Tressie McMillan Cottom is a consummate public intellectual. She is sharply intelligent, curious, passionate, and in everything she writes and researches she is rigorous, expansive, and incisive. In her first book, Lower Ed, she examined the for-profit education industrial complex, revealing how such institutions offer the lure of education and credentialing to vulnerable populations—especially black women—while encouraging them to assume massive amounts of debt they will likely never be able to repay.
In her second book, Thick, McMillan Cottom assembles a broader but just-as-incisive range of her intellectual work. In essays about how American culture treats black women as incompetent—often with lethal results—or how “inclusive” beauty standards remain exclusionary, she concludes that, above all, it is imperative to reject thin, or un-nuanced, ways of thinking.
One of the most remarkable things about McMillan Cottom’s work is the way she blends the theoretical and the practical: how she prioritizes the intellectual work done in secular spaces as much as, if not more than, such work done in the Ivory Tower. She knows who she is and where she comes from; she knows the people who made her and the woman she has made herself into. She is provocative, yes, but always with purpose—with an eye toward challenging and changing the status quo. She is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, a cultural critic, and a popular figure on the lecture circuit. Dr. McMillan Cottom has a singular voice on social media, where, all too often, people willfully misinterpret the things she says, then lose all sense when she remains unbothered in the face of their futile blathering.
During a wide-ranging telephone conversation, McMillan Cottom and I talked about many things, such as authority, the different jobs black women do, the fallacy of bubbles, her current intellectual project, and how she plans to spend her year of research leave.
— Roxane Gay for Guernica
Guernica: In a recent issue of your newsletter you discussed why you use endnotes. I love the endnotes because they really reinforce your authority. But I was also mad: Why do you have to reinforce your authority? How do you deal with always having to reinforce your authority on something you are an authority on?
McMillan Cottom: Kiese [Laymon] has a quote floating around right now, about how black women use their sense of authority to protect themselves. One of the primary ways he says black women protect themselves is by building up a very good barrier between themselves and the world, because you almost never actually see black women. We are masters of being seen, but not letting you actually see us.
I’m constantly defending my authority. Of course I have to do it. I almost wouldn’t expect anything else. As exhausting as it is, it’s one of the few automatic processes I have, and it is absolutely a defense mechanism. Demonstrating my authority helps me reinforce that barrier between me and the rest of the world. Now, is that good? No. No coping mechanism is fundamentally good. They can become excessive. They can become maladaptive, and I don’t know if that’s where I am. In a weird way, it’s my comfort zone. My groove. I know how to make myself legible to you, or at least how to force a reader or an audience to deal with my legibility, while also protecting myself. I’ll look up sometimes, when I have done that level of work, and I will read what some of my peers are doing and realize how vastly different our jobs are.
Guernica: How do you reconcile that? How do you keep that realization that we’re not doing the same job from overwhelming you and paralyzing you?
McMillan Cottom: The paralysis was much more common when I was younger. As I get a little older, I certainly get wiser about what my life’s work is and what I’m on earth to do. It helps me get a sense of detachment that allows me to operate. I’m very comfortable these days. It is quite possible I will live my life having done the very best I can with what is, on the whole, a pretty good hand that I was dealt. Not a perfect hand. Maybe not the hand I might have deserved.
Guernica: Interesting. How do you define your life’s work right now?
McMillan Cottom: I want to raise some really good hell for people who cannot—who are just so beaten down themselves that they can’t raise it for themselves. And I want to do it in a way that they—they being the Other, whoever is benefitting from the system, reproducing it, which is generally white people, but you know, could be some other people, white-adjacent people—I want to do it in a way that makes it as difficult as possible for them to dismiss me. I’m starting to get to the point where my legitimacy is about what I can do for other people. I want to be able to show up and raise the hell at the precise right moment that might tip the scales in a way that will make something a little more clear, or a little bit more just, for people I care about. I want to ask and explore questions in a way that either other people can’t do, because of my training and social location, or that they would never do, because of who they are.
Guernica: Do you think you are asking those questions and writing those stories, those essays in Thick?
