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Tressie McMillan Cottom Seeks to Write 'Powerful Stories That Become a Problem for Power'

McMillan Cottom's new book is a compelling rejoinder to those who want black women to make peace with a marginal status.
Tressie McMillan Cottom appears on Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Trevor Noah to discuss her book Lower Ed on March 8th, 2017, in New York City.

Tressie McMillan Cottom appears on Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Trevor Noah to discuss her book Lower Ed on March 8th, 2017, in New York City.

In her new book, Thick, Tressie McMillan Cottom recounts how MTV shut down its race and culture desk after the 2016 election. "Black," she writes, "was over." Mostly white, mostly male talking heads supplanted the "race whisperers" who'd been given airtime during the Obama administration. Some pundits explained President Donald Trump's victory as the result of a dangerous emphasis on identity politics. The Democrats, these critics argued, had focused too much on the supposedly fringe issues of minority groups, thereby driving white working-class voters into Trump's arms.

For the black women in the audience, like McMillan Cottom, the message that "their" issues were not central to the American project likely felt too familiar.

Thick is a powerful rejoinder to those who want black women to make peace with a marginal status. When we ignore what black women see about the world—as McMillan Cottom makes clear in essay after essay—we fail to see that "black women's issues" are the world's issues. In her final essay, she imagines the columns she, or another black woman, would produce if given the job of op-ed columnist at a major newspaper. Maybe they'd write about weaves. To McMillan Cottom, it seems that "you could not talk about a hair weave, really talk about it, if you were not also talking about supply chains, currencies, gender, and geopolitics."

But even in 2019, black women's voices are too often shunted to the side. In that same essay, McMillan Cottom counts the number of black women op-ed columnists David Brooks and Jonathan Chait follow on Twitter: six. "This may mean something or nothing at all," she acknowledges; who knows how these men think about who they follow on Twitter, or whether they think about it at all. Nevertheless, McMillan Cottom argues that, as long as a "Professional Smart Person" like Brooks or Chait can retain that position "without ever reading a black woman, ever interviewing a black woman, ever following a black woman, or ever thinking about a black woman's existence," our public sphere will remain painfully limited and less able to reckon with the world. "There is not a single global, national, or local condition to which black women's intellectual, spiritual, and emotional intelligences cannot be trusted to bring greater clarity," she insists.

Unlike Brooks and Chait, McMillan Cottom writes, she is "no one's idea of an intellectual, public or otherwise." She is "black-black," the descendent of enslaved people rather than of African immigrants. Her family is Southern, identified as the "good poors" whose generational wealth has been built up through pain and sacrifice. "Lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right, and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home," she writes. The family prized education, and McMillan Cottom became a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is also the author of a well-regarded book on for-profit colleges, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, and hundreds of articles on race, education, and economics for publications like The Atlantic and Dissent.

McMillan Cottom realized early that she would have to fight to been seen as an authority in public. "Excluded as I am from the ethos, logos, and pathos of academic, literary arts, humanities, and Professional Smart People, I have had to appeal to every form of authority simultaneously in every single thing that I have ever written," she says. That means mixing personal stories—some intimate and painful—with statistics, research, and quotations from eminent thinkers like Foucault. In doing so, she ensures she doesn't simply write "powerfully evocative stories"; she writes "powerful stories that become a problem for power."

Despite the autobiographical elements, McMillan Cottom doesn't see the work in Thick as personal essays. Instead, she says she's exploring what "my social location say[s] about our society"—what it means, for example, for her to have been marked ugly, incompetent, or not worth hearing by dominant white power structures. Though she doesn't say so explicitly, McMillan Cottom also refuses other expectations often placed on black writers: She isn't here to "humanize" black people for those readers structurally disinclined to see the humanity of people of color. "Will you tell us the stories that make / us uncomfortable, but not complicit?," a presumably white audience asks in Ada Limón's poem, "The Contract Says: We'd Like the Conversation to be Bilingual." McMillan Cottom refuses to tell stories about racism, sexism, and oppression that don't implicate at least some of her readers.

As McMillan Cottom was told by one of the first magazine editors she worked with, her work tends to be "thick." Even the title of this book has at least three layers. The first is a conversation with that editor, who told McMillan Cottom that "I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naïve to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It was too thick." "Thick" can also mean voluptuous, sexy, curvy in the right places. And the word further refers to a method of ethnography that uses detailed, layered descriptions to provide readers with "a proxy experience for living in another culture such that they engage with its richness, pick up the threads, and do what members do—which is generate new meanings from the same cultural repertoire," as the sociologists Roger Gomm and Martyn Hammersley write in the book's epigraph. McMillan Cottom implicitly asks readers to apply her analysis to their own lives.

