I was already in a somewhat somber mood on the morning of June 25th after hearing on the radio that Farrah Fawcett had lost her battle with cancer. Of course, I didn’t know her, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be saddened, especially after having seen the documentary she produced—“Farrah’s Story”— which provided a window into what had been her world for the past couple of years as she battled her disease.
I came away hoping she’d win the fight and admiring her more for the courage she showed in revealing her unadorned self on screen. But I also came away feeling a little more determined to fight for the right to healthcare. Farrah Fawcett’s documentary made it clear that money and privilege give you entre into a world of healthcare that few ever see. The extensive treatments possibly added a couple of years to her life.
Then at about 2:30 p.m. on the same day, I was making a presentation to a group of business managers about the benefits of using a new business software application. Pretty much everyone in the room, myself included, seemed to want to be elsewhere. I was getting the normal amount of grumbling and resistance you get when you’re trying to teach old dogs new tricks when suddenly one of the managers in a jovial, upbeat tone interjected, “Hey, everybody, Michael Jackson suffered cardiac arrest and is being taken to the hospital.” Then she added, “Just thought I’d throw that out to bring some levity to the room.” For a fraction of a second, there was silence — then a bit of laughter. I didn’t get the joke. I asked if she were serious. She said, “Yes.” Moments later, the meeting concluded and I was in my car tuning the radio to the news station.
The LA Progressive is a political and social justice site. We generally refrain from posting articles about the entertainment industry. In fact, our original intention was to handle the story of Michael Jackson’s and Farrah Fawcett’s passings like any other entertainment piece – leave them for mainstream media.
Obviously, we reconsidered. These people were not just entertainers, they were multifaceted, complex human beings just like anyone else. I was particularly shaken by the insensitivity of my colleague but on reflection it occurred to me that Michael Jackson’s life had not had the same impact on her as it had had on me. So I thought I’d share.
Michael Jackson had a significant impact on the battle against cultural apartheid, particularly in the entertainment industry. He may have been an insignificant entertainer to the woman making the insensitive remark at my meeting, but to most in the black community, he symbolized so much more.
We live in a country that is, for the most part, just as culturally, ethnically, and racially segregated as it was when American apartheid was government sanctioned. If this was a harmless phenomenon, I wouldn’t be writing about it. But there’s been enough research and conclusive evidence to suggest that segregation is harmful to American society. By having the walls that separate us chipped away, ever so slightly, we all benefit.
As much as I would like this to not be true, the entertainment industry often has as much or more of an impact on American’s behavior as our schools. For this reason, changes in that industry have far-reaching effects just as maintaining the status quo in that industry has had far-reaching effects.
I was born the year before Michael Jackson was born. In other words, Michael Jackson’s image, music, reputation—everything about him—has been a part of my world since I was 12 or 13 years old.
Now comes the part that I find difficult to explain to people who are not black although Asian Americans often understand this. During the first 12 years of my life, I saw tens of thousands of images—perhaps hundreds of thousands—on television, in magazines, in books, in the movies representing political figures, judges, teachers, doctors, police officers—even my paper dolls and Barbie dolls—the list can go on for several pages. I’m sure you’re getting the picture. I rarely saw a person who looked like me anywhere other than in my neighborhood. As a child, I couldn’t understand the damaging effect that could have.
As a middle-aged woman, I can see the negative impact that has on all aspects of society. Even today, there are areas of society where it is quite “normal” to not see faces of color reflected. Up until January 20, 2009, it was quite normal to not see a face of color in the White House. The imagery that is promoted in commercials, in movies, books, magazines helps to normalize. We don’t find it odd that there continues to be huge racial and gender disparities in the upper echelons of management in almost all industries in America. We accept this and I contend that our acceptance is partly due to the steady diet of images bombarding us from the media that tell us what to believe about people we don’t know.
Michael Jackson was a trail blazer who opened doors to the benefit of many. He was the first to integrate MTV. It’s true I don’t watch MTV but I don’t ride the buses of Montgomery, Alabama either. Still, I believe I have benefitted by the work done to integrate both.