Join us for a conversation on modern discourse with Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, moderated by Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes, as they discuss the topics in her new book, Thick, including race, gender, inequality, higher education access, technology, culture, and more.
Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Policy Talks at the Ford School of Public Policy. I am Celeste Watkins-Hayes, the Jean E. Fairfax Collegiate Professor of Public Policy, a university Diversity and Social Transformation Professor and Professor of Sociology here at the University of Michigan. It is my deep honor to be in conversation with Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. Dr. Cottom is an award-winning author, researcher, educator and cultural critic, whose work has been recognized nationally and internationally for the urgency and depth of her incisive critical analysis of technology, higher education, class, race and gender. The foundation for Tressie's first book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, was formed by her dissertation research from her doctorate at Emory University's Laney Graduate School. In Lower Ed, Dr. Cottom questions the fundamental narrative of American education policy. In 2019, Dr. Cottom released, Thick: And Other Essays. The collection has been described as essential, and the Chicago Tribune calls Dr. Cottom: "The author you need to read right now." Dorothy Roberts compares reading it to holding a mirror to your soul into that of America. Thick was the winner of the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize and was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award.
CW: Dr. Cottom has served on dozens of academic and philanthropic boards, and publishes widely on issues of inequality, work, higher education and technology. She's currently an Associate Professor in the School of Information and Library Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Information Technology and Public Life at UNC. She was awarded the McArthur Fellowship in 2020. Dr. Cottom also co-hosts Here to Slay, a fabulous podcast with Roxanne Gay, a podcast with an intersectional perspective on celebrity, culture, politics, art, life, love and more. It is brilliant, it is fun, it is engaging. It is a amazing place to be. So thank you so much for being here. It's an honor to have you and to be in conversation with you.
Tressie McMillan Cottom: Thank you very much, Professor Watkins-Hayes, I am pleased to be here. I have to thank the students and Sue Dynarski earlier today, we had a wonderful talk, and I'm only sure that will continue. I'm really pleased.
CW: Oh, great. So we come into this conversation with heavy hearts and want to acknowledge the victims and their families, the people who were slain in Georgia. And as we try to understand what happened, as we think about how we respond to this, what kind of questions come to mind to you? We're dealing with an epidemic of gun violence in this country, but we're also reminded of the notion that to be socially-marginalized on the basis of race and class and gender and sexuality and poverty is to have a deeply unsettling proximity to death.
TC: Yeah, yeah.
CW: Can you just talk to us about that? And as we try to understand the details, because we don't know everything yet, what questions are coming to mind for you?
TC: You made me think, of course, of Ruthie Gilmore who says that...
TC: The fundamental definition of racism is premature death. And if you don't look at what happened in Atlanta as part of a continuum of our decision about who deserves premature death and who does not, then you miss, probably, the most important parts of what has happened in Atlanta, beyond the immediate and direct tragedy of the violence of the eight people who were killed, most of them Asian and Asian-American women, it is worth noting for reasons that you point out so well, and that hopefully, we would all be familiar with, which is that not all of us bear equally the cost of America's preoccupation with capitalist extraction, oppression and the gun violence it produces. That's just the story of the American narrative about whose lives we are willing to put on the line to defend the right of other people to control the terms of extraction.
TC: That's what we have seen since time immemorial since the founding of this nation, certainly, but over the last few years, in particular, a ratcheting up and a clarification of the call to violence, with everyday routine violence against minority people in this country. And so it's part of that continuum, one that is as tied to racism and sexism and immigration and colonization as is any mass murder in this country. A country that, by the way, has far more of these than any other country in the world. This is a uniquely American problem that is predicated on what the American tension is. That is that this was one of the first major democratic nations, but it was also built inherently on enslaved labor and on the expansion of global slavery. Until that dialectical tension is resolved, the nature of American violence will always look like what we see in Atlanta today. And so we know the narratives, we know why people feel emboldened to do what has happened in Atlanta. But that is also not unique. I think it's really important that these things are specific, but they are not unique; they are just very much us. It is exactly wrong to say, "This is not America," or, "This is not the America I know." This is actually uniquely American.
CW: And how do we think about resolving that dialectical tension that you talked about? Because for so many of our students, in particular, they're now witnessing this ever-present narrative and dance that we do of a tragedy happens, there is sharp analysis, just as you've provided, and people retreat to their defensive postures and ultimately, defend and continue to defend the status quo in a lot of ways. How do we break through that? How do we break that dance, that cycle of thoughts and prayers, but no action, of the kind of lack of embrace of a deeper analysis of these issues? And I know that our students are wondering this because they're here to change the world, and they're trying to figure out and gather the tools to be able to address some of these seemingly intractable problems. So how do we break that tension?
TC: Yeah, it's fascinating, they say, one of the things they told us repeatedly when I was in graduate school is that studying race, class and gender or inequality means to constantly advance your own skill set while negotiating the world that willfully refuses to negotiate that same skill, right? It has become expert in something that people just don't want to know. That is fundamentally a problem. There is almost no problem in public policy where we don't know what the answer is. I think it's really important for people who are entering public life to understand most of our problems are not problems of empirical limitation; they are problems of political will.