Thick: And Other Essays.

Thick: And Other Essays.

Like nearly 90 percent of book reviewers, I am a white woman. I can tell you that interrogating your own life in the light of McMillan Cottom's writings can be painful and challenging. As I was reading "In the Name of Beauty," an essay exploring how beauty standards are shaped by racism, sexism, and capitalism, I found myself asking how those standards—and the power relations they emerge from and perpetuate—have functioned in my relationships. How had I unconsciously capitalized on white-centric standards of beauty—and, perhaps more importantly, on the presumptions of innocence and moral goodness that often accompany them? Asking these questions didn’t feel confining, but liberating: It seemed like an essential part of "getting free," a phrase McMillan Cottom uses to describe her own process of arriving at difficult truths, and which echoes a line from the Combahee River Collective statement, composed in the 1980s by a group of radical black feminists.

McMillan Cottom wrote "In the Name of Beauty" to explore why so many people got upset when McMillan Cottom called herself ugly in an essay about Miley Cyrus' infamous twerking incident. McMillan Cottom stresses that her definition of beauty has nothing to do with how you look—rather, beauty comprises "the preferences that reproduce the existing social order." If that's true, she argues, then "Big Beauty—the structure of who can be beautiful, the stories we tell about beauty, the value we assign beauty, the power given to those with beauty, the disciplining effect of the fear of losing beauty might possess—definitionally excludes the kind of blackness I carry in my history and my bones."

McMillan Cottom offers a model for what it would look like to step away from that economy of beauty, which, she argues persuasively, harms black women most, but is coercive to all women and gender non-conforming people. "When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture's assessment of me," she writes. "I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it."

It's not that black women are "superheroes," McMillan Cottom writes, or that they are incapable of error. Rather, she argues, black feminists "know the future" through their position at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression. As economic inequality increases, spreading from black communities, which "have always suffered from near-recessionary rates of unemployment," to white ones, what black women know about navigating unequal societies seems especially precious and prescient right now.

McMillan Cottom hammers this point home in a devastating essay centered on her stillbirth. "At every step of the process of having what I would learn later was a fairly typical pregnancy for a black woman in the United States, I was rendered an incompetent subject with exceptional needs that fell outside of reasonable healthcare," she recounts. After starting to bleed heavily at work, she made her way to her obstetrician's office, where she waited for half an hour before being seen. She was sent home with the assurance that "spotting is normal." She began having labor pains. They were not diagnosed as such. She went into labor early, and her daughter died. "After making plans for how we would handle her remains," McMillan Cottom remembers, "the nurse turned to me and said, 'Just so you know, there was nothing we could have done, because you did not tell us you were in labor.'"

In her story, it is not black women or their children who are the problem. It is the "health-care machine" that "could not imagine ... [women of color] as competent, and so it neglected and ignored me until I was incompetent." McMillan Cottom argues that ever-larger numbers of us are caught in the trap of chasing competence, as she was during her pregnancy. Describing the dilemmas faced by today's workers, she shows that we buy into "no end of services, apps, blogs, social media stars, thought leaders, and cultural programming, all promising that we can be competent."

But in a labor market without security, where no one is safe from layoffs or long-term unemployment, it's impossible to be competent enough to ensure that you'll flourish. Like McMillan Cottom, we are railroaded into incompetence and blamed for the outcome. Think of the student debt-laden Millennials who were told that the only path to a stable middle-class life was higher education—and then found themselves shamed for being "lazy" and "entitled" when they failed to find one of the increasingly scarce good jobs. Our "structural impotence generates ever-more sophisticated consumption goods," like apps and cultural programming, "that reinforce games of who is deserving and who is not," McMillan Cottom writes. If you didn't update your LinkedIn, this line of thinking goes, it's your own fault that you didn't land an interview—nothing to do with a weak labor market.

McMillan Cottom draws connections between her story and the challenges all Americans face in navigating a political and economic system that denies us competence. She makes it possible for her readers, whether or not they are black women, to understand the interdependent nature of our oppressions. At the end of her essay on giving birth, my mind jumped to the the Combahee River Collective's manifesto. "If black women were free," they wrote, "it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression."