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In 'Thick,' Tressie McMillan Cottom Looks At Beauty, Power And Black Womanhood In America

"Thick And Other Essays," by Tressie McMillan Cottom. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Thick And Other Essays," by Tressie McMillan Cottom. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Beauty. Politics. Inequality. Gender. Money. Familiar themes endlessly discussed. But are we hearing every essential voice? Rhetorical question, because the answer is obviously no.

For example, not enough of us have heard the searing analysis from sociology professor and black feminist thinker Tressie McMillan Cottom. In her new collection of essays, Cottom says her work is animated by what’s still seen as a “radical idea … black women are rational and human.” From that assumption, she works her way analytically through politics, economics, history, sociology and culture.

“It rarely fails me,” she says.


Tressie McMillan Cottom, writer, columnist, and professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Author of “ Thick: And Other Essays,” a collection exploring the identity and experience that defines black womanhood in America. ( @tressiemcphd)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Thick” by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Every time there is a national news story about a black shopper harassed in a store, there is a predictable backlash to the miscarriage of justice. We tend to move quickly from being outraged that it happened to critiquing why a black person was shopping there at all. Much like we interrogate what a woman was wearing when she was raped, we look for ways to assign personal responsibility for structural injustices to bodies we collectively do not value. If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars? One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive.

My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural southern roots, moved north, and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother, and later my grandmother and mother, use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who live mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when he came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a Jim Walter house. If you were really blessed, when a relative died with a paid-up insurance policy, you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walter used as collateral to secure your home lease.

That is how generational wealth happens where I am from: lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right, and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home. We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth, so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education.

We were big readers and we encouraged the girl children, especially, to go to some kind of college. Consequently, my grandmother and mother had a particular set of social resources that helped us navigate mostly white bureaucracies to our benefit. We could, as my grandfather would say, talk like white folks. We loaned that privilege out a lot. I remember my mother taking a next-door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. Her denial had come in the genteel bureaucratic way—lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross Mahogany outfit: a camel-colored cape with matching slacks and knee-high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. The Vivian, as I called my mother, fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do.

It took half a day, but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person—her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings— got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn’t work, but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair, but, as The Vivian always said, “Life isn’t fair, little girl.”

I internalized that lesson and I think it has worked out for me, if unevenly. A woman at Belk once refused to show me the Dooney & Bourke purse I was interested in buying. The Vivian once made a salesgirl cry after she ignored us in an empty store. I have walked away from many a hotly desired purchase, like the impractical off-white winter coat I desperately wanted, after some bigot at the counter insulted me and my mother. But I have a Ph.D. and I support myself by aping the white male privileged life of the mind. It’s a mixed bag. Of course, the trick is you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied. Who knows what I was not granted for not enacting the right status behaviors or symbols at the right time for an agreeable authority?

Respectability rewards are a crapshoot, but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power. I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel-colored cape or knee-high boots, but I know that whatever she paid was returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to you, because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle-class parents to advocate for her child? I didn’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But I am living proof of its investment yield.

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on Twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable.

Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service, and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It’s the aging white hippie who can cut the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management, while aging Black Panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative and, like life, it ain’t fair. In contrast, “acceptable” is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership.

A manager at the apartment complex where I worked while in college told me, repeatedly, that she knew I was “okay” because my little Nissan was clean. That I had worn a Jones New York suit to the interview really sealed the deal. She could call the suit by name, because she asked me about the label in the interview. Another hiring manager at my first professional job looked me up and down in the waiting room, cataloging my outfit, and later told me that she had decided I was too classy to be on the call center floor. I was hired as a trainer instead. The difference meant no shift work, greater prestige, better pay, and a baseline salary for all my future employment.

I have about a half dozen other stories like this. What is remarkable is not that this happened. There is empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by their appearances differently and more harshly than are white men. What is remarkable is that these gatekeepers, in one way or another, actually told me why I was deemed acceptable. They wanted me to know how I had properly signaled that I was not a typical black or a typical woman, two identities that in combination are almost always conflated with being poor.