TC: Right? And so no matter what you are studying, when you enter into the realm of public life, you are entering into politics, small p. You don't run big politics like run for office or etcetera, but you are dealing with the everyday negotiation of politics because people know the right thing, or they will know the best or the effective thing to do by and large. Usually, what you're dealing with is a willful resistance to the right thing, and that's because it is either, comes with political consequences or personal sacrifice. But what do we know, historically, about getting people over their inertia to the right thing to do? And politics, both big P and small p, you only do that a couple of ways, and only one of them, to my mind, is desirable, but there are only a couple of ways. There is just direct conflict, obviously, but there's also building solidarity to make political choices that you want to have happen, the inevitable political choice, is about shifting incentives such that people who may want to do the right thing have cover to do it, and people who do not want to do the right thing pay a far higher price for not doing it than they would for ignoring the problem.
TC: That's some of what we've seen when we talk about the groundwork that has happened throughout the US South, for example, over the last six years, to sort of build political solidarity and will and capacity to move the needle on things like voting rights, local governance, state governance, and then also sort of major political party platforms, moving the needle on those things. But I think for people who are entering into public policy with the sense that you want to change things, it is really important to figure out as early on as you can, one, what your own personal constitution is on these things. I think that once you're in public life, it's a little too late to determine what you are willing to compromise on and with whom you want to be in solidarity with.
TC: The sooner you make decisions about, "This is my team, this is, these are my beliefs, right? And these are my values. And now, I can be moved on means, but I can't be moved on my constitutional beliefs." As soon as you can figure that out, the better off you are because you're actually not entering into a war of empiricism; you're mostly entering into a war of narrative and belief and incentives. And the only thing that really works there in a representative democracy, certainly, anyway, is solidarity with other people.
CW: Interesting. What would you say are your constitutional beliefs?
TC: Ah, that's a great question. I actually spend time every year revisiting this. It's how I spend my birthday, by the way. I spend the week of my birthday revisiting sort of like, "Okay, you know, what do I believe in? And am I still really clear about that?" I think my beliefs are really straightforward, which means that they're easier said than lived, 'cause the simple things are the hardest things to live out in your daily life and in your work, especially when there are so many incentives for you to do other things, easier things, frankly. I believe black people are human. And that is still just, That's still just a radical statement. It does not mean that we are magic. All due credit and respect to people who wave the banner of Black Girl Magic, but as a person who deals in the complexity of the human condition, I think it is far more important to be human than to be magic, right?
CW: Interesting, interesting.
TC: Wherein magical bodies are the ones we don't mind holding up...
TC: To take the shots for other people. Magical bodies have things done to them so that other people can be more comfortable. Magical bodies that are seen as constantly self-generating don't require any investment from the state, from other people. Human beings do. And so for me to say that I believe black people are human really does shift almost all of my empirical assumptions. So I think about the work I do sociologically. When I come into a room and I say, "Whatever you have assumed about the rational incentives of other people who pursue higher education and pursue work, they are probably also true for black people 'cause black people are human." That absolutely does shift assumptions that there isn't something inherently flawed in our racial category and make-up that makes us a natural match, for example, for poor outcomes or poorer opportunities. That's still quite a radical statement to say in some disciplinary conversations.
TC: And then in my everyday life, when I try to write for publics, when I try to create a public around an idea, or participate in public discourse or in policy narratives, my belief system is always guided by: What is the best I can do here that no one else could have done if they were in the room? And if somebody else could have done it, then I just need to get onboard with them, and then not knowing when I'm supposed to be a leader and when I'm supposed to be a follower. And it's not always the case that I need to be leading a conversation. So I try to ask myself: What can I contribute here that only I could have contributed? If that is of use in that moment, then I do it wholeheartedly, and I do it 100%. But if my, the best thing I could have done would be to put forward or to join forces with or contribute my energies to somebody who has a better analysis, a better plan, a deeper understanding of the issues, sometimes, the best thing you can do is actually follow. And being a leader who knows how to follow is, to me, one of the most... It is what turns leadership into service.
CW: Right, right, right.
TC: Knowing when to follow, yeah.
CW: Right, right. So part... There was so much there in what you said and that I so appreciate, and thank you for unpacking the phrase "Black Girl Magic" and getting us to think about that and complicate that phraseology, I really appreciated that. And then the other thing that strikes me is when you think about analysis and then the plan, that, so often, is how we think about policy work as well. But what I see you doing, which is so powerful, is bringing in a cultural analysis as well to these conversations. So we're thinking about the economic implications of something, the social implications, the political implications, and then you're also thinking about the cultural implications. And I just want you to talk about... I think my suspicion is the reason that you do that is that you don't believe we can disentangle policy analysis and cultural analysis. I suspect that you think that the two go hand in hand. And I wonder if you can just comment on that because I suspect you had to defend that choice of getting us to think about all that's happening in our society, to think about how it's all fitting together through these kind of cultural conversations you're sparking. Can you talk a little bit more about that, that intersection of cultural analysis and policy analysis?
