Feminist and Sociology Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom

Alicia Menendez sits down with renowned African-American feminist and sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom to discuss her new book, “Thick: And Other Essays.”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: It is important to remember never to take freedom for granted. And we turn now to perhaps America’s original sin, slavery, racism and the inequality that it brought and that persists. A conversation that our next guest believes should no longer be swept under the carpet. Tressie McMillan Cottom is a renowned African-American feminist and sociology professor. Her new book “Thick” and other essays pinpoints the relationships African-American women form with beauty, health, politics, and money. Dubbed Miss Personality in high school, the author told our Alicia Menendez that African-American women are shunned for taking up too much space in our society today.


ALICIA MENENDEZ: Tressie, thank you for being here with us.


MENENDEZ: Tell me, the title of the book is “Thick.” What does it mean to be thick?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s the quintessential question, right? “Thick” was trying to reach back to what I understood, black female political philosophy to have been throughout the history of black women particularly in this country in the west, and it was about me trying to take this pop culture reference and say, but no, that —

MENENDEZ: Which when we hear is being thick in the thighs like that is thick —

MCMILLAN COTTOM: That is right. Beyonce thick, we think physical shape. We think – and so pop culture reference that the kids are especially very into, but yes, to say that that physical embodiment of popular culture understanding of what a real quote-unquote “real black woman” should look like, actually has a deep historical tradition that is about as much as what we look like as how black women think and how we participate in the larger body politics, the knowledge that we have created for ourselves and our contribution to the greater world. We think in nuance and complications in large part I think because black women have to often live in these nuanced complicated places where they’re suspended between these sort of easy answers, black and white answers. That’s what marginality and intersectionality is fundamentally about. There is not an easy answer to some of our most complicated questions, and in our daily lives, black women make those tradeoffs almost routinely through our daily lives.

MENENDEZ: And from childhood through adulthood.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s correct.

MENENDEZ: There’s a lot of different passages I could ask you to read, but there’s a passage on Page 7. This resonated with me.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: All right, thank you. “Being too much of one thing and not enough of another was a recurring theme in my life. I was like many young women expected to be small so that boys could expand and white girls could shine. When I would not or could not shrink, people made sure that I knew I had erred. I was, like many black children, too much for white teachers and white classrooms and white study groups and white Girl Scout troops and so on. Thick where I should have been thin, more when I should have been less, a high school teacher nicknamed me “Miss Personality,” and it did not feel like a superlative.

MENENDEZ: What happens to any person who takes up more space than is socially acceptable?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: We have an entire political-economic cultural system that is designed to make us fit. It is an act of violence on to people’s agency and themselves and their bodies. Violence in the big sense of the word, so we tend to think of violence and to reduce it to these interpersonal acts of violence. But there is something violent about a world that requires you to conform to a standard that by definition you can never meet. That is a type of structural violence that we enact on people when we want people to affect being heterosexual for example or to be heteronormative, or a certain type of masculinity, a certain type of femininity. We do it all of the time. We do it most often, it is most compulsory, for groups of people who have the least amount of resources to sort of resist it, right, that’s the story of being a marginalized minority in a majority culture. So it a structural violence that we enact on people, because the structure does not change for you. And fundamentally, the lie that I think we tell, particularly in sort of our western ideal of meritocracies that there is something that those people could do to themselves to fit in better. The ultimate truth of – I think hopefully all of my work and especially that I was trying to sort of complicate and unpack in this book was, there really isn’t. There is nothing you can do to fit, right? Aand much of our lives I think, particularly as black women is I think about figuring that out, trying to separate the fact from fiction of our ability to fit into a social structure that by definition has made it so that we cannot fit.

