Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
October 27th, 2009

Viewing America Through Michael Jackson

A conversation on celebrity, race, pedophilia and the Church sex abuse scandal

by and Tom Gibbons CSP

MJ: I do feel like there’s a group who feel that way. There are black people who do use skin bleach, so for him doing it, in the black community, was not a negative. I would say that some people saw it as negative, but most people didn’t… they just saw it as part of the bizarre.

Oprah was saying that she thinks he had body dysmorphic disorder. I agree; I think that he hated a part of himself. It started with the nose surgery; and he would change himself as much as he wanted to in order to cover up how much he hated himself. That’s part of the whole “tragic figure” thing. So many people in the world love you, but you don’t love yourself. It’s kind of sad.

Because of the change — whether it was by choice or not — I do feel like it led to him being bigger than anyone else. He literally didn’t look like anyone else at that point. There was a certain time in his career where he didn’t look like a certain race. He definitely looked more like a white person than a black person, especially after the nose surgery, but I feel like that kind of helped the mystique.

TG: Oh, because he is so rich, so successful as a black person — that he is entitled to do whatever he wants.

MJ: Yeah, he became bigger than what he looked like. But where do you think the country is now in terms of race relations, compared to twenty years ago? Do you think that things have gotten better?

TG: I think the old dividing lines are still there, but I also think the ball has moved further down the field. In 1992, after the Rodney King verdict was read and as the LA riots raged, the first President George Bush got on TV and asked for public calm… with no mention of the Rodney King verdict as being the cause of the chaos. There was no sense of redress, or acknowledgement that this city is rioting because of a big injustice that had been committed. But after the Gates incident in 2009, the fact that the President of the United States landed on the side of the black citizen and not the white cop was a big deal. You could feel parts of white America saying, “Whoa, we’re not used to this!”

Of course, the Gates situation is not a Rodney King beating, but there was still a conflict between a black citizen and a white cop. To go from 1992 to 2009, from no acknowledgement of Rodney King’s situation even being a problem to seventeen years later, the leader of the free world landing on the side of a black citizen is a big leap.

But I also felt the conversation that resulted from this most recent event was more respectful. In 1992, I also had no idea that the black community felt the way they did about cops. I grew up in a white area and the cops were considered your friends. They didn’t have much to do but arrest the infrequent cow-tipper. [Both laugh.]

TG: As I continue to enter this life [of the priesthood], I don’t think so much about the pedophilia itself but I have more concerns about…

MJ: The structure?

TG: Yes. What is this structure that I’m going into which allowed this to happen? How do I be critical and supportive of it? When should I be supportive of it — and when shouldn’t I — while maintaining some semblance of integrity? If you’re critical of something, does that mean that you don’t support it? But if we do spend a lot of time criticizing, at what point are we throwing the whole baby out with the bath water? At what point are we considered to be disloyal?

MJ: You grew up in a very suburban area…

TG: Yes. And I am being slightly melodramatic with the cow tipping… but not too much. Going to a Jesuit college in Baltimore was my first experience of living in a multi-ethnic city, and even then we were in a protected enclave. But it was there that I had a couple black friends explain to me at one point, “Yeah, I’ll get pulled over a lot because I am black.”

Before then, that stuff wasn’t even on my radar. But now people are more open to either party being at fault. It could be that Gates was wrong and the cop was right… or maybe the cop was wrong and Gates was right. But in either scenario, I think America is more willing to have the conversation than it was in 1992.

MJ: For me growing up in the city where race relations was in the forefront, I was hyperaware that I was a black kid in NYC. They were always educating kids about how to approach a cop and how to act when a cop approached you so nothing bad happens to you. People were so scared that something would happen to the kids if they got approached by a cop and said the wrong thing. As far as we knew at that time, nothing would happen to a cop if something happened to you. There was nowhere to complain.

TG: Do you still feel like that is the case today?

MJ: I feel like things are different. A “Rodney King” beating wouldn’t get the same treatment in the media and hopefully things have changed in LA.

There are black people who just don’t trust the authorities. And I do think it is unfair since cops are being paid very little and putting themselves in the line of fire everyday. I do realize that; but to me it would be ignorant to say that anyone doesn’t bring their own prejudices to their job.

You know, since you are studying to be a priest, you are going to be in the minority really soon. You’re going to be in a smaller minority than black people.

TG: That’s true…

MJ: And you’re also going to be in a minority group that’s been associated with pedophilia allegations Michael Jackson faced. So, from that perspective, how do you feel about the [Jackson pedophilia trial] now?

TG: You know, it’s funny, I don’t hear “pedophilia” comments from Catholics, but from non-Catholics I hear it every once and a while. I’ve known a lot of priests in my life and it’s not as if I ever looked at them as either potential or actual pedophiles, which is why when I hear someone make a pedophile joke I’m a little taken aback. I know why they’re saying it but it’s also so different from my reality. It really was such a small percentage.

At the same time, I also feel that those abuses happened because the system failed. I get really angry about what happened in the Church, because I felt like the system covered up what those priests were doing in order to protect itself. While I always felt like it was always wrong for those priests to take advantage of their power (among other things obviously), the cover-up makes me angrier and it’s never really been acknowledged. So as I continue to enter this life, I don’t think so much about the pedophilia itself but I have more concerns about…

MJ: The structure?