TC: Absolutely. You know who deserves credit for that is my grandmother, who used to say to me, "You know, little girl, don't listen to what people say, listen to what people do." [chuckle] I think, right? So what we understand and how I understand and have translated that into my life is that the policy analysis, the political analysis, and the economic analysis, and all of that is very important, but that is about who we think we are. It's the story that we tell about ourselves as being rational, being motivated by sort of clear-cut incentives. And if you can just align those properly, you will get the right, proper outcomes, right? The problem with that is that we have an immense amount of evidence that says we don't operate that way at all. That in fact, when human beings undertake massive social change, when we build new institutions or new ways of living or being, we are usually doing so because we have been motivated by a collective story about who we want to be. That's the culture. Who we want to be is usually at odds with or certainly in a negotiation with who we think we are.
TC: And what I saw happening, and still see happening, is that for every time I was called into a room on Capital Hill, or to go to the white House, or go to some state agency to talk about data, research-driven decision-making, you get in the room, and many of your students have experienced this, as they come from work-life or they will, soon, you get into the room and what people tell you they do is remarkably different from what they actually do. That, "Certainly, we make data-driven decisions here." And they certainly have a lot of the theater of data-driven decision-making, but then, you'll enter the room, and you realize that they're being driven as much by organizational narratives and stories and feelings and emotions and identity as like anything else. And so it became really clear to me, especially in some of the policy rooms where they called me in and they go, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, we've got the data. What we would like from you is for you to tell us a powerful story that will move the needle on getting people to accept the data."
TC: That, to me, is the cultural analysis and what that does, and knowing that the world that you send that data and that research out into is always gonna see your empirical findings through the lens and the limitations of the culture, right? We've gotta condition the culture to understand a more nuanced conversation about race and class and gender, for example. How do I produce really meaningful, impactful data about something like racial marginalization and sex workers and immigration and citizenship, to go back to the case of the violence that's happened in Atlanta, if I haven't conditioned the culture to make sense of that?
TC: Both of those things need to happen. And that's not to say that that's everybody's work to do. But if you can, if you can create and craft empirically-driven and sound stories that also tap into the cultural discourse, our desire for a story to make sense of the world, you have a much better chance of using the data and the empirics and the policy work to actually get people to take that up. All policy people will tell you your real challenge is getting people, what, to uptake, to uptake. And whenever you introduce a new course of policy, it's about uptake. Well, one of the best ways to move uptake is to get people to buy into the story of what you're trying to move the needle on. And so, both of those things, yes, are important, and those of us who feel called to do so, have to feel empowered and supported in doing the work that does both.
CW: So, as I think about the stories that we tell, I wanna ask about education. And I know that was the area of your dissertation work and continues to be an area of interest. One of the things that we're worried about in this COVID moment is further disparities that we might see as it relates to education and virtual learning, and who got access to virtual learning and who didn't, who went back into the schools, who didn't, and all of the different complexities. First, I wanna ask you to comment on the K-12 context, and then I'm gonna ask you to comment on the higher ed context in terms of helping us to understand this moment that we're in as it relates to education.
TC: The two are actually very similar in that, save for a few exceptions, both K-12 and higher education, everything that happens is happening within the context of, depending on where you are, anywhere from 20-40 years of public disinvestment. There may be a scale, but just writ large that there's either been an overall decline in public disinvestment or a re-allocation of disinvestment that has increased within district inequalities, for example. That's the context. And so, anything that happens in that context, no matter what the external shock is, could have been Hurricane Katrina, as it happens, it could be a parental disaster, it could be a mass act of violence, like in the cases that we have too many of across the country, whatever it is, the external shock happens in that context. And anything that happens in a context of that kind of disinvestment means that any resource that comes in is gonna be allocated along the lines of the pre-existing inequalities, that's just what happens. If you want investment to transform a district or an institution, you have to do it far more deliberately than what usually happens in these types of moments. That's what COVID was primed to do, and that's what we are seeing happen.
TC: At the very start of COVID, when some of the first districts started to close, my first instinct was to go and look and see how we had managed massive, cataclysmic, external events and shocks to the education system before. And the best, most recent literature was on Hurricane Katrina, which is why I brought it up. This was an external shock that shut down an entire district. And what we saw when we came back from Katrina was an acceleration shock doctrine, shouldn't have surprised too many people. But we saw an acceleration of all of the privatization and neoliberal efforts that had already been in place, maybe piecemeal or without unilateral support before Katrina. Almost all of those processes accelerated during and after Katrina. So much so that a school district in New Orleans looks dramatically different to people 10 years after than it did five years before Hurricane Katrina. Everything that put in to place gets accelerated.
TC: So then, we start to look at COVID, and what should we expect to happen? Without some sort of deliberate attempt to not have that happen, this is what happens. That massive federal investment, external shock, the resource flows that were already in place are able to take advantage of and access emergency funding and emergency resources in a way that continues to skew the public investment in school, in K-12 or higher education away from the public goods mission. And that's pretty much what we've seen, because that's what happens when that's the context. What is a little different, certainly, at least in the higher education context, is that we've never had anything that was an external shock to the entire system of higher education, not just a school. And so, that has delimited some of those competitive forces, because we can't compete. Everybody was shut down.
