles could have been avoided, if only decisions had been made differently. All we are left with now are countless “what if”s.

        However, when I look back at Michael’s life as a whole, it often seems to me that whatever decisions had been made, his life would have gone along the same course anyway. If he had avoided problems with Chandlers, there would have been another family later. If not child molestation allegations, people would have searched for other ways to break him and bring him down. He was too different and too open and audacious about his otherness and at the same time too powerful to be tolerated. Such a character evokes admiration and worship in some people, but in many (especially ones that aspire to have power too) it evokes hostility and a sense of threat. They find a cause (even a small one) and begin the hunt. In fact, the Chandler case wasn’t such an outrageous precedent as media made it look. Celebrities face civil suits over outrageous claims all the time. Are they humiliated beyond the lowest point by a strip search with the threat of the photos of it being leaked? No. Michael was. But nobody draws attention to this, nobody notices he settles because he is put in a desperate position, nobody mentions that all misconduct claims have been dropped off the suit before the settlement. Instead they make it look like he settles because he feels guilty. Would the situation have unfolded the same way, if the same allegations had been made against someone else, not MJ? I don’t think so. Essentially, I believe his life turned out so hard not as a result of bad decisions he made here and there, but as a result of who he was as a person.

        • He was too different and too open and audacious about his otherness and at the same time too powerful to be tolerated. . . . Essentially, I believe his life turned out so hard not as a result of bad decisions he made here and there, but as a result of who he was as a person.

          Morinen, I’ve been thinking about this comment ever since you posted it. I agree absolutely, and I also think it’s important to consider why such a gentle person was seen as such a threat. What exactly was threatened? I think he challenged nothing less than the structure of our world as we know it, and forced us to question some of our most fundamental beliefs. What does it mean to be male, or be female? What does it mean to be black, or be white? What does it mean to be a proper person, an insider, and what does it mean to be an outsider? Who holds more power because of these social structures, and who doesn’t? And what does it mean when a compassionate outsider is able to change people’s perceptions and lead them to see the world in a different way?

  2. Excellent post as usual ladies.
    I recall going to work the day after the Oprah interview and discussing it with my co-worker. She really liked how he pointed out “the people who sit in the sun and become different from who they are” (white people who tan).
    Must have been so hard for him, but he must have figured that he was put on earth to educate people about it- wish more had listened to him.

  3. I am a white 60 years old female raised in N.C. My brother has vitilgo. He has had it as long as I can remember. When I look at him I don’t see vitilgo, I see my brother. I can only imagine how difficult it was for MJ. As I look at some of the pictures of him , my heart wept for him. Only God knows how tramatic it was for him. I saw the interview with Oprah and was upset how she brought up the subject. I would have said I understand you have a disease called vitilgo and not talked about him trying to become white.To me it was uncalled for. Also , I let my children sleep with me on certain occasions and now my grandchildren. We get in my king size bed eat popcorn ,drink soda and watch movies. As a child I slept with my mother and when I went to my grandmothers at times. I guess this is a family thing. I was also raised on a farm where you had to work at a very young age. We would get up at 4;30 in the morning and take out a barn of tobacco and work all day filling it back up again. If you didnt get up the next morning you would get beat with a belt. All of our discipline was done with a belt. So, when I watch the movie Americian Dream I cried.I was very upset with all Michael had to go through.I have been busy raising my family and working so I had not kept up with all that was going on in his life. When I found out the truth it hurt my heart.I was very upset.His faith in God and prayer kept him. Some people gives the impression of Michael as a god but he is a very good, kind, giving,loving, forgiving person. One lesson I have learned these past 2 yrs, don’t judge.I use Michael.s life as an example to teach my family.I have been a Christian counselor for the past 20 years.I have not seen anyone yet that has gone through what Michael went through. My heart still goes out to him. I read Latoya’s book Starting Over. She has been to hell and back too. I really feel for her also. Battered women are the hardest to counsel. I am very proud of Latoya. I pray daily for the Jackson family. I am praying for God’s will to be done.