McMillan Cottom: When we [the editorial team] started talking about doing this collection, the original thought was, “You know, you’ve got a body of work, what would you want to do with that?” I had never considered my work that way, so I had to be really deliberate in going through years of public writing. Some of this is internet-based writing, some was for publication, some on spec, some not. It was kind of all over the place, or I felt it was. But when I really started reading, I saw I had been dealing with the same sort of questions, with different levels of ability, for a very long time. So this feels like both the end of that era and the beginning of me now knowing that that’s what I’m doing.
Guernica: What do you want to transition into?
McMillan Cottom: I want to take the most culturally-derided forms of production being done in the US right now—which are generally being done by black women and black queer youths who are in the internet culture—and see if I can tell that story in a way no one else has done yet. And that has nothing to do with white boys in Silicon Valley, who have absolutely overlooked the economic and cultural dominance of what those young people are doing on the internet. I’m really fascinated with that question and story, and it’s probably the more interesting and important technology story, because they did it without all of the economic power of Silicon Valley. They built platforms like Twitter. They built Instagram. And we’re in a moment where it’s going to be easy for that contribution to be lost.
Guernica: One of the things I noticed in all of these essays in Thick is that you take blackness, and black women in particular, very seriously, which is not something we see a lot of in academic writing—or in, essentially, any writing. How did you learn to take yourself seriously?
McMillan Cottom: Damn. That’s a good question. It is probably extremely revealing to try to answer, because I don’t know that anybody has ever modeled taking myself seriously for me. I suspect that’s true for a lot of black women. I don’t know how I did it. I think the moment I learned it was probably trauma-induced. I write a little bit about this, my major life trauma, in Thick, which I had never planned on doing, ever. But I think when you come out on the other side of trauma, one of two things can happen: You can be more of who you were before it happened, sometimes in the worst ways. You can double down on your fears and anxieties. Or you can come out different, and you’re never that same person. That’s what happened to me. For the first time, I was asking questions of myself rather than responding to how people wanted me to behave. For the first time, I was making affirmative decisions about what I wanted. In a real way, the trauma wiped the slate clean for me mentally. And that’s when I started the process of teaching myself to take myself seriously. By extension, I could start to take other black women seriously.
Guernica: In this book, you do get personal, and you do write about trauma, but you have very firm boundaries around it. It was an excellent choice: especially for black women, we do have to protect what we put into the world. Was it difficult to get to this place where you said, “I’m going to write about this,” and to know that you would then have to talk about it?
McMillan Cottom: Real talk, I’m not kissing your ass: In large part, it has been watching you navigate this. I’m also competitive, and I was like, “Oh, well, Roxane did it.” [laughs] I said, “Well I’m gonna give it a shot, see what happens.” Then I tried to draft it, and I walked away from it. I was not doing it. I failed miserably. This is why it matters so much, by the way, to have black women as editors. My editor at New Press is a black woman, and she was the one who said, “Listen. I think you can do it. Try it again, and I will defend your right to defend your boundaries.” I had an editor I trust enough to do it. Who could ask hard questions, but wouldn’t ask the wrong hard questions.
Guernica: Do you read reviews?
McMillan Cottom: God, I try not to. I have so many layers of filters for people who will send me the stuff I need to see. That doesn’t mean just give me the good stuff; it means send me the intellectually honest stuff. [People are going] to say it’s bad, or I didn’t do something, but is it grounded in good-faith argument? You can send me that. I don’t read comments, and I don’t read poor arguments about my work that completely misstated it, or something that is clearly motivated by some sort of personal animus. In many ways, I’ve built a bit of a bubble.
Guernica: It’s okay to be in that bubble.
McMillan Cottom: Thank you.
Guernica: People intrude on the bubble every day.
McMillan Cottom: I don’t need whatever that character-building exercise very privileged people feel the need to go out there and do—expose themselves to the underbelly of the world. The underbelly comes to my house for me all the time.
Guernica: Absolutely. Every time anyone—generally a white woman on Twitter—tells me, “Oh, you’re in a bubble,” I’m like, I’m a fat, black, queer woman openly in a relationship with a woman. So, no, I’m not in a bubble. Bubbles don’t float here.