TC: As things starting to open, some of those state differences start to become very significant. There's a reason why some states like Florida would jump out there ahead of other states to re-open quickly. Yes, it's about politics and political affiliation, but it is also about being the state that's opened and ready to receive new moneys, investment, etcetera, just a little bit before other states. And so, all of that starts to matter within and between, state competition starts to matter for investment as they start jocking for federal dollars. But I think we could have predicted, and many of us did, and said, "If we're not more deliberate about this, if we're not more sustained... " But that's what happens when you try to make policy in a very contentious environment. It cannot be overstated that the last four years, we just had a very hostile political environment to public education in K-12 and in higher education. We had the hollowing out of the Department of Education, like a buffer.
TC: And that is gonna take quite some time to back-fill, but in the meantime, money has to flow. And so, what you've got is, you got a moment here where the money has been turned on. Necessarily so, thanks to COVID relief bills, the money has been turned on, but the oversight is gonna lag. The federal oversight is gonna lag because it has been gutted. And that's a moment for a couple of things. It can be a moment for positive transformation for those parent-led and community-led organizations, might have a moment there to try to shift the balance in their local school districts, but it is also historically a moment of great opportunity hoarding, frankly.
CW: Right, right. And what about in the higher ed context? And one of the things that I'm thinking about is this ongoing conversation about the future of work, and the idea of people who were able to work from home saying, "I can actually do my job as effectively, if not more effectively, from home." And there's a conversation about what is that gonna mean for commercial real estate? What is that gonna mean for workplace interactions? And there's some skepticism around whether higher ed was able to pivot as effectively. But on the other hand, real questions about college affordability and the idea of, "Should we be charging what we're charging, and is there a way do this more efficiently and more cost-effectively through the use of technology? Students have to be on campus for all of their classes, is there a way that we can deliver some of what we do that is so special and so important in a remote environment that might render costs cut a little bit, and for us to be able to make it more affordable for students to attend?" Can you comment on this conversation on the future of higher ed, and are we gonna have a post-COVID transformation as well, or do you think we're all back in the classroom, proceed as usual?
TC: I know. I'm so sorry, depending on which side of that you're on, I'm either a Debbie Downer or I am the the harbinger of good news, so it depends. I think that the proposals of a radically transformed post-COVID university are vastly overstated, because you have to look at what we actually learned from COVID, not what we can now predict people might learn from COVID or what they would experience. Our first thing is very similar to working at home, online education for the past year has been online education in name only, not in experience. Working from home during COVID is not what we have meant by working from home. What we have been doing is emergency survival amidst a global health crisis of truly epic proportions. To call that online education or working from home is a misnomer. These are qualitatively different things. Working from home when you can still go to the grocery store, when you can still dine out, when you can still travel mostly freely about the country, about the world really, is not at all what we have experienced over the last year.
TC: Similarly, what we have heard from students, people who have done surveys, many universities have already done some of their own, I think there are a couple going on right now, the University of Connecticut and someone else is trying to do a representative survey of students. But even colloquially, hearing from my own students, we know that the experience of going online this last year has not been very positive. If anything, people who are bullish on online education should want to distance themselves from the COVID experience as much as they possibly can, because what people had to do, institutions had to do to make do, during these circumstances, are not at all what we mean by online education, which is supposed to be high-quality and flexible, not necessarily affordable, but high quality and flexible. And that's not what most institutions were able to do unilaterally over the past year. If anything, I suspect that families and students, especially traditional-age students, will be more invested in a traditional on-campus experience after COVID. Many of them very resistant to giving up the college experience for online flexibility.
TC: Which leads me to another point. Online flexibility and online education has always had a natural ceiling, and that natural limit is market desire. People have to want to go to school online, not settle for going to school online because their lives are so complicated and it's the only way to get it done, but want to go online, to desire going online. There is a natural limit for that. I just do not believe, given the limits of our current technology, our current cultural reality, the norms, all the cultural capital we invest in the traditional college-going experience is not gonna transform overnight. And I don't think that a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis is enough to rewrite a 100-year narrative about going to college.
CW: Yeah, yeah. And all of the tangibles, but the intangibles that are so much a part of that experience. It's about not just the professor speaking, but it's about the networking, it's about the building of community, it's about the independence of having to strike out on your own and figure out how to solve and address your challenges...
TC: Online education is really good at everything but social and cultural capital. And as it turns out, social and cultural capital are how people make the decision to pursue higher education. That's the fundamental mismatch. We actually are not very good... We're good at leveraging existing social ties, but building new, meaningful ones that lead to career mobility and personal growth and relationships, both interpersonal and professional, those still are not things well-suited yet to online.
CW: Right, right, right. Can you talk about your own professional trajectory? And as we listen to you talk, we hear such a multitude of experiences in the policy world, in the cultural conversation, in education research. And I wonder if you can talk about how you have crafted your professional trajectory. And particularly for those of us with PhDs, we know that we were often given one model for how you craft your profession, and it is step one, step two, step three, and don't you dare deviate from it. And you have recreated that model for yourself and created a model for others, so can you talk about that? And how intentional was it?