    • Hi Kay. I loved your post. I’m a 50 year old from North Carolina, and so much of what you wrote really struck home for me. I slept with my grandma many times, and loved it. She’d tell me stories about what life was like when she was a girl, and about her father, who was a cobbler making shoes from scratch the old-fashioned way, and an inventor, and a ferry boat captain, and one of the best fiddlers in the county. He’d play fiddle and she’d play banjo (she said she wasn’t very good – just knew enough to keep time with him – but I suspect that isn’t true) and they’d play at square dances and “school closings,” which were big parties on the last day of school. I loved lying in the dark listening to her stories, and it was a very special time for us. I also slept with my great aunt Lily, who wasn’t really related to me – at least, not “blood kin,” as they say in the South. She was my grandmother’s brother’s widow. But I loved staying with her and watching Godzilla movies and listening to her short-wave radio.

      And you know, I don’t think this was just in the South. After I graduated from college, I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, which is about as far from N.C. as you can get and still be in the same continent, and lived in a big house with a bunch of people. I became friends with one of my housemates, who was a single mom, and she regularly slept with her daughter. Her daughter didn’t even have a separate bed – she just slept with her mom. And sometimes my friend would get pretty stressed because she was a single mom with very little money, and her daughter would “get on her last nerve,” as she said. And when that happened, her daughter would come sleep with me, and it was absolutely no big deal to anyone. I wasn’t related to that child at all and she slept with me many times, and no one cared. In fact, one of my housemates was getting his master’s degree in psychology and he would frustrate my friend sometimes with his child-rearing advice, but he never once said anything about her daughter sleeping with her or me. It was absolutely not an issue, even for him.

      This is getting kind of off the subject, but I really think the Catholic priest molestation scandals caused a state of hysteria where people started seeing every interaction between an adult and a child as suspicious, and Michael Jackson got caught up in that hysteria. And either a lot of those commentators condemning him had a very different upbringing than I did, or they are conveniently forgetting their own childhoods.

  4. The meaning of the changing skin color and appearance is probably the most interesting topic discourse about MJ outside of his artistic side.

    There is no question that Vitiligo was Michael’s burden for half of his life, and it caused him a lot of pain and suffering. And I mean both physical pain from extensive treatments, and psychological pain from being bullied and laughed at for his disease. And I’m sure if Michael hadn’t had Vitiligo, even with most audacious artistry in the world no way he would have voluntarily subjected himself to anything like this! I remember his teary voice when he was telling Oprah, “It’s something that I cannot help…” I remember reading a comment that a friend of Michael’s left on the blog post devoted to Vitiligo:

    “Michael has vitiligo. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, along with the unhappiness it has caused him both privately and publicly. Many great artists are reserved off stage, but for Michael this was compounded by the media and public obsession over his appearance. He covered much of this up with make-up – and for many years hid behind a screen of uncomfortable and impractical panstick.
    He’s tried to learn to be accepting that people don’t believe the transformation he’s made over the years, but all this ridiculous argument over it makes it incredibly hard for him. I see him a couple of times a year, usually just for a day or so, and even now, all the speculation and prying offends and upsets him. He is one of the most loving, kind and gentle souls I’ve ever met, and has possibly the most stoic and forgiving nature in the light of such awful injustice, slander and bigotry. He’s not without faults, and has to be one of the most exacting professionals I’ll ever have the fortune to work with. Most of the time, he ignores what people say, and in the last few years he’s gone past caring what people think. He isn’t on earth to justify how he looks – but the public seem to assume that he must account for the changes he made to his appearance, including those that he couldn’t control. I can tell you: I’ve been in a pool with him: before he had depigmentation therapy, he was blotchy all over. Now, he’s basically so white that he burns at even slight exposure to the sun. This was a choice he made: makeup or treatment, and having the money, he got the treatment. I don’t blame him – had I this condition, and the funds, I would have done it too.
    And let me tell you: when you get to know him, he’s a normal, easy-going (out of the studio!) guy, with a great sense of humour and is most definitely a BLACK man.
    I posted here because he bet me ages ago that I couldn’t find a single site online that really addressed his skin colour in an even manner. I hope I’ve cleared up some of your questions.”
    — March 22, 2009 (http://floacist.wordpress.com/2007/06/12/full-information-on-vitiligo-michael-jackson/#comment-4175)

    What can be worse that being ridiculed for your disability? Do we laugh at people who are crippled or not pretty? No, it is considered rude and offensive. So why was Michael an exception? WHY it was okay to ridicule his disease? It is scary that our society can still tolerate things like that.