TG: Yes. What is this structure that I’m going into which allowed this to happen? How do I be critical and supportive of it? When should I be supportive of it — and when shouldn’t I — while maintaining some semblance of integrity? If you’re critical of something, does that mean that you don’t support it? But if we do spend a lot of time criticizing, at what point are we throwing the whole baby out with the bath water? At what point are we considered to be disloyal?

Mirlande: As someone who was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school, I have the same instinct as I have with Michael Jackson, to not assume that every priest was a pedophile… How I feel about the priests is how you probably feel about the cops. You trust them as an authority. They chose to make a sacrifice of their own life and all kinds experiences to be a part of other people’s lives spiritually. For that reason they deserve my respect, at the least.

MJ: I think religion has helped a lot of people. It has saved a lot of lives. Obviously there have been wars and even genocides, but that doesn’t change the fact that faith has saved a lot of lives.

TG: That is also true. But going into the Church at this time, as well as entering the minority status that is the priesthood, has at times been a jolt for me. After all, as a white male in America, I’ve usually had the attitude — as arrogant as it sounds — that at the end of the day things are probably going to work out okay for me.

MJ: I agree… that is arrogant! [Both laugh.]

TG: Indeed it is! But I say that knowing it’s arrogant and still wanting to put it out there. Because if I don’t acknowledge my own biases, I’m never going to be able to see another point of view.

For example, as a white person I do carry the assumption that the cop is going to look out for me. That doesn’t mean that I should take that attitude and regard myself as a privileged person, but I need to acknowledge that privileges have been given to me so that I don’t forget when other people without those privileges might not have the same experience.

MJ: I think it comes down to the instinct thing. There are different instincts with a black American and a white American. The first instinct with a black American would be, “Well, why did the cop do that?” “What were they thinking at the time?”

TG: It’s funny, because when I have conversations with people who are not clergy, I realize that they don’t understand things that other clergy understand.

MJ: Honestly, that’s what it’s like to be a minority. You probably never had to deal with it until now.

TG: That’s true.

MJ: I mean, there were black people who, as soon as they heard that Michael was dead, understood that it was a big loss for the community, that it was a big loss for the country. That’s why people went to the Apollo…

TG: In a way that I didn’t initially understand as a white person…

MJ: Once you’re part of a certain group, your instincts are going to change according to that group. That’s why I personally want to acknowledge that I, and a lot of black people I know, do not believe that Michael Jackson was some evil pedophile.

However, I do acknowledge that there were some things that were unexplained, that were non-transparent, that didn’t make sense in the traditional sense of how a person should live their life, even a famous person. However, my first instinct is not to assume evil intent.

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The Author : Mirlande Jeanlouis
Mirlande Jeanlouis is a freelance writer and the project coordinator for "Busted Borders" BustedHalo.com's immigration video blog. She is a native New Yorker and a recent graduate of Barnard College.
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  • Mirlande Jeanlouis

    Hi Carolyn,

    I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m almost scared of the finality of it. = (

    And you have some lucky 7th graders. = )


  • Carolyn J. Martone

    Dear Mirlande,

    No school today, so I FINALLY had the chance to read this article, and I couldn’t agree with you more about MJ and I enjoyed the conversation about accused priests and MJ’s accusation and trial. Just like the popular culture wiull NEVER write about priests like Fr. Robero (my former pastor) who lives and works with lepers for weeks on end every year in Africa, or the countless other priests around the world who right now are sacrifricing their lives to serve others – so too did the media leave the best of Michael Jackson ignored until his early death. Why wasn’t it highlighted that he was the sole celebrity to give the MOST money to children’s charities, or the fact that he was found innocent of all the charges in his last trial and that his accusers had attempted to get money by scamming other celebrities like Jay Leno, who testified on MJ’s behalf. No-one mentions that respected spiriutal leaders like Deepak Chopra befriended MJ and maintained his life was indeed complicated, but also misunderstood.

    Anyway, I will remember MJ for the happiness he brought me when I was a kid in the 80’s whose very first album was ‘Thriller,’ I loved it so much that I didn’t care that I was made fun of in 1984 for showing up to Catholic girls school every day with one white glove on. Also, I continue to use the sentence “I’m starting WITH the man in the mirror” to teach prepositions to seventh graders :)
    Thank you, Mirlande, for writing such a thought-provoking, insightful piece.
    P.S. Did you see the movie yet?

  • Mike Carlon

    I really enjoyed this piece. After he died, I wrote the following for my local paper. I hope you enjoy it. link

  • Vito Martinez, OFM Cap

    A wonderful article! I think both Mirlande and Tom touch on some very personal points for me as a Latino religious male.

    In my Capuchin community, there are people unfamiliar with the experience of living as a minority in this country. Concepts of racism can be fuzzy because white friars don’t understand the experience of living with the “institutional and systematic” racism that has occured in this country for years. I give credit to Tom for entering into dialouge about the topic.

    Second, addressing the “heightened awareness” around children can be hard to deal with. My ultimate fear is that as a future priest, I may become cold and wary of youth – out of fear of what others might say.

    You guys are tackling touchy yet very necessary topics for us as future leaders of the faith. Keep it up.


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