TC: [chuckle] That's the million-dollar question, isn't it?
TC: [chuckle] I always say I've gotta get a better story about this, I gotta get a better branding.
TC: I really do need to start owning... Oh no, absolutely, I don't...
CW: It's all part of the plan.
TC: Yeah, but I'm so not there yet, so just let me be very honest with you. Listen, at the outset, I like to say the first four, five years of my academic career, I mostly made decisions without knowing that there was an expectation that I choose something else. [chuckle] Not really, and that wasn't necessarily about being first generation to college, because I wasn't, but I was the first in my family to pursue a PhD, but not the first to go to college or graduate school or anything. But the PhD, admittedly, PhD culture was quite unique and new to my context. But I really did, in some ways, benefit from there being not particularly high expectations from me. Nobody was creating me in their own mold. There was some critique, that mentorship model. And then, my earliest mentors were just really fiercely devoted to intellectual rigor and discipline. And beyond that, didn't care what you did. My models were, if you're the best in the room, just be the best in the room. We'll worry about the title and all that later.
TC: And so, some of those I just got really, I think, fortunate in the sort of people that I attracted in my life. But then, as I did start to kinda clue in... I'll give myself a little credit here. I cheated a bit, in that my work was on higher education, so I was studying the system that I was being professionalized and socialized into. Unlike most of us, when we come through the academy, the way academic hiring and all that works is just a vast mystery to us. We focus on your domain of expertise. It just so happened, my domain of expertise was the system that I was in. And I remember, pretty distinctly, pretty late, it might have been the last year, somewhere around, when I signed my first book contract for lower ed, which is my last year in graduate school, I do remember making a choice about, "Okay, if I do this, this means this." And I did know what the risks are, and accept them, and build a career based on these assumptions.
TC: And I remember thinking, "I just think that I just spent the last six years studying everything from the state of adjunctification, financialization and neo-liberalism in higher education, public investment, competition, macro-economic changes," and frankly, it was a little hubris on my part, I thought I understood the problems of academia a little better than some of my senior professors and advisors. The advice they were giving me was for an academy that no longer existed. I just knew that really well, because I'd spent a lot of time studying it. So, I thought, "Well, yeah, everything you're saying would makes sense if tenure track jobs were still increasing exponentially, if we could count on the expansion of certain disciplinary programs and hires, if we could count on growing year-over-year student demand for higher education. If we... " And I knew all those things had changed. And so, I was deliberate in saying, "I need to do the best work I can under the best conditions that I can defend. As long as I do that, whether that was in public or in strictly narrowly defined scholarship, but as long as I could defend it, it didn't matter who I was defending it to," whether it was for hiring committee or an editor or a public policy person.
TC: So, I'd never sacrifice on rigor, but in choosing to speak my own voice and cobble together the opportunities and really just taking advantage of opportunities as they came along, 'cause some things I couldn't have predicted. How do you predict a book's reception? You don't. You don't predict how... But I could do my best work. As long as I had done that, I thought, I can navigate what is fundamentally becoming an increasingly more unpredictable academic trajectory. I couldn't make bets about the likelihood of a tenure track job opening, but I could control how good is my work and how well can I speak about it.
CW: Right. It sounds like, in your leveraging of technology and your understanding of, say social media, that wasn't, "Oh, I really like to tweet." That was you understanding the direction of how information was flowing, and how higher education was shifting in terms of what experts were gonna be called to do. Not all are gonna be called into tenure track jobs, although you have one, but part of our public work is gonna have to be more outward-facing by design, because the pipeline of students that will be sitting in front of us and the pipeline of tenure track jobs was fundamentally shifting. So, you realized that your voice as a professor was going to have to be much more outward-facing, and to build a career around that.
TC: And that certainly I could better identify and anticipate changes if I was participating in the conversations where those changes were being negotiated. What I had learned from my dissertation research where so much of it was happening in real time. So some of my earliest forays into public discourse of social media was really about me trying to keep up with this super fast moving environment. The political environment for for-profit colleges in 2005, I think it was, was that there was literally a news item every day. It was constantly being litigated. But my work... What I was having to respond to just didn't live in the archives. It wasn't in the journal. It was so present that I had to be there. And then once I was there... Yeah... I got a sense that, "Wait a minute, the people who are speaking to this did not necessarily come through these pathways." And that I would be expected, if I was gonna be the expert on this subject, I would be expected to talk to them just as much or as well as I spoke to other academics. And so, yeah, I did start to sense very early on that that is where the center of gravity had shifted on where discourse was happening and we're also making... Narratives were bubbling up that I probably needed to be there.
CW: Yeah, we have something else in common in that we've both spent time at predominantly white campuses, but we've also spent time on HBCU campuses, Historically Black College and University campuses. So I'm a Spelman alum.
TC: Of course, you are.
CW: And talk to us about your undergraduate experience at an HBCU, and help people who don't know, or people who do know but always like to hear about that very unique and special context and environment.