MENENDEZ: You situate the book in your experience of black womanhood and really you take us through the entire range of experience beginning with black rural hood, there is right now a documentary from Lifetime surviving R. Kelly which looks at allegations of various sexual crimes that he has alleged to have committed against young women. There has been such a response to this documentary and in watching it, certainly, part of it is about R. Kelly but it is really about the systems and power structures around R. Kelly.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Right. I want to be clear that R. Kelly is a problem and he is also emblematic of a larger problem. He is a specific problem in that it appears that he preys on young women, and particularly young women with color and especially black women and black women of questionable economic security, right? So he goes after the girls that we think of as being the most vulnerable. And that’s a specific kind of problem that I hope we start to address and it has taken a long time to address. I have been listening to R. Kelly rumors and stories, quite literally almost my entire life. These have been the stories of my young girlhood, my middle teenage years, my young adult years. It is both amazing and disheartening to find that I am almost starting to look at the beginning of middle age and we’re still dealing with the R. Kelly specific problem. But he is part of this larger problem of who we allow to prey on whom. All girls are vulnerable in our system to powerful men. This is part of this moment we’re in right off reckoning with that. So all girls are vulnerable. Black girls are vulnerable in a very specific way because we are not seen as being – we are not vulnerable, we’re not allowed to be. We now have empirical evidence and research that shows that people do not perceive black girls as being girls. We age them up mentally. So that looks like assuming an eight-year-old has a decision-making capacity and agency of a 14-year-old, and a 14-year-old has that of a 21-year-old. What this culturally does is, it erases the possibility of innocence that we extend to children. Legally, politically and culturally, we have said children are a subset of the populace who have special rights because they are so vulnerable. There’s things that you can do to an adult that you can’t do to a child. They can’t enter a contract. They can’t make certain decisions. When it comes to black girls, however, when we say that they are always older than they appear. What we are saying is that they never get the benefit of that extension of vulnerability and protection because that’s what we extend to children, additional protection, and that makes black girls, particularly vulnerable to the larger scale problems of sexism and predation that happen I think to all young women. R. Kelly would not, I do not think, be a 35-year conversation had he been preying on young white girls, who are allowed to be girls. We just are not.

MENENDEZ: I saw a through line from the way that society treats young black girls through your experience of childbirth and the way you were treated within the medical establishment, which is not unique to you, it is emblematic of the way that medical institutions treat black women at large, which is the same way that young black girls are given the sense of youth or vulnerability. Black women aren’t seen as competent.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Correct. Yes. Young black girls are presumed to always be responsible for the desires that people project on to them. The man wants you, you become responsible for his wanting. Once you are a black woman and you have to negotiate for access to healthcare, education and work – that is what these big organizations negotiate for us. What we then make black women responsible for is for never being competent enough to access all of the resources that they should, that they deserve or need. What that look like in the healthcare example, which I try to use as this example of, there is no such thing as us being educated enough, economically secure enough, we can’t be rich enough. We can’t be successful enough. We can’t be a celebrity enough and celebrity in our culture is the great exception.

MENENDEZ: If it can happen to Serena Williams —

MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right.

MENENDEZ: It can happen to anybody.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right. That’s exactly right. Well now, you have stories from – I mean, you know, Beyonce is the celebrity-celebrity, right, who talks about her own sort of difficult birthing story which is about trying to get a medical establishment to treat you seriously as competent subject. So that when you say you say you’re in pain that they believe you, when they say that when you when you say you are in labor that they believe you, right? The healthcare system is much like our education system and our other large bureaucracies, has to assume an ideal customer for it to work properly. That assumes you speak English, so the forms will be in English. We make assumptions about who this is system is for and healthcare is not a particularly egregious example of us assuming that these resources are ultimately not for black women. Precisely because we are not set up to hear or to make black women’s pain and experience of healthcare legible. My experience of that looks like constantly asking for medical care that I could not get and then being held responsible for them not giving it to me.

MENENDEZ: Let’s be even more specific, you were pregnant. You had symptoms that you were going into labor. You felt deeply uncomfortable. You continued to identify them to your doctor and medical professionals and you were largely ignored.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes. And I mean, this is a three or four-day, I mean, anybody who has ever been in labor can tell you, you know, you’re in labor for three and a half days. It is uncomfortable. I was effectively in labor for a very long time before I could get a medical professional want to believe me and then to give me care. And then I was given sort of urgent short-term care, rather than the sort of long-term well-being care that one gives someone who may be having a difficult pregnancy. My pregnancy was not understood as difficult until I had almost died and my child did, and even then, the last thing the nurses said to me on the way out was, “Well, you should have told us.” And I had, I had been telling them for three and a half days. As devastating and as traumatic as that is for me, it is so routine. And here is one of those things why I think slicing apart what I mean about understanding black women reveals something important for all of us, the healthcare system is not hospital to almost – to many of us, right? This is one of those places where people go, “No, I’ve had that experience and I am not a black woman. Doctors aren’t nice to me either.” And I don’t mean that they aren’t nice to you, which is certainly part of it. I mean that at every point of the interaction, of calling the nurses’ station, of asking to be admitted to the hospital, of talking to the anesthesiologist, talking to the specialist, that at every routine interaction, despite how I present it as someone with health insurance, the ability to pay. I mean, I am married. I am highly educated – all of those things that we tell people to become, so that the world would be easier for you, none of those status symbols mattered in that moment and they would have mattered for someone who was not a black woman. A black woman could not have presented in my situation in any way that would have made that a different outcome. We don’t get the protective factor.

