While Jackson accepted the brunt of the blame, saying in a televised apology that the stunt went further onstage than it had in previous rehearsals, at the end of the day it was still a stunt that took two to tango, so to speak. She didn’t expose her own breast. She had help. Yet somehow the one who did the exposing — who happens to be white and male — emerged unscathed by the incident, while the black woman endured a seemingly permanent fall from grace.
This fact remains a hard pill for many of us to swallow years later, because while it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of police brutality or other forms of racism that have truly painful consequences, it is yet another reminder that no matter how rich or famous you become, if you’re black, and particularly if you’re a woman, you may be held to different standards than someone who is not.
But the other angle of this story that many of us still find offensive is that it is hard to escape the notion that Timberlake essentially used Jackson, and in essence the black community. He was a white kid trying to escape the shadow and stigma of being in a corny boy band, and the most famous black female entertainer in the world gave him her cool pass. By sharing the stage with him that night and hanging out with him before then, Jackson essentially signaled to her fans, and the black community, “He’s all right.”
And then when she ended up in trouble, he did what any real man would.
Now he’s trying to make a musical comeback. Yet again, he is relying on another black entertainer to loan him his cool pass.
Jay-Z, who’s joining Timberlake for a national tour this summer, just better hope he doesn’t end up in any trouble, because Timberlake has made it clear he won’t stick around. It is precisely this perception that may just prove problematic for Timberlake’s new album, because there are plenty of black Americans who don’t plan to stick around for that either, because of his behavior after so-called “Nipplegate 2004.”
If Timberlake gets really desperate, he can always call Janet for a duet and hope that she’s forgiven him more quickly than her fans have.
Keli Goff is The Root’s political correspondent.