TC: There's nothing like it. And I say that as somebody who, for my daily life, when it is not the pandemic times, I have been on the road almost constantly since my last year of graduate school. I visit university campuses as just a regular part of my experience, and they are some of the most amazing communities probably ever developed in the years, certainly inside of a formal institution. And I love college campuses. I choose to live... I'm in Chapel Hill, I chose that for a reason. I love this life, and I love that lifestyle. Having said that, there is nothing, nothing like an Historical Black College experience.
TC: And that's not to say that it's perfect. What it is, I write about this a little bit in Thick, and I've written about in a response to several years ago, just sort of like a series of essays and response to Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, and Ta-Nehisi is famous for talking about Howard, The Mecca and the Hill, his experience there. And I always, kind of, not complicated, I go listen, "We're not perfect." Back to that, my very first point about, "We ain't magic, we're humans. So we're not perfect." This what Black institutions are. They are institutions that assume the humanity of its Black students. And when you are Black in America, it is probably the first and the only time that you will be an environment where your humanity is assumed. What is possible for you when you're not defending your very existence every day of your life. For that four, excuse me for being longer than four years, it's okay, but whatever that four to seven years is...
CW: You must've had a really good time.
TC: My mentor said, "That's why you were there so long." It's a good point. But it all worked out fine. It's okay. However long you are there, there is almost no place in the United States of America where Black people control enough of the institution, the institutional relationships to provide even that kind of assumption and to have it built into the every day functioning of an institution. We really only have two, we've got the Black church, and we've got Black colleges and universities. And so what becomes possible for you? Listen, there's a ream of data about aptitude and self-efficacy and success, the long tale of success for African-American students who attend Black colleges and universities. And it's not just about what happens there academically. It is about basic psychology, which is that when you are safe, not just physically safe, psychologically safe. When you're psychologically safe, you can self-actualize. That's all it is. So it is that we are safe there in a way that you just don't experience every day as a Black American. And so, yeah, it's a marvelous experience. There's nothing like it. It's why I defend and invest in institutions no matter how flawed they are, but I also know that once an institution is gone, you don't get it back.
CW: Absolutely. And I suspect you're looking forward to being able to go back to homecoming in person.
TC: Listen, I may have an absolute plans.
TC: I won't admit to it.
CW: Don't we all? Don't we all? Absolutely. Absolutely. So before we pivot to questions from the group, tell us about your current projects and what you're working on now.
TC: Well, thanks for that. One of the great privileges and honors of the MacArthur Award is that it is a moment where you get to take a moment to step back from... No matter how brave or self-contained you are, you inherit and internalize a lot of the pressures of academic competition, and staying on top of everything, and the MacArthur really does give you a moment to step back and think about, "Okay, if I could choose to do anything in the world, what would it be? And what would that project be?" And really for me is, I was very fortunate to realize that I was already doing what I wanted to do with my life, but the resources of the MacArthur means I can do it in a way that is more sustainable, and maybe at a different scale.
TC: So along the line of some of the questions that you have asked and that some of the students asked earlier, which is like, "How do you do this academic work that contains a multitude of publics?" I'm thinking very seriously about how to sustain that kind of work and invest in that work beyond myself. How do I provide or create with others a space for academics who I think there are many of us who have maybe not a long-term parallel public career, as I have and probably will have at this point, till it's all said and done, but who in our work, just by the nature of how we tend to come to our research questions, very motivated usually by our personal experiences.
TC: I think we all have in us that one public, long-form, research-informed essay that can shift a critical public narrative. How do I support that? How do we give the academic a year to take a moment to write in a different kind of way for a different kind of audience? So that's what I'm starting to build. I have a project called Essaying from talking about the form and the craft of writing for a public audience as a scholar, with the long-term plan of partnering with some organizations to make that a sustainable fellowship. It will support mostly minority and women scholars to write in this sort of way for the one project essay that nobody but you can write. What would that thing be? Because I do think that is super important to shifting narratives in a media-driven world, like the one that we live in, where it's both cheap to create discourse, but really expensive to access high quality discourse.
CW: Yeah. Yeah.
TC: And also, we need more people in the room who look differently, who think differently, and it can bring different experiences to those narratives, and so I'm thinking about supporting that and we're slowly building out that apparatus. I probably am in the middle... I'm in denial right now that I'm working on a new book, so we'll just continue to pretend that I'm not, but my research project at CITAP at UNC, which is what I came here to work on, is actually comes out of the Lower Ed, some questions I had at the end of Lower Ed where I talked to hundreds of students, most of them women of color, especially black women, who are enrolled in high cost, low quality, for-profit colleges, and when I would ask them, "Well, what are you gonna do if this doesn't work out, there's no job for you on the other end. You have got a $110000 in debt, you're gonna come out with a PhD or EdD or a nursing doctorate from a for-profit college that may or may not be accepted in the field? And they would say to me, "Well, that's all right. If I don't get a job, I would just go into business for myself." And I kept thinking, Wow, how entrepreneurship have become a catch-all social policy prescription for all of these other intersecting social inequalities.
TC: We tell people to go into business for themselves because we don't wanna invest in improving the quality of work, and so we call them the hustle studies. We're thinking about hustle, hustle-ship, hustle as a way of entrepreneurial survival among women of color in digital economies, and so we're also working on that.