    On the other hand, Michael did view his face and body as a work of art. He said so himself, and his make-up artist and his doctor confirmed it too. Karen Faye said that Michael always wanted to change, invent, evolve, look different. He was constantly seeking creatively, and she helped him in that. Was this decision to stop covering the disease and instead expose it totally just a cosmetic decision, or an artistic decision? Isn’t it the same thing when you are seeing your own body as a canvas? Doesn’t the desire to look good then equal the desire to perfect your work?

    Did Michael want to get a message across when he was making that decision? You know, whichever the answer is, it was a historical turning point. If it was his conscious intention, it makes him an even bigger genius, a prophet and a master of our minds. It elevates him to a whole different artistic level, where he orchestrated his drama not on stage for a hall of audience, but on Earth for the whole mankind.
    But if it wasn’t his conscious intention, just think what a stunning coincidence it makes! An extremely talented person comes to this world, conquers it with his music, rises to superstardom, and then – whoa… his very essence (at least according to our cultural perception) changes. And we suddenly realize that that’s NOT the essence. Because despite the backlash on the surface we still love him as much as before and react to his music as his persona as passionately. All of this is leaving people baffled, making them question their perceptions, rethink their attitudes, on the global scale. It’s almost as if he was sent to show us that the color is not the essence, that the way you look is not the essence. A person can wear a hundred different faces, but you will love him because you love the essence, and the essence is the soul. If I didn’t know this story happened for real, I would think it was a parable. What are the chances of this to happen in real world? If it wasn’t his decision, then WHOSE decision it was? How many stars should collide in the universe for such an incredible life to be born? It’s enough to make you believe in God, when you don’t.

    • Damn, I hate it that you can’t edit comments here. Excuse my poor grammar, English is my second language.

      • Morinen, don’t worry about your grammar; I think you did a wonderful job of getting your point across and I agree completely with everything you said. Nicely done! And thanks for sharing the blog post from floacist.

    • Did Michael want to get a message across when he was making that decision? You know, whichever the answer is, it was a historical turning point.

      Hi Morinen. That’s an excellent point. In terms of its cultural impact, it really doesn’t matter if this was a conscious decision or not. Either way, it was a huge cultural phenomenon that forced the entire world – but white Americans, especially – to question some of our deepest, most primal racial prejudices. I think that’s why the backlash against him was so strong – because he challenged us so severely. He paid a huge price, but I think he significantly changed racial attitudes at a preconscious level, and that we don’t yet realize the significance of those changes. As I said in M Poetica, I suspect Obama would not be president today if Michael Jackson hadn’t “turned white” a generation ago.

  5. I love this dialogue…so very happy to have found your blog and look forward to more.
    I wanted to throw out something…and don’t mean to cause any controversy…but with his siblings writing books about him lately…here goes…I always wandered how did his siblings truly feel about the vitiligo and how much do we know about how it effected Michael’s relationship with his own siblings…I mean I know there have been comments from them all saying that they knew it was hereditary and that I believe an uncle or a grandfather had it, but how did they feel truly feel when he depigmented his skin? And publicly obviously they have said that they felt his pain, etc…but what about privately?
    I always got the impression that Michael, especially as a teenager, felt alienated from them—I am not saying that they did anything to him to make him feel this way …though there have been some that said his brothers and his father teased him for his appearance..never really sure how much of this was true or make believe..and even if it was true, I am the youngest of six children and there was a lot of teasing that went on amongst us…and some of it was mean, but we were kids, and now that we are all older I don’t think my brothers will ever admit that they did it to me on purpose, LOL!
    But because Michael was so sensitive and so naturally vulnerable about his self image as a teenager and beyond one wonders how much it did effect him and then when the vitiligo kicked in big time he looked different from his brothers–and even though yes, I am positive he loved them and yes I am even positive for the most part they loved him–how much did it effect him being around them and did it make him feel uncomfortable…and did it make them feel uncomfortable?
    And there was that ever famous song that Jermaine wrote about Michael, Word to the BADD and the original lyrics did mention the skin color change: “Once you were made
    You changed your shade/Was your color wrong?”
    That had to hurt him…..I guess I wonder how much of the vitiligo had to do with him distancing himself from his family…whether it was on purpose or not….thanks again for this blog….and please keep writing..I love the conversations that are ensuing here…they are deep and thoughtful and I find them extremely intellectually stimulating

