How Does A White Mom Explain Michael Jackson to Her Black Child?

Posted: October 16, 2018

What truly makes America great is not a red baseball hat made in China, but A: our cultural contributions to the world and, B: our diverse population, which has made world-changing contributions to arts and culture.

Exhibit A & B: Grace came home from preschool obsessed with Mika, a new student from Europe. Grace thirsted HARD for Mika’s curly blond hair, blue eyes and French accent. Watching Grace moon over Mika was like watching ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for the Paw Patrol crowd.  His cocky Gallic confidence enchanted the girls and threatened the boys. Granted, the other boys were 5 and Mika was 6 and a whole half, as Grace breathlessly described him; but Mika ruled the class because they had never heard of his idols and America’s greatest cultural exports, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.

In disgust, Mika grabbed an warped ukelele, ordered the kids to sit “crees-cross, appell-sauce” and sang ‘Beat It’. Despite the international goulash of Mika’s accent, white boy dance moves and a ten-dollar ukelele, Michael Jackson’s singular genius somehow leaked through. Grace came home wanting to know EVERYTHING about ‘Jackson Michael’.

So, without separating the music of MJ from the videos of MJ, since he was the first musical artist to solidly merge the visual to the aural, I show her my personal fave, “Billie Jean”.

ME: Isn’t it thrilling when his white shirt blows open?

GRACE: Who’s the white lady with the fancy hair?

ME: Ummmm, that’s Michael Jackson.

GRACE: Mom. His name is Jackson Michael and he’s a boy!

I show her “Beat It.” She yells, frustrated.

GRACE: Who’s the Brown boy with long wet lady hair?

ME: That is Jackson Michael. I mean Michael Jackson.

Desperate to prove myself bond with my kid, I show her old Jackson Five videos- ‘ABC’ and ‘Dancing Machine’.

GRACE: They are boring and fuzzy.

How do you make a modern 5 year old understand that these fuzzy, boring videos from tiny square TVs brought the coolest singing and dancing brothers into the homes of unsuspecting people everywhere, managing to rock the world and change millions of lives. Her disinterest disturbs me.

ME: BORING?? Their music and dance and fashion CHANGED the world!!!

As Grace doubles down on not caring, I realize I sound exactly like my dad decades ago, when he harangued my sisters and me into watching “On The Waterfront” when we wanted to watch “The Partridge Family”. It drove our creatively frustrated father nuts that we preferred Abba to Dave Brubeck. He derided us as cultural simpletons when all we were was 5 and 7 and 9 year old girls who loved Davy Jones and Wonderama.

Dismayed that ‘Soul Train’ hold zero interest for Grace, because my sisters and I were GLUED to that show every Saturday morning, I refrain from shaming my child’s prurient tastes, bury my bummed-outness over her refusal to bond over impressive Afros and outrageous fashion, and show her ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. Michael’s passionate crotch grabs make me wince like a nun as Grace eagerly imitates him.

Politely explaining that grabbing one’s privacy while air-humping like an unspayed dog isn’t exactly okay, I show her ‘Smooth Criminal’.

GRACE: How can all those white women and brown men be Michael Jackson?

ME: Well, Michael Jackson was born Black like you, but as he grew up he had this disease vitiligo, which made his beautiful brown skin turn white in places, so he put medicine on it-

GRACE: Can I get some of that disease?

This small bright face with glistening dark eyes shines up at me and I fall into a shame spiral where words are the thing I don’t know how to make come out of my mouth.

ME: You can’t catch vitiligo. You’re born with it. I’m pretty… sure.

GRACE: Did what made him white make him die too?

ME: Drugs made him die.

GRACE: I thought drugs make us better.

ME: Yes but using drugs badly can kill-HEY—how about another video?

Desperately,, I click on ‘Black & White’.  By this time, Michael was more white than black and his facial features were what Walt Disney might have drawn in order to charm the hearts and minds of children before a painful injection.  As Grace gapes at the impressive special effects, my heart sinks at Bambi + Peter Pan’s = Michael Jackson’s face.

When Michael entered his prolific plastic surgery phase, his compulsion was laughed off as eccentric or just plain weird on late night TV. But now, in 2018, when race is essentially a life and death issue, explaining Michael Jackson to a small Black child is a bit harrowing because threaded through all his astonishing accomplishments are the unnecessary surgeries, the drug abuse, the abuse he suffered and the sexual assault allegations against him.