CW: Okay, wonderful. So we have some questions from the community, and one of them is about allyship, and I would love for you to talk about what is high quality allyship look like? And the way the person phrased it is, this is the golden age to be white and woke in America, and then they go on to ask about allyship. So can you talk about that?
TC: Allyship isn't even my favorite word, I like to say to people that an ally should be a way station on the way to becoming a comrade. And so the difference for me is that an ally is someone who has learned about inequalities, has learned about injustices and feels personally implicated. A comrade is someone who has learned that their personal implication will come with personal sacrifice. Yeah, there is... So for me, it's probably a necessary step on the path to solidarity, but it is not a sufficient one, and I actually think we've done ourselves a bit of a disservice in the public discourse about how we have made allyship the goal.
TC: Allyship is just a, it's a stage of identity development. It means your new consciousness raising and you should... Back to the point though about how important it is to serve in our leadership, to know when you need to lead and when you need to follow, I think those are very important things to develop as an ally, but always with the understanding that for us to move into a space of sharing the burden will always come with sacrifice, but I think it's important to point out that in exchange for that sacrifice, you are ultimately freed from all of the lingering restraints that allyship puts on you. So it is better to become a comrade and I think it feels better. Yes, there's personal sacrifice, but there's so much collective benefit that then spills over to your personal experience, but it doesn't mean it's easy. So I think the best allies are the ones who are not trying to stay allies.
CW: What does that personal sacrifice look like?
TC: People really don't like to talk about this, which is fascinating. I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I wrote a short piece a few months ago about the goal of becoming anti-racist was always to break up the white supremacy. I don't know if anybody told you, but it was supposed to come with some sacrifices, and I think we forget that part that this idea that you can change nothing else about your life as long as you talk the talk, that that is sufficient, but it means some relationships will not survive, just like any other developmental stage, you don't keep all of your friends from fifth grade as a middle aged adult. The same happens if you think about your racial identity development, you will lose relationships, but you will gain better, more honest ones, because now you can be who you are because you aren't just an avatar for white supremacy. Once you can become more human, you then have better, more sustaining friendships, edifying friendships and relationships, but you will lose relationships.
TC: So every year around the holidays, you get all of the wonderful race talk and allyship about how do you talk to your racist uncle at Thanksgiving? Well, see a comrade who knows that your racist uncle doesn't come at thanksgiving. That's the developmental process and stage, because you start to see yourself as having a stronger kinship and tie to others than you do to this relation and that you'll lose some of those. It means in the organizational context, very often, it does mean that sometimes your pet project, the one that you would benefit from the most personally, should be tabled for another project that would solve the need, that hasn't been met before, that's what it is all about sacrifice. It isn't that resources are limited, but that everybody isn't going to get what they want all of the time, that to me is sort of a maturity process.
CW: Right, right. I think one other question I have related to that, and it's another question that people have asked, is grappling with these obvious displays of power and white supremacy, and for many of us, we have a long view of history, we know that it's been there, and for others it's a shock to the system, and they're trying to have an intersectional analysis of it. So one of the questions that I got is, "Can you tell us about some of your current ideas on the performance of white femininity in politics? For example, how does Marjorie Taylor Greene capitalize on tropes of white blondness as the gold standard of gender capitalism to advance her political power, or how Lauren Bonner... " I'm not sure if I'm saying the name correctly... "invokes ideals of thinness? How do you see these performances evolving over the next decade?" And I'm thinking about the writing that you do and Thick and how it's so perfectly suited to take on this very sophisticated question.
TC: Oh, thank you for that one. And somebody can email me later if they ever want credit for the line that I just wrote down that I will be borrowing, and that is the gold standard of gender capitalism because that works on so many levels, because it is about blondness, which I've been critiquing lately as the culturally acceptable avatar of white eugenesis ideas of white supremacy, this longing for an investment in a genetic recessive expression of white purity that gets manifest as our cultural valoration of blondness, which so many, by the way, of the sort of extreme right, most extreme right candidates like Marjorie and Bonner, and there's a handful of them across the country who play in those tropes. Bonner is a brunette but still, I think, playing with these ideas of cultural purity, that like you said, have a long view of history, that are about the cult of femininity, that are designed to ultimately reify a patriarchal white supremacist inheritance of property and identity and power, but that in the short term can be retrofitted as a sort of conservative feminism, which is what I find fascinating, that you can...
TC: But that's what happens when you reduce solidarity politics to individual politics, so the minute we defamed feminism and made it about which slogans you prefer, and made it about economic empowerment, we divested it of any ability to be elastic enough for the kind of solidarity narratives that feminism was supposed to do, and this happens. They get co-opted. All social movements and rhetoric gets co-opted eventually, but the idea that someone like Marjorie can call herself feminist at the same time that she opposes every basic tenet of even mainstream feminism... She's only feminist in a performance of individuality. It's not even corporate feminism, it's a very capitalist feminism. That this has become such a powerful currency right now isn't necessarily a surprise, 'cause these things happen in tandem.
TC: You see the sort of resurgence of Southern ideology and Confederate ideologies that start to emerge on things like the January attacks on the Capitol, but that really have pervaded our discourse about what should we do about Confederate statues...