I sat in on an interview for a new administrative assistant once. My regional vice president was doing the hiring. A long line of mostly black and brown women applied because we were a cosmetology school. Trade schools at the margins of skilled labor in a gendered field are necessarily classed and raced. I found one candidate particularly charming. She was trying to get out of a salon because 10 hours on her feet cutting hair would average out to an hourly rate below minimum wage. A desk job with 40 set hours and medical benefits represented mobility for her. When she left, my VP turned to me and said, “Did you see that tank top she had on under her blouse?! OMG, you wear a silk shell, not a tank top!” Both of the women were black. The VP had constructed her job as senior management. She drove a brand-new BMW because she “should treat herself,” and liked to tell us that ours was an image business. A girl wearing a cotton tank top as a shell was incompatible with BMW-driving VPs in the image business.

Gatekeeping is a complex job of managing boundaries that do not just define others but also define ourselves. Status symbols—silk shells, designer shoes, luxury handbags—become keys to unlock these gates. If I need a job that will save my lower back and move my baby from Medicaid to an HMO, how much should I spend signaling to people like my former VP that I will not compromise her status by opening the door to me? Maybe that candidate could not afford a proper shell. I will never know. But I do know that had she gone hungry for two days to pay for it or missed wages for a trip to the store to buy it, she may have been rewarded a job that could have lifted her above minimum wage. Shells aren’t designer handbags, perhaps. But a cosmetology school in a strip mall isn’t a job at Bank of America, either.

At the heart of incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we, the hard-working, sensible not-poor, would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, died rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever knew, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are—that is, not poor.

If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor, and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers, and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.

Excerpted from THICK by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Copyright © 2019 by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Reprinted with permission of The New Press.

Longreads: “ Of Blackness and ‘Beauty’” — “Back in 2013, Miley Cyrus was in the hip-hop phase of her career, during which she consorted with rappers and attempted to twerk for more notoriety. The hit pieces calling out her cultural appropriation were ubiquitous. Everyone had an opinion on her new gimmick, including sociologist Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, who wrote an essay for Slate on the dangers of Miley’s now infamous MTV performance and inserted herself into the narrative by calling herself unattractive. The comments, some of which she included in her collection ‘Thick: And Other Essay’ were ‘brutal.’ White women were upset with her for believing that she was unattractive when in their eyes, she was the opposite, and black women were upset with her for what they assumed was self-hatred on display. Both groups, as far as McMillan Cottom was concerned, were wrong. Both were aghast that she would call the devil by its name in broad daylight. What she explains in one of the most compelling sections of ‘Thick’ is that beauty is about capital and power. Predominant standards of beauty center the white female body, and as a dark-skinned black woman, she exists outside that kind of beauty. That’s not to say that she did not find herself beautiful by black standards, in the circles in which she travels — at the historically black institution of which she is an alumna, or Rudean’s, a legendary joint for black North Carolinians. However, beauty as we know it in Western civilization is exclusionary. It is not meant for everyone.”

Chicago Tribune: “ The author you need to read now: Tressie McMillan Cottom” — “January can be a slow month for publishers. Having disgorged their premium titles and projects from big-name authors in the fall, and with readers potentially sated from holiday book gifts, the pace of new releases seems to slacken.

“But there is a new book coming out Jan. 8 that signals the arrival of a writer who should be listened to. The book? ‘Thick: And Other Essays.’ The author? Tressie McMillan Cottom.

“In truth, Cottom, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been here for quite some time. Her 2017 book, “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy,” was reviewed in The New York Times and landed her a guest spot on “The Daily Show.” In the universe of academic types online, in which I occasionally travel, she is a superstar. I read her twice-monthly online newsletter — The First and 15th — the moment it arrives in my inbox. By the time I’m done, the Twitteratti is already chattering about it.”

Madeleine D’Angelo produced this show for broadcast.

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