Joseph Jackson physically and emotionally abused his children while shaping (if not forcing) them into the musical sensation he himself failed to become. As Michael grew and his talent became more evident, Joe groomed Michael as the Jackson Five front man, while physically attacking him and verbally attacking his features. Based on the frequent beatings, compounded by the enormous level of fame Michael garnered, it’s no surprise that as Michael grew up, he also grew increasingly eccentric if not downright erratic and mentally ill. Being abused for having Black features from the man who made him goes a long way in explaining the compulsion to remove any familial resemblance.

Now with a tiny being to escort through a large and increasingly harrowing world, I’m saddened by what led him to drastically alter the window and window dressing of his soul. But watching his videos, there is comfort that his voice, gifts and inner genius remained intact.

By the end of his life he looked like a broken porcelain doll, where the cracks are as insistent as the details that still resemble humans. His face became something easy to dismiss with bafflement and scorn, but his eyes never changed from deep, bottomless wells of unabated loss and unhealed wounds.

While people still debate over whether Michael whitened himself and de-Africanized his features because he didn’t want to be Black, Michael himself adamantly proclaimed his love of being Black, Black culture and Black people, and his work bears that out; his entire career was a celebration and expansion of Black influence across dance, music, and film.

Showing Grace ‘You Rock My World’, I can’t help but gasp at what was left of Michael Jackson. No longer white, black or even human-seeming; Michael transcended humanity. While I quietly grieved over how much pain might compel him to erase who he was, Grace remained a child-sized box of questions.

GRACE: What disease made his nose like that?

ME: Ummmmm… well, there was an accident where his hair caught fire and he got badly burned and… Michael needed surgery.

I’m lying, but I’m not explaining elective plastic surgery to a five year old, even though I spend most mirror-time contemplating what a scalpel might do to my aging mug.

I play her a video of young adorable Michael singing his guts out.

ME: Look! He was just seven years old. And he’s way better than Mika.

Annoyed, Grace jumps off my lap.

ME: I’m sorry! Mika is AWESOME.

GRACE: I don’t like Michael Jackson when he looks like me.

My heart sinks. As a German-Jew-Irish-Catholic marinated in a lifetime broth of guilt and shame, I worry Grace might love her skin color if she had been placed in a Black family.  Born in the 60s, I grew up with zero insight into what it might feel like to NOT have my race reflected back at me endlessly on billboards, TV, cartoons, movies, commercials, on the covers of board games, in school, children’s books and in comic strips. Yet, I grew up in the 70s which also the era where The Jackson 5, ‘Sanford & Son’, ‘The Jeffersons’, ‘What’s Happening’, ‘Good Times’, Richard Pryor, Aretha, and so many other wildly talented people of color were finally represented and their cultural contributions were seismic. Even now, asdiversity is painstakingly represented in everything from breakfast cereal to bank ads, my Black daughter who knows nothing of racism and attends a truly diverse public school, still can sense that white skin is better than hers.

GRACE: I want us to match.

ME: I know but, only two parts of us don’t match, our skin and hair. The rest of us matches. On the inside. Where it counts.


I wait, which is hard because patience is not my jam. Finishing other people’s thoughts and sentences IS my jam, but no one else’s. Yet, I pause.

GRACE: I just… want this.

Touching my hand, I imagine if she could pull my old white skin off and wear it, I would let her, if it made her happy, but it would break my heart because then she would no longer be her. And I’d have no skin, which wouldn’t be awesome. Since there’s no cure for what ails the both of us, we watch ‘Thriller’.

Grace is enraptured. We gasp at the zombies, we dance, we sing, and we thrill at Michael Jackson’s unfettered talent. And we forget about the color skin we live in. For a while.


Interesting articles I fervidly researched in order to help me explain Michael Jackson to Grace, (click on the title to read).

Black and White- how Dangerous kicked off Michael Jackson’s race paradox | Music | The Guardian

Joe Jackson was one of the most monstrous fathers in pop | Music | The Guardian

The whitewashing of Michael Jackson, explained – Vox

Michael’s transformation even has it’s own Wikipedia page


  • Tempany November 2, 2018 at 6:01 am

    Incredible. Amazing article.

    • Kathleen Dennehy November 2, 2018 at 6:18 pm

      Thank you Tempany! Praise coming from a talented woman like you is high praise indeed.


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