whitebacked

“Calm down people, remember Michael Jackson said it don’t matter if you’re black or white!”

Now, I don’t know if people are using a lyric from an openly anti-white supremacy song to defend casting a white actor as Michael out of naivete, willful ignorance, or what, but “Black or White” is not a song about colorblindness, and in fact the full video included a rage-filled one-man protest against racism.

Let’s break it down.

In the beginning, he addresses bigotry against race mixing:

I took my baby on a Saturday bang

“Boy, is that girl with you?”

Yes, we’re one and the same

But he knows they aren’t treated that way:

They print my message in the Saturday Sun

I had to tell them I ain’t second to none

And I told about equality

And it’s true

Either you’re wrong or you’re right

But if you’re thinkin’ about my baby

It don’t matter if you’re black or white

See, he has to fight to be seen as an equal, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships, he doesn’t discriminate.

After the chorus, the song breaks down and we get to the meat of it (in the video, the imagery changes from Michael dancing with people from different cultures to Michael dancing in flames, with burning crosses in the background):

I am tired of this devil

I am tired of this stuff

I am tired of this business

So when the going gets rough

I ain’t scared of your brother

I ain’t scared of no sheets

I ain’t scare of nobody

Girl, when the goin’ gets mean

This is specifically calling out white supremacy, even referencing the KKK’s “sheets.”

Next, L.B.T.’s rap:

Protection for gangs, clubs and nations

Causing grief in human relations

It’s a turf war on a global scale

I’d rather hear both sides of the tale

See, it’s not about races

Just places

Faces

Where your blood comes from

Is where your space is

I’ve seen the bright get duller

I’m not going to spend my life being a color

These words are often interpreted as being about colorblindness, especially if you cherrypick the “not about races” lyric. But it’s more about otherization and the white default. And don’t overlook the “bright get duller” line – by 1991, the hopes of the Civil Rights movement and even Michael’s own crossing over into the mainstream as a black artist in the ‘80s seemed to be moving backward.

And then, the line most relevant to this discussion:

Don’t tell me you agree with me

When I saw you kicking dirt in my eye

See, Michael believed that all people were equal regardless of race, but he wasn’t naive enough to believe that that’s the way it actually is, because he experienced racism firsthand every day. And people who claimed to believe in racial equality were often the same people who shit on him as a Black man.

Michael despised white supremacy. But, again, that didn’t mean he couldn’t love white people:

I said if you’re thinkin’ of being my baby

It don’t matter if you’re black or white

I said if you’re thinkin’ of being my brother

It don’t matter if you’re black or white

Back to the video. For the most part, the part of the video that featured the song (aside from the breakdown with the flaming crosses) was bright, with a message of loving people of all races and cultures. And white people were not excluded, though they were, not accidentally, not more represented than other races. (Eta: also, it’s worth noting that the one white group he danced with were Russians – people who were/are well despised in the US by many white Americans.)

At the end of the main part of video, the camera pans to a black panther. The panther exits the studio into a dark alleyway, and it morphs into Michael (I don’t think I have to explain the symbolism here).

There is no music. Michael stands in the alley and begins to dance aggressively. He doesn’t sing, but he yells in rage. He goes to a car covered in racist vandalism, such as swastikas, “Go Home Wet Backs,” etc. He takes a crowbar and smashes the car in rage, then smashes a nearby window that says “KKK Rules.” For a full five minutes, he lets loose, in a protest against racism and white supremacy.

When this aired on Fox TV (after The Simpsons, iirc), people – specifically, white people – were outraged. The message was not lost on them. Michael has a lot of anger toward white oppression. Remember, at the time the Rodney King beating was in the news. The LA riots were near. Public Enemy was getting big, and here was Michael Jackson, one Black artist white people thought was “safe” and white-friendly, fucking shit up in a rage over white supremacist society on Prime Time TV. There was outrage. He used the time he had to premiere his video on prime time (and he was the only artist big enough to do that) to rage against them (I mean, not all of them –the actual song made that clear, but a lot of white people took it personally. What does that say that they were so defensive?).

tl:dr: Black or White is not a song you can use to justify casting a white actor to play Michael.

If you want to see the FULL video for yourself, here it is (unfortunately, the quality is horrible, like really horrible. You can find the song portion on youtube in HQ, but I haven’t found the protest part in better quality):