Jun 25 2012

Did Michael Jackson’s Escape to Whiteness Add to His Success?

♥♥♥ Michael Jackson died on June 25th, 2009, but not before gifting the world with his amazing talent–and not before he faded before our eyes into a white-skinned man.

Today, as Katherine Jackson is mourning the absence of her incredibly gifted son, I find myself thinking of Trayvon Martin’s mother, who will never know what contribution her young son might have made to the world because a paranoid neighborhood watchman judged Trayvon guilty of simply “walking while black.”
Though their lives may seem to have little in common, both of these American sons were born with brown skin–and both suffered the undeserved consequences of living in a society in which brownness is so often misjudged, disrespected and devalued.

“Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now
I’m tired of bein’ the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came”
-Michael Jackson, They Don’t Care About Us

Though we have made many strides in race relations over the decades, this deeply-ingrained fear/loathing of brown skin in America leads many to wonder if the King of Pop would have risen to such heights if he had remained brown. Sadly, it seemed as though the whiter Michael’s skin became, the more the world loved him. Some even forgot he was ever a black man.

Whether due to a medical condition or by his own intention, Michael escaped his God-given brownness, while Trayvon was made a target by it through the eyes of an overzealous gunman who saw that brown skin and interpreted it as a threat.

Michael once sang,

“Before you judge me, try hard to love me. Look within your heart then ask, Have you seen my childhood?…the painful youth I’ve had…”

Painful youth, indeed.

Rest in peace, Michael.

Rest in peace, Trayvon.

May 3 2008

Proud to be White?

Lisa McLelland was a 15-year-old at Freedom High School in Oakley, California who yearned to belong to one of those campus clubs where students gather to celebrate cultural pride and a sense of shared history, like the Black Student Union, the Asian Club or Latinos Unidos. Lisa, whose ethnic background includes Dutch, German, Irish, Italian, Latino and NativeAmerican, didn’t quite fit in any of the existing clubs, so she decided to start a “Caucasian Club” where she could explore what it means to be white.

Before her idea could get off the ground it exploded into a firestorm of controversy that led to community outrage, worldwide media coverage, and McClelland’s eventual exile to a less hostile campus.  Though Lisa had insisted her club would be a forum where students could explore racial dynamics and discuss how “whiteness” affects those who aren’t white (among the activities planned for the group were film discussions, guest speakers, and trips to museums), her critics were not convinced. In the weeks preceding McLelland’s flight from Freedom High, she endured daily harassment and threats of violence from those who didn’t believe her mission was to create what she called a “positive organization dedicated to honoring

Local NAACP spokesperson Darnell Turner spoke strongly against the eager sophomore, calling her proposed Caucasian Club racist in name, if not intent:

“When we use the word ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian’ or whatever, it has always been associated with racial bigotry. Using that term opens up old wounds, and we don’t need to go there.”

It seems the adults involved either agreed with Turner’s assessment, or were afraid to openly disagree—Lisa could not find a single Freedom staff person willing to serve as an advisor to her proposed club, nor was she offered support from any community organizations committed to racial unity.

One adult who did extend a helping hand to Lisa was a representative of the Ku Kux Klan who contacted the teenager to applaud her efforts, and welcomed her to join their group. Lisa promptly informed them, “I’m part Latino, half of my friends are gay, and I don’t believe in your cause.”

Lisa and others of her generation, who missed the civil rights movement and must rely on parents and teachers to inform them of America’s racist history, are left asking the questions, “Why is the word ‘white’ so strongly associated with bigotry?” and “What can we do to change that association?”

In 1933 Carter G. Woodson wrote in his book Miseducation of the Negro:

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

Those words aptly describe the miseducation white Americans receive regarding their “proper place” in the fight for a racially just society. The heroes in that fight are invariably depicted as non-white men and women like Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Ghandi, Cesar Chavez and others who stand (and will stand for generations to come) as admirable, emulatable models of human rights warriors.

Mainstream American hero worship has included pitifully few white anti-racists (try to list the names of five white individuals widely known to have actively fought against racism), leaving young whites who wish to be a part of the solution with few role models who look like them. Since textbook authors have decided that white pride rests solely on the shoulders of Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the like, without a club, conference or other extra-curricular venue, where will Lisa
and her generation go to learn of white men and women who risked their lives and livelihood to fight against racial oppression and for human rights?

By omitting the antiracist efforts of individuals like Thomas Paine, John and Jean Rankin, Carl Schurz, Jessie Ames, Viola Liuzzo and thousands of other courageous white Americans, our history books indirectly teach that white people do not (should not?) fight for the rights of non-whites.

For far too long white supremacists have had exclusive use of the words “proud to be white.” Know Good White People hopes Lisa and her white peers will gather to study, reflect and discover a new paradigm for choosing their heroes–so they can take their rightful place in the battle to undermine white privilege and eradicate racism, and in doing so might discover a new, unifying and healing definition of the term “white pride.”