MENENDEZ: I think what is perhaps most surprising is that even once you have an advanced degree, even once you have a blue check mark next to your Twitter name that this continues.

MCMILLAN COTTOM: Right. It is this moment where you realize with everything I knew about how the system would work, I was most angry with myself for holding out hope that I had somehow worked hard enough it to have earned a pass out of the typical black woman experience, right? How dare I still have hope? How dare I, right? I was probably in the end, most angry with myself. How could I have not expected for it to go exactly this way? It is because when you are doing all of achieving —

MCMILLAN COTTOM: –. and you’re doing all of this striving, part of your ability to strive is that you have to have some faith in the system, even if you hold out some pragmatism about its reality and it’s in these moments when you are most vulnerable, when you realize how foolish your faith probably had been, that it had crept in when you weren’t expecting it, and somehow, it had set you up for precisely this, to be surprised by something that you should not have been surprised by.

MENENDEZ: If not faith in the system, where does that leave you? What do you do?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: I do have tremendous faith in people. Believe it or not, even understanding human nature to be as potentially horrible as I understand it to be, I also know that anything good that has ever happened has happened because of the will of human beings. Now, I think that those wonderful moments of social progress and human connection generally happen when human beings may not even intend for it to happen. But there is something in the capacity of human nature that allows for a progress that is larger than any individual, and I do still believe in that. You know, my academic training we call this sort of collective effervescence, other people may call this – it may appeal to religion. I think that’s fundamentally, although Christianity means when they talk about the Holy Spirit, it is just something larger than individual will and individual human failings and I actually do still have working faith and that is what I might call it. So not an exuberant faith, but a pragmatic faith, which I think is the entire black woman political philosophy is very pragmatic.

MENENDEZ: Looking at the body of your work, your Shores book deals, Lower Ed deals with for profit colleges, and one of things that you often say about that is, that you, even in the process of writing it had to grapple with the fact that so many people, particularly so many women and particularly so many women of color thought they were doing the right thing. And that manifests again in the book, this idea that we have a very clear sense as a society of the steps that need to be taken, education, a big one of your steps, in order to – as you say, even become a moral person, right? That the morality is baked into that. Is that a big lie we’ve all been fed?

MCMILLAN COTTOM: It is. I think I would call it a myth, because a lie sometimes suggest that it was at some point historically deliberate. But for a lie to have its ultimate power, the power to shape our reality and to shape the trajectory of our lives, it has to actually become something larger than a lie. It has to become an unassailable myth and that’s where I think we are. But even if you personally don’t believe in it, you adhere to it. That’s how compelling a myth is. It is like going home when you yourself no longer believe in your family’s religion. But you still go to the church, the special church services, right? That’s what the cultural myth of mobility and inclusion and doing the right thing is about. And so yes, we’ve got millions, even people of color, women of color that I talk to who would go, I know something about this seems off, right? I know something about requiring me to look a certain way for inclusion. It feels wrong, but I’m still going to do it. I know there’s something about taking out $100,000.00 for an online degree that seems a little wonky. I’m still going to do it. There’s something about – that yes, I should probably have a better healthcare choice in this one, but I’m still going to pay for this one. I’m still going to do it. There’s something about that that says that we don’t have an option at the individual level to opt out of these things that are particularly harmful for us, and that to me is about exposing the myth of not just of U.S. culture. I think this is just a myth of capitalism, that our rights are imbedded in our ability to consume and to buy. Well, depending on who you are, there’s no such thing. There are no Civil Rights that black people can buy in this country. That’s what this rash of you know, you can’t have a coffee at Starbucks. You can’t sit in the lobby of the hotel without the police – this whole rash of things is about exactly that. That there is no level of consumption, there is no level of economic achievement, no level of status to which you can adhere that is going to opt you out of what our structure ultimately needs us to be, which is marginalized and vulnerable.

MENENDEZ: Tressie, thank you so much.


About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian about his imprisonment in Iran; and German Health Minister Jans Spahn about the rocky relations between the U.S. and Germany. Alicia Menendez speaks with renowned African-American feminist and sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom to discuss her new book, “Thick: And Other Essays.”