McMillan Cottom: We don’t even have the power to build a bubble, right? That’s the ultimate story of being who we are and writing about ourselves. We don’t even have the authority to create that bubble.
Guernica: You actually touch on this quite a lot throughout the book. In the introduction, you say, “I’m too real to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naive to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose.” And that really got me thinking about the idea of bubbles. When you’re too much of everything to be anything that people seem to want, how do you still put yourself into the world and put your ideas into the world?
McMillan Cottom: Yeah, it’s been a real…I don’t want to be hyperbolic, I don’t know if it’s been a “struggle,” but yeah, it’s a theme. Let’s put it that way. It’s a theme of my life.
Guernica: In Thick, you wrote, “Smart is only a construct of correspondence between one’s abilities, one’s environment, and one’s moment in history. I am smart in the right way, in the right time, on the right end of globalization.” It’s an incredible line. How do you negotiate balancing accessibility and theory? In the essay “In the Name of Beauty,” where you drew on Bourdieu, I thought, “If only I had read this in graduate school, it would have made all of Bourdieu’s work so much more legible to me.”
McMillan Cottom: [laughs] Oh thank God! Thank you. Of course, Bourdieu would hate being legible. That approach comes out of me feeling the need to show my thought process, and my thought process is very often the structure that is reflected in the essays. Some of what’s happening on the page is seeing how I synthesize things, and frankly, one of the steps in synthesis is to remove the complexity—to a point. There’s a sweet spot of removing complexity to the right degree that you don’t lose its meaningfulness.
Guernica: Right. You’re currently on sabbatical. What are you going to be doing with this time off, which I know is not time off?
McMillan Cottom: I’ve got the wish list. In actuality, who the hell knows. I am super-excited to read. I’ve got a whole new nook set up, where I want to sit and read like people do on TV, with a cup of tea and the perfect lamp and all of that shit.
I think it is time to start saying what can I do in collaboration with other people right now. I’m a very isolated person when I’m in my creative zone, but even I know that no person is an island. What was the point of me doing some of the stuff I do, if I couldn’t start to try to do it with other people? So I’m really interested in building right now. Finding like-minded people to have these kinds of conversations that we’ve just been talking about, and seeing if I can’t shine the light a little bit more on those. And shaming people into paying attention to those folks doing that work. And then, I’m really all about decorating my house.
Guernica: And my final question, which I always ask at the end of an interview, is, what do you like most about your writing?
McMillan Cottom: I like that I sound like myself. It is very important to me, because what I sound like is part [of] me but also part of the people I come from. One of my personal goals in life is to make people deal with the fact that, whatever it is they think I am that is valuable, it is as much a product of the people I come from as it is their generosity. White people love to think they’re being generous when they are willing to see me as smart. Facing the reality of what I am is not you doing me a favor. This is about the people who have made me, not your graciousness. When I sound like myself when I’m writing, when I sound like the conversations my people have, when I sound like my family, when I sound like the place where I’m from? That makes me happy.
Guernica: That’s a great thing to like. I like asking that question because, all too often, everyone frames writing in terms of suffering and misery. And that can be part of it, but I enjoy writing, and I also wish more writers—and more women writers in particular—would talk about what they’re good at.
McMillan Cottom: I don’t know that anybody has ever framed any question like that at me. There’s so much cultural capital at stake to prove you have suffered so much. But you’re right; it’s just as important to talk about what we love.
Guernica: People confuse humility with excess modesty, like we’re supposed to pretend we’re not good at what we do. Especially for black women, to get to this point in our career—no, we’re very good. We’re excellent, even. Let’s talk about it.
McMillan Cottom: And nobody’s going to like you more because you hate yourself. You’re not doing anybody a favor. It’s just going to take them longer to come up with a good reason for disliking you. They’re always going to dislike you, honey, so you may as well save yourself the time and admit that you are exactly what you are. Own it.
Guernica: Those are the two best words you can tell a woman. Own it.