This post was written by Susan Serrano, our research director here at EJS from 2001-2005. Susan is now the Director of Educational Development, Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law, at the University of Hawai’i William S. Richardson School of Law.
Over the last few days, I’ve searched my heart and mind to figure out why I’m so emotional about Michael Jackson’s death. I mean, it’s not like I knew him . . . or even followed his career in many years.
Friends in my age group say that it’s because his music helped to define our childhood. Others say it’s because his death signifies the end of a chapter of our lives. Yet others say that it’s because his songs conjure deep memories of the past.
All of those things are true. So are the memories of the Michael Jackson concert I went to in 1997 with my closest friends, the zillion times I played “Thriller” on my record player, and the way I almost wore out our Betamax VCR playing his videos. And, of course, I’m emotional because I feel sorry for his tortured life and much-too-early death. But for me, there’s something more.
I’m half Japanese American and half Puerto Rican – and quite Afro-Puerto Rican, at that. I grew up in a small, very-predominantly white town – Petaluma, California – with my single mom. Playing with my friends was fun. We all had white baby dolls. We all had blond Barbies. We acted out Grease. We loved Shaun Cassidy. We read Tiger Beat and kissed all the handsome, young, white movie stars that graced the pages. We got “Physical” to Olivia Newton John.
But I never saw anyone in my image. No teachers. No parents. No friends. No role models. At that time, there may have been many white ethnic groups in Petaluma, but a diverse place it was not.
Some kids called me “nigger.” Others called me “Jap” (making sure to make squinty-eyes with their fingers while they were saying it). Others told racial jokes in my presence as if it didn’t matter that I was there.
One girl said that if she ever brought a non-white boy home, her dad said he would get out the shotgun. Even those important adults (teachers, parents and others) who were well-meaning, inadvertently said things that made me feel even more different – and excluded.
I was full of self-hate. I straightened my hair. I wore the whitest powder on my face I could manage. I lied about my race. I envied my white friends. I wished on stars that I could be white – somehow. I even asked my mom why she couldn’t have married a white guy so I could have come out different. Some days, I felt as though I lived in my own private hell.
Then came the force that was Michael Jackson. He was Black. He was handsome. He was a superstar. We all learned how to moonwalk. We watched his videos over and over . . . and over. We bought his records, his posters. White girls screamed for him. White girls.
For the first time in my short and undeveloped life, I breathed a sigh of relief. If white girls could have crushes on an African American man, that must mean that being non-white was OK. Maybe I was OK. Maybe the standard of beauty wasn’t blond hair and blue eyes – maybe I could look more like the African American girl in the “Thriller” video – and that was OK.
For the first time, I really realized that there were people out there who looked more like me, and they were well-loved, popular, and real.
I know, almost all kids and teens go through a “stage.” They feel like they don’t belong. They get teased. But this is not just about zits or baby fat. This is about race. And race in America comes with a long history of exclusion, occupation, segregation, discrimination.
So, the fact that Michael Jackson broke down barriers, integrated music television, crossed-over, transcended, spoke to the masses, was – and is – a big deal. For the U.S. and the world.
And while Michael was throwing open the doors of opportunity in the entertainment business, he was giving me the confidence as a young woman of color to stand tall and go on. And for that, I am forever grateful.
Of course, Michael Jackson did not single-handedly solve my – or anyone else’s – racial issues. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight, and sometimes not in a lifetime. The wounds of American racial history run deep. And, ironically, Michael suffered from his own intense version of self-hate.
But that doesn’t matter to me now. All I remember is that fast-footed, sparkling-gloved, sweet-voiced Black man who helped launch me into adolescence just a little less ashamed of who I was.
And that is why I mourn his passing.
Thank you, Michael, for what you gave me . . . and the world. Rest in peace.
– Susan K. Serrano