Sunday, July 18, 2010

Was Michael Jackson Still Black?

Strange question, right? But it made perfect sense to the thirteen-year-old who asked it: if race is determined by phenotype (especially, in his mind, skin color), was Michael Jackson, whose skin was as light as many white people’s, still black? My first reaction was to brush the question aside with a quick response, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a very good question it was.

We know through recent studies of the human genome that the genetic variation among people of any given race is greater than that of people between races -- in other words, I may be more genetically different from a white person than I am from an African American or Asian person. Some may say that this is proof positive that race doesn’t matter – in fact, biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as race. No need for further talk, and please, shut down the blog! Still, my answer to the question was, of course, yes -- regardless of skin tone, Michael Jackson was still black. Why? Because while it’s true that race isn’t biologically significant, it certainly has been and still is socially significant. What’s more, the social significance of race in America was created and maintained by whites with one clear purpose – to maintain the place of power in society.

So Michael Jackson was still black. Race still matters. And we still need to talk.


  1. Since there is an African-American president duely elected by a mostly non-African-American electorate, isn't it safe to say that the "need to talk" is less pressing than before?

  2. Great question! Many have suggested that the election of President Obama signifies that we are now a "post-racial" society. Other indicators, however, such as the academic achievement gap, show that race (along with economic class) is still an important factor in our country.

  3. Mother, I have to admit that I do like reading your blogs, so I'm going to be a follower of you. This is Critter by the way.