  6. I am visiting your site for the first time and find this discusiion very interesting. I came here via MJFC site. I just wanted to make a few comments regarding Vitiligo from personal experience. I am a 53 year old Caucasion woman who has had Vitiligo since age 17. I was somewhat olive complected, tanned very dark and easily in the summers, and never burned. I started with white spots on my hands. Then it quickly spread to my elbows, shoulders and knees. I gradually progressed from being tan colored with white spots all over to being white with tan spots, to my current state for the past 8 years or so which is almost completely white with just avery few small tan spots scattered about. I definitely know how it feels to be stared at, pointed at, whispered about and occasionally asked some pretty interesting questions. Luckily I had very supportive parents,and siblings, none of whom had vitiligo, who really just never treated me any different. I did do the whole dermatologist routine and tried several of the “treatments” which are rarely effective and have side effects of their own. I even did try the bleaching on my face when it eventually spread there but it took a lot of dilligence and I did not have a lot of patience back then so I gave up on it fairly quickly.
    I just learned to cover up in the sun, wear hats, tons of sunscreen, and do most of my outdoor activities in the evening.
    I knew long ago that Michael Jackson also had Vitiligo. I have been a fan since the J5 days. It made perfect sense to me and my dermatologist even verified it when I asked what he thought at one of my visits back in the late 80’s. He told me it was well known within the dermatology community that he did have Vitiligo.
    I knew how much harder it would have been for Michael Jackson to go through what I had been experiencing. He was probably the most well known person around the world, a black man who was turning white. His outward racial identity was changing and he suffered very cruel judgements because of it from both the white and black communities.
    I think he had so much courage and strength beyond measure! I agree with you that he saw his Vitiligo as something he was given to use as a teaching tool for the world about acceptance and judgement despite the physical and emotional pain it caused him. It angers me that people still use negative comments when refering to his skin color. I often get asked if I really believe that Michael Jackson had the same condition I have. I always immediately reply “absolutely, there is no doubt”! I also ask them why it is so easy for them to have no doubts that my stark white skin, and now spoted hair as well, is due to Vitiligo but they will not give Michael Jackson the same consideration. It is so sad that the media has brainwashed so many people!
    I regret that I did not take the time to write to Michael Jackson at some point to let him know how brave I thought he was and that I had some understanding of what it was like to have Vitiligo. Life gets too busy sometimes and I just wasn’t paying attention. The best I can do now is to let people know the facts about Michael Jackson and Vitiligo whenever I can.
    Sorry for this exceedingly long comment!! Thanks again for your excellent discussion regarding this topic.

    • Hi Joyce, no apology is needed; I enjoyed reading what you had to say and I am so happy to hear from someone who suffers from this condition. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us.

      I’m also happy to know you came to our blog from MJFC. Thanks for all the support!

  7. Thank you Willa and Joie for your valuable sharing.

    Musically Black or White is not too much a favorite song of mine since I listened to Michael’s music 2 years ago. I know that it’s a song spreading message of anti-racism arises from difference of skin color but frankly the significance or relevance of this song to me is not big. I guess it’s because I am living in an Asian city where racism does exist but the controversies raised from different skin color are not as obvious as in the US.

    After reading Willa’s viewpoints on how Michael turned the medical decision into an artistic decision when treating his vitiligo in the book, I reread the lyrics of Black or White and for the 1st time I realize how serious Michael were when he sung the song. There must be a lots of frustrations experienced by Michael for being proud to be a black while facing the loss of his dark skin color. When listening to him sung “I am not going to spend my life being a color”, I now feel it’s his way to accept the very sad fact that his dark skin color would never come back but at the same time to affirm himself that skin color doesn’t really matter that much when defining the value of a person. The song to Michael was much more than a promotion of race harmony in a general sense, it was truly his proclamation on his determination of not letting his own skin color to define and restrict himself. But even he had strong belief in himself and had expected people to misunderstand his choice, I think it must still hurt him a lot to hear how wrongly and maliciously people could speak about him.

