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Pop Psychology Honors Michael: "Black Or White"


In this third installment, Pop Psychology takes a look at Michael's 1991 hit, "Black or White."  Part 1 featured "Man in the Mirror," and Part 2 highlighted "Don't Stop 'till You Get Enough."

"Black or White," is the debut single off the Dangerous album. Not surprisingly, it topped the singles charts for 20 countries.  Although it's still a very catchy song, it has not aged nearly as well as many of Jackson's other hits.  Everything about it is just so early 90s, with Bill Bottrell's rhyming being perhaps the worst offender.  I don't really know Bill Bottrell; I just know that his verse on "Black or White" makes Will Smith look like Easy E.  What's more ridiculous is that Epic Records hailed "Black or White" as "a  rock 'n' roll dance song about racial harmony."

Um, what?  Could you imagine Neyo releasing a "rock 'n' roll dance song about racial harmony" today and not being made fun of mercilessly?  Hell no.  The 90s.  It was a simpler time.

So back when you could have a number one song about racial harmony, Michael Jackson released a truly great song about racial harmony.  Even this guy can't screw it up.  Michael, who probably knew a thing or two about the complex issues of race in America, uses the song to hammer home the point that, to him, "it don't matter if you're black or white." Relistening to the track reminded me how the lyrics are surprisingly upfront for a pop single, as Jackson at one point proclaims, "I ain't scared of no sheets."  Most international dance hits don't come with overt references to the KKK. 

In fact, the video for "Black or White," was deemed so "racy" (pun definitely intended), that the last four minutes were removed by MTV and other television networks, as it depicted Jackson smashing windows with graffitti reading "Hitler Lives,"  "KKK Rules" and "No More Wetbacks." Today, that kind of material would be fit for a How I Met Your Mother episode.  Again, the 90s.  A simpler time.

Studying racist behavior has always been pretty hard for psychologists.  After all, few of us are willing to openly admit to a stranger that they are racist.  People are too smart and guarded for that.  This problem of actually measuring someone's racist attitudes honestly particularly plagued Anthony Greenwald, now at the University of Washington.  In one attempt to measure racist attitudes, Greenwald created what is called the Implicit Association Test (IAT).  In essence, the IAT asks people to rapidly categorize various stimuli.  In terms of studying racism, Greenwald hypothesized that it would take racist people an unusually longer time to categorize black faces with "good" words (like "joy" or "love") than with "bad" words (like "agony" or "terrible"). 

To get a sense of what I am talking about, you can take a demo of the IAT here.  I highly recommend doing so.  Having a computer suggest that you are racist is an interesting experience. 

Though there are plenty of controversies surrounding the test, Greenwald, along with Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, have presented some intriguing findings.  In one study, researchers had white participants complete the IAT.  They were then asked to interact for a few minutes with a black person, which was videotaped.  These videotapes were then scored for indicators of dicomfort, such as delayed speech, physical distance and tensed body language.  A participant's score on the IAT did a better job of predicting their discomfort than  self-reported attitudes on race.  In other words, the IAT did a significantly better job at predicting discomfort than simply asking people to tell you how racist they were.  

It's still up for debate as to exactly how legitimate such findings may be, but the IAT remains a valuable means of studying the implicit, subtle racism that Michal Jackson tried to defeat with a pop song 18 years ago.  The IAT shows us is that racist attitudes are buried deep inside us, revealing themselves only when we are forced to make knee-jerk reactions to stimuli.  It's hard to believe a dance hit, no matter how catchy, could make much of a dent.


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