CW: And flags.
TC: That's right. There's this resurgence... These things tend to happen in tandem. There's a resurgence and a nostalgia for that lost Confederacy that dovetails with what some of my colleagues and I have written in response to the sort of Case and Deaton work on declining white life expectancies, but these sort of deaths of despair, which is my colleagues and I have argued is just really about the perceived loss of status. It's not about any real economic loss, because our buying power is roughly the same. It's just that they are roughly less unequal for some people, and they are perceived... So it's a perception of the loss of status that seems to be at the root of white deaths of despair.
TC: And that when you tie all of that together, that is the perfect environment for increased investment in blondness as you've gotta have the sort of gender caretaking of those patriarchal ideas, and that's what they're doing. They sort of clean them up, they make them bullet-proof in political discourse 'cause you can't attack a woman, and so you certainly can't attack a white woman, and so it mainstreams these ideas in the political discourse in a way that I think is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than some of what we saw coming from something like Donald Trump. I always said that Donald Trump's most powerful weapon was actually Ivanka. It was his daughter doing the exact same work, but through that avatar of blondness and femininity, precisely because we are so conditioned for that to be eternally innocent, and that is the innocence effect, and that's what they're trying to leverage in that political discourse.
TC: And I think this is one of the first times that women have had enough of the full franchise enough for them to do it in mainstream politics. They usually would have to do that through philanthropy and sort of tertiary political organizations. To be doing it from elected office is a historical first, not one that I would probably call an achievement, but it is a historical first, and we're gonna have to reckon with, how do we have a complex conversation about how not all women who proclaim feminism are doing feminist politics.
CW: Right, right. And that brings me to Here to Slay, and I am so regretful 'cause we have so many other questions, and people have so many questions for you, but I would love for you to talk about Here to Slay, because I suspect that that is also a space in which people can hear from you and engage with you and send tweets your way that you may kind of incorporate into the conversations that you have with Roxane Gay. So can you just talk very quickly about how that came together, and how we can find you?
TC: Yeah, so when we were doing the show, Roxane and I had been friends and always had a really good time together. We would do these live events sometimes together, and we said we really wanted more of that space and less of some of the spaces that we were constantly being invited into, and that was not that we wanted something that was less serious, but that we thought it was important for us to bring some of the conversations that we had purely as academics or purely as literary authors into popular discourse because, one, both of us take popular discourse seriously. We think popular culture is... Serious business happens in popular culture, and it is all the most serious for how unseriously we treat it, right?
CW: Got it. Right.
TC: And so we had this idea of... We called it a black feminist Daily Show was how we posited it, and it is us taking on what would happen, these conversations that everybody's having this week over the last week or two, what would happen to that conversation if we assume the full humanity of black people and LGBTQIA people in the room? Well, every conversation as it turns out gets smarter. As it turns out, every popular culture conversation becomes more meaningful. There is nothing that we talk about on the show... We bring celebrities on, we bring authors, people that we think should be on the news far more than they are, that we think should be on the Sunday morning news shows. We say to them, "You can always come here."
TC: One of the most edifying parts of this experience is that we always have a space for any black woman who's doing anything, and so we have Stacey Abrams on, we have Gabrielle Union, just across the gamut, and they come on the show, and let me tell you, they walk into the studio, they come on and we go, "Hey, girl, hey," and you can see them just sort of like collapse. They've been on [1:01:01.9] ____ and in these rooms where it's like combat, and we have the most meaningful sustained conversations with them because... To the point about HBCUs... They know they are safe. And so we can get into some of those nuances about how does colorism shape who becomes our black elected representatives. We can talk about the limits of middle class discourse and black entrepreneurialism, and how that disproportionately negatively impacts poor working class women. We can then have a nuanced conversation 'cause everybody feels safe, and so that's what Here to Slay is, and yeah, so it's a lot of fun.
CW: Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, we could do this all evening.
TC: We could. [chuckle]
CW: This was so enriching. And thank you to those... Thank you to everyone for watching. Thank you to you, Dr. Cottom, for engaging in this conversation. Thank you to those who send in questions. Sorry we couldn't get to everything, but it's really a testament to the level of interest people have in your work, and how wide-ranging it is, and how many topics in which people feel heard by what you're saying and want to engage with you further. So very quickly, tell people how to find you and how to keep the dialogue, but keeping in mind, everybody, boundaries, and we have to make sure that Tressie has time to do self-care and working on her next projects...
TC: Thank you so much, everyone. We are all in the pandemic, everybody. Yeah, there's no non-pandemic world happening, privileged work happening. No, seriously, everybody is always... The easiest way is to go to tressiemc.com. It really does... There's a page there on contacts that are about different types of questions to the right people, and I promise you that is the best way to get to me, even if you have my direct email address because that system is set up for me to see the things that need to bubble up. So that's one way. TressieMCPHD at Twitter. And you can find us at Here To Slay, the essaying project, if you wanna talk craft and public voice and scholarship is at tressie.substack.com.
CW: Wonderful. Thank you so much. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. I bid you good evening. This has been Policy Talks at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Take care.