Michael Jackson and his music have always been special to me so I thought it would be appropriate to talk about a song of his in this article. “Black or White” is from Jackson’s eighth album, Dangerous, and by the time of its release in November 1991, Jackson had been making music for most of his life but this seemed to be the first time where one of his songs directly addressed racism. The skin of Jackson’s body had also changed from being black to white as a result of his diagnosis with vitiligo, defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a disease that causes the loss of skin color in blotches” (“Vitiligo – Symptoms and Causes”). It is an interesting coincidence that Jackson first talks about racism after his skin had become white. Why is this? Before “Black or White”, Jackson had started to become harassed by the media, giving him the name of “Wacko Jacko”. This issue had occurred while his skin started to change so perhaps “Black or White” was his way of coping with his new skin color – by demanding equality for all people. Jackson’s main audience in the song would probably be those who believe that they are superior to those of a different race or to put it simply, racist people. This claim is evidenced well in the last part of the music video but for now, I will analyze the first part.
The video starts out with Macaulay Culkin jamming to a rock song while his mother and father relax downstairs. The father begins to get visibly annoyed by his son’s loud music and goes upstairs, demanding that he turn it off. Culkin whines, leading the father to yell at him and slam the door, shattering a frame of Michael Jackson in the process. In retaliation, Culkin places a massive speaker into the living room and blares his music, literally breaking the house’s windows and blasting his father into Africa. Whenever I watched this music video, I honestly thought this was the part which didn’t really make much sense but now after reviewing it, the message has become clearer. Jackson establishes pathos through this portion of the video to convey the message that music itself can send a message – Culkin uses his music to protest against his father who has a different viewpoint on his son’s music. Maybe Culkin is trying to get his father’s attention so he can better understand why his son likes this particular genre of music. Next, we see Jackson dancing with different groups of people which include African hunters, Native American tribes, an Indian woman and a group of Russian people. The latter scene gets transformed into a snow globe that two babies begin to play with, one black and one white. What can these scenes tell us? Pathos and ethos are used by promoting the idea of racial harmony through the use of different cultures while the two babies also contribute through logos by having them sit on top of the globe. Why on the globe and not on the ground? Because if the babies are sitting on top of the globe, it gives the implication that the goal of equality has succeeded.
After the babies, logos and ethos become extremely important. The audience sees Jackson walking through fire and in a moment, we see what turns out to be a burning cross – a symbol associated with the Ku Klux Klan but Jackson still walks through the fire. The lyric that follows seconds later, “I ain’t scared of no sheets” (Michael Jackson – Black or White (Official Video)”) further supports the idea that Jackson is calling out not only the Klan but the idea of racism in general, two obstacles that will not stand in his way of living life. Jackson is then seen with a group of children that includes Culkin who lip syncs a powerful message at the end of the rap: “I’m not going to spend my life being a color” (“Michael Jackson – Black or White (Official Video)”). This made me think of a powerful line spoken by Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?: “But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Trailer”). What do these two lines have in common? They both provide as examples to ethos by giving a simple yet compelling statement – a choice to define not by skin color. Jackson concludes the song by standing near the torch of the Statue of Liberty with practically the rest of the world in the background, followed by an array of people (including a cameo by Tyra Banks) who morph into those of different ethnicities and genders. Pathos is featured in this segment through the morphing of different people by giving the message that all people are the same despite being from other parts of the world – in the video, you don’t see one that suddenly morphs into an alien.
As the shot cuts out from the last person’s face to reveal a film set, we see a black panther that wanders out of the studio and is revealed to be Jackson who starts the last act of the music video. This third act, unfortunately, ruined “Black or White” in the critical spectrum: “With few exceptions, critics dismissed Black or White…as self-indulgent and unintelligible” (Vogel). Jackson performs complex dance moves, some of them suggestively and then goes on to break car windows and destroy a hotel sign before turning back into a panther. The footage of the panther walking away then pans out to be shown on a television set watched by Bart Simpson before his father, Homer, ultimately turns it off. What is the purpose of this last part and why do critics believe it to be unintelligible as Vogel states? At first glance, one would think that it doesn’t make sense – why would the music video promote so much harmony up to this point only for it to end in violence? A possible explanation could be that the video uses two different points of view – one in which people make a stand for peace and people who forcefully demand for society to change. Is it a coincidence that Jackson, out of any member of the animal kingdom, chooses one that is a symbol of black power to personify? This would make even more sense if the edited version of the video is considered where the following racially charged messages are written on the windows that Jackson destroys: an image of a swastika, “Hitler Lives”, N—– Go Home, No More Wet—–” and “KKK Rules”. Jackson heavily uses all three elements in this final act: for ethos, Jackson is emotional and angry nearly the entire time; logos is evidenced by Jackson’s destruction of the windows that promote a racist ideology and pathos can be interpreted by the two forces of nature seen in the video: air and water. In the beginning of the alley scene and before Jackson starts dancing, a powerful force of wind blasts at him: wind, if powerful enough, can be extremely destructive yet Jackson still stands tall. While Jackson is dancing, splashing water is a recurring aspect – water is a symbol of life so perhaps the splashing of water could denote a life disrupted by the racism that exists in the world.
“Black or White’s” music video is more questionable than Jackson’s other videos because of its violent and sexual content but it gives a balanced view of race relations that exist even today – while we wish for equality throughout the world, racism still exists. The question that must be asked is whether or not society is going to do something about it – will this generation be the force of nature that breaks the window of racism or will the latter still stand tall 50 years from now?
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Trailer.” YouTube, 21 July 2009, (2:11-2:18),
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4a56FnhtuGI. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.
“Michael Jackson – “Black or White” (Official Video).” YouTube, 14 Nov. 2016, (4:32-4:33),
(4:54-4:56), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTFE8cirkdQ. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.
“Vitiligo – Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 8 Mar. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-
conditions/vitiligo/symptoms-causes/syc-20355912. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.
Vogel, Joseph. ““’I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets’: Re-Screening Black Masculinity in Michael
Jackson’s Black or White”.” Journal of Popular Music Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 1 Mar.
2015, p. 91, EBSCO Academic Search Complete. web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/
Accessed 20 Oct. 2019.