If Michael Jackson told Paris that she is black and counseled her to take pride in her roots, then we must take him at his word.
Paris Jackson, the 18-year-old daughter of deceased pop legend Michael Jackson, identifies as black. It’s what she told the press. It’s what her father told her all her life. Viewed from this angle, her response to the media is a reflex.
Not everyone is convinced. Critics are comparing Jackson’s claim to that of former NAACP employee and author Rachel Dolezal, who made headlines last year after media sources uncovered that she was a white woman sporting blackface to pass herself off as a black.
I think this is an unfair comparison. In fact, I believe the two circumstances are completely different. Let me explain.
It is true that the optics of this situation tell a different story. Phenotypically, Paris looks white. That is, she has the physical features of someone whom we would consider white: white skin, blue eyes, blonde hair, on and on. She is also the daughter of white mother Debbie Rowe, Michael Jackson’s ex-wife.
There is speculation that another man — a white man — fathered Paris. I would imagine that many of you are familiar with that did-he-or-did-he-not-find-a-donor controversy. Jackson, who fathered three kids, was secretive about his private life. The mother of Prince or Blanket Jackson II is still a mystery.
However, throughout his life, he publicly maintained that all three kids, including Paris, are the progeny of his sperm. A close friend of the singer did claim to the press that Jackson privately admitted that British actor Mark Jester is the biological father of Paris. But, to date, no one has controverted Paris Jackson’s paternity with any medical evidence of an outside donor. Taking Jackson at his word, the most we can infer is that Paris is biracial.
It is important to keep this in mind to understand the heft of Jackson’s statements to Rolling Stone magazine; she trusted her father, especially when he urged her to become familiar with her black roots.
“He’d point his finger at me and he’d be like, ‘You’re black,” she remembered. “‘Be proud of your roots.'”
Why would Jackson lie to her about this, she asked.
This is the key difference between Dolezal’s “blackness” and Paris Jackson’s.
Dolezal was raised by her white biological parents. She grew up fully aware that she is white. Later, she made the decision to physically present herself as black. The charade was successful, as least for a period. It included altering her skin and hair — she sported locks for a time. It included working for a historically black civil rights organization, an interesting move indeed, given the fact that the NAACP was partly founded by white people and staffed white employees.
Dolezal conformed to what scholars of race call the essentialist definition of race, even while making an argument that her ties to black identity are rooted in culture.
Jackson, by contrast, hasn’t made any aesthetic modifications to her appearance. Her eyes, hair, and skin pigment have not been doctored. The crux of her claim is her love and trust for her father, who was black and encouraged her to embrace blackness.
Honestly, if Paris Jackson is guilty of anything, it is dating a white man who, at one point, thought it was acceptable to tattoo a likeness of the Confederate flag on his forearm while dating a woman who identifies as black.
Questions about the criteria for racial identification are always complicated. Since the history of passing in America usually involves a black person presenting himself or herself as white in order to survive a racially hostile environment or tap into the benefits of whiteness, white people opting to pass as black comes as a shock to black Americans.
Their thinking is that the social scales are tipped in favor of white culture. Thus, why would anyone willingly choose to be black?
It is also fair to say that if Jackson were pulled over by police, it’s highly unlikely that she would believe herself to be in any mortal or legal danger, and not just because she’s the offspring of one of the most famous celebrities in the world.
Race is messy and replete with contradictions. However, if Michael Jackson told his daughter she is black and counseled her to take pride in her roots, and if he told us that his kids are the natural seeds of his loins, then we must take him at his word, at least until firm evidence of outside parentage comes to light.
If or when it does, it still would be bad taste to draw parallels between Paris Jackson and Rachel Dolezal.
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