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MacArthur ‘Genius’ McMillan Cottom Talks Black Identity, Pop Culture, and Women’s Rights at Radcliffe Lecture

Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and 2020 MacArthur Fellow, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean of the Radcliffe Institute, speak to a crowd at the Knafel Center.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and 2020 MacArthur Fellow, and Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Dean of the Radcliffe Institute, speak to a crowd at the Knafel Center. By Paton D. Roberts
By Tilly R. Robinson and Sami E. Turner, Contributing Writers

Author and 2020 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Tressie McMillan Cottom discussed Black identity, pop culture, and restrictions on women’s rights during a talk at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Thursday evening.

Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin spoke with McMillan Cottom for the 2023 installment of the Kim and Judy Davis Dean’s Lecture in the Social Sciences. The lecture series annually invites a leading public figure in the social sciences to engage in a conversation about their ideas and perspectives.

McMillan Cottom, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discussed her 2019 book, “Thick and Other Essays,” explaining that she approached each essay as a comparison of generational experiences.

Near the conclusion of the book’s titular essay, McMillan Cottom described this process as asking, “Why me and not my grandmother?”

“For all of its sociological realities, Black life in America today is inherently better than it has ever historically been. And yet, it is still empirically, cumulatively, structurally unequal,” McMillan Cottom said during the lecture. “And I try to hold both of those realities.”

“I try to recognize that my grandmother quite literally could not imagine my life,” she added. “And at the same time, she could absolutely imagine my choices.”

Connecting the themes of her essays to conversations about Black identity, McMillan Cottom said it is important to understand that identity and experience evolve with time and circumstance.

“My definition of Blackness is not the only one,” McMillan Cottom said. “We can’t own it. It’s not property to own; it can really only be shared.”

“I also think there’s room for us to honor the parts of the Black experience that are unique to where we came from, without dishonoring any other version of Blackness,” she added.

Brown-Nagin steered the conversation to pop culture and aesthetics, a central theme of McMillan Cottom’s work, asking McMillan Cottom about a recent TikTok ban over a post discussing blonde hair as a racial status signifier.

“Blonde is not a hair color, it is a signifier of a type of person,” McMillan Cottom said in a TikTok response to another user. “And they never want to talk about that.”

Her post led some users to mass report her TikTok account, resulting in a temporary ban from the platform. McMillan Cottom subsequently wrote a column piece for the New York Times on the controversy titled, “The Enduring, Invisible Power of Blond.”

“They reacted so strongly, I think, precisely because it is talking plainly about the aesthetics of power,” McMillan Cottom said in her Thursday talk, adding that these aesthetics are essential to understanding social power dynamics.

McMillan Cottom said people reinforce social hierarchies like racism, patriarchy, and classism in their everyday interactions — like the initial TikTok post on blondeness that she responded to.

“I think that we are uncomfortable with realizing that that’s what we have done, especially when you have — in the case of white guilt and racism — an entire system designed to make you feel blameless,” she added.

Brown-Nagin asked McMillan Cottom to reflect on how Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the 2022 Supreme Court decision that overturned federal abortion protections — would affect the status of women in the United States.

McMillan Cottom said the decision represents a larger effort to confine women to “the private sphere,” linking the new abortion restrictions to legislation banning gender-affirming care and privatizing education — describing the latter as a means of shifting educational responsibilities to women.

“I think that that is tied to our idea of reinstating the idea of biological gender being a governing public policy,” McMillan Cottom said. “All of these are connected, to my mind, as an all-out war on women in the public sphere.”

Ultimately, McMillan Cottom said, she feared these new laws would constrain women’s economic decision-making and social participation.

“You cannot participate in public life, when the definition of you as an autonomous citizen is negotiated state border by state border,” she said.

McMillan Cottom’s lecture also explored curriculum censorship, changing technology, and social media, and their societal implications.

