Body Language: Michael Jackson and the Illogic of White Superiority

Some time has passed since the death of Michael Jackson, but the implications of the loss of this legendary entertainer are just as pressing today. So many grew up listening to his music, imagining themselves a part of the Jackson musical family, and following the development of his status as a popular culture icon.

Through him, millions came to learn the unifying abilities of musical expression—the manner in which music forms a language by which to articulate shared concerns, visions, and dreams for spaces of healthy life. Through his dancing he pushed the boundaries of how bodies occupy time and space; forcing recognition of the ways in which the body is an instrument of communication, and a tool for making meaning that speaks beyond the limitations of words. The body, his body on stage, called attention to our bodies—their limitations, their capabilities… their look.

As no one failed to notice, the growth of Michael Jackson as an entertainer, as a prime depiction of US cultural expression, was shadowed by radical changes to his appearance. There is so much meaning and importance in the observation made by scholars who argue that the body is a contested terrain. That is to say, it is on and through the body that our cultural imaginations and social assumptions play out. Michael Jackson’s shifting appearance is a strong example of the texture of that contestation. It is almost as if deeper entrenchment in the popular imagination of the United States (and a growing global community) was physically represented by a shift in his features. He bore on his body the signs of identity politics. In his body he came to resemble in exaggerated form the stereotyped features of white Americans. In an odd way acceptance as a cultural icon was connected for Jackson to a rather cartoonish alteration of his physical body.

Many have lamented the changes in appearance, linking them to a graphic representation of internalized racism made manifest through wealth; plastic surgery isn’t cheap! Toni Morrison pointed out the ‘wish’ of sameness—the desire on the part of some African Americans to see reflected in themselves and through themselves the ‘ideal’ depicted in US popular culture. Morrison referenced blue eyes, and Michael Jackson’s body came to mirror this desire to be different, to change the flesh to fit the dominant ideal.

There is certainly something to the manner in which white supremacy shapes and represents through numerous outlets—television, magazines, etc.—the look of beauty, the aesthetic dimensions of worth and value. There is no doubt that Michael Jackson’s life and physical alterations speak to this destructive dimension of our socio-cultural world. As Michael Dyson noted, Michael Jackson displayed on and through his body the love/hate relationship with self-image faced by many African Americans.

But there is more to Michael Jackson’s appearance than this. Yes, he depicted in graphic ways the destructive nature of myopic beauty standards that African Americans battled against. However, Jackson’s transformation over the years also made visible the often hidden dilemmas of whiteness as the ‘look’ of importance. His public appearances made it difficult to not see ‘whiteness’ as having a color—to rethink assumptions concerning the color of ‘flesh tone.’

Whiteness (and stereotypical understandings of whiteness) was held up for observation and interrogation. “Who really looks like that?” was a common question. “He’s becoming white!” was a common remark. There was a sociocultural dissonance displayed on/through his body. The illogic of white superiority was graphically displayed in ways that made assumptions of the proper ‘look’ of an important body difficult to maintain with a firm grip. Jackson’s body was a mirror through which we saw the sad consequences of these cultural assumptions and the damage they do. His failing body pointed out the vulnerabilities of whiteness as the body norm, and the overall fragile nature of self-understanding and identity.

Let’s be clear on this: I am not suggesting that white Americans are problematic. Rather, I am arguing that limiting standards of beauty, a restrictive aesthetic of life, or what Cornel West calls the troubling ‘normative gaze,’ damages all of us. That is to say, ‘whiteness’ as a structure of the ‘normal’ is deeply harmful. The displayed assumptions concerning the beautiful and important body are ripped apart, making it difficult to sustain efforts to appreciate difference—to recognize and value the multiplicity of our appearances and the range of our bodies. On Michael Jackson’s body one could catch a glimpse of this battle.