  8. Are you familiar with the “Words and Violence” curriculum that is part of the Voices Education Project. It is an educational curriculum that was inspired by Michael Jackson and his message of “heal the world; save it for our children” The curriculum is in memory of Mr. Jackson and Lady Diana Spencer: the curriculum addresses the subjects of Violence toward others using the spoken and written word, and images. The project has materials for children of middle school, junior and senior high schools that highlight how words and images, when used irresponsibly can cause harm.
    I actually wrote a case study for this curriculum titled “White as New Fallen Snow: How Vitiligo and Michael Jackson taught me compassion”
    Here is the link to my case study but you can also look through the entire curriculum as well. There are many excellent case studies.
    http://www.voiceseducation.org/content/case-study-white-new-fallen-snow

    There is also a new film at Voices Education called “The Man Behind the Myth” that tells the real “story” about Michael Jackson. It is now a permanent part of the curriculum under “In Depth Articles” It is an excellent short video. If you have not seen it yet I hope you will check it out. Here is the Voices Education link: http://www.voiceseducation.org/

    Thanks again for all of the very interesting and intriguing discussions that I have just finished reading on your new blog. I will certainly be checking back frequently!

    • Hello Joyce,

      I just want to say that I am familiar with your case study as I have read it. I am also a contributor to the “Words and Violence” curriculum and when I saw your case study, I absolutely had to read it. Thank you for sharing your story and thank you for sharing it here.

      I have to share a quick story with you and others here. I volunteer for the American Red Cross and was deployed to North Carolina recently. I was at the Red Cross headquarters which was based out of an empty store in a mall. I was on the phone when I saw this person at the glass doors trying to get my attention. She was holding something in her hand. When I finally looked up, I saw this individual who obviously had a skin condition, thus I knew right away that it could have been Vitiligo. I walked over to her and she handed me something that someone may have lost. I thanked her and went on my way. The point that I’d like to bring forth here is that had I not known about Vitiligo because of Michael, your case study and others, I wonder if I would have been a bit startled at this person’s appearance. I am being honest here because I had only recently come to understand the disease because Michael, but I’d never seen anyone who had it personally. So I have to say to you, Michael and any other person who has or had to deal with the disease and it’s implications, that you are very brave. I could never know what it is like because I do not walk in your or Michael’s shoes. After reading quite a bit about Vitiligo within the past 2 years, I have great compassion for those who suffer it. Thank you Joyce for sharing your story and also, thank you Willa and Joie for having this discussion. It’s wonderful to read the various insights from you and everyone here.

  9. Exactly, Willa, exactly. He – by his persona itself – challenged the most fundamental perceptions our world views are based upon. The perception on sex, race, things that are considered appropriate or inappropriate.

    Michael had this theory that people get “conditioned” when they are growing up. It was a valid theory, at least as far as he was concerned, because that was exactly what he understood about himself, and that was the truth – he never let himself become conditioned. That conditioning is our defense, it’s “the wall” (as in Pink Floyd’s record) we build around. He didn’t have that wall. While being a very private person, he, however, wasn’t afraid to show his insecurities and his emotions. And he constantly challenged the rules that conditioning brings upon us. He made an attempt to break our walls. And it caused a reaction, it caused a resistance. Of course it did. People had to defend their insecurities.

  10. The first time I heard the statement, “There is only one race–the Human race,” was from my cultural anthropology professor, and I was so ecstatic to hear what I had known all my life put into words! So, I was especially thrilled to see it again in this blog. One more thing: I commented on the Allforlove blog that perhaps MJ used his disease in a way that forced people to think about what it means to be “black” or “white” and whether it should matter at all. Raven, the blog creator, sort of blasted me for presuming that was MJ’s intention, and that she had never come across any information that might support that. I’m not sure what button I pushed, but it seems that even commenting on a theory about MJ’s artistic genius provokes uncomfortable feelings.

    • Hi ambwirt. I just went out to All for Love – I had read Raven’s post when it came out but hadn’t read the comments recently. Wow, you all are having quite the discussion! And things did get a little heated, as happens sometimes when people are talking about things they feel passionate about, but I don’t think Raven ever meant to blast anyone. I think she was just adding a note of caution about subscribing artistic intent to Michael Jackson’s handling of his vitiligo when he never explicitly said in an interview that that’s what he was doing. I personally believe he explains his intentions through his work – in Scream, Black or White, and Ghosts especially – but of course, that’s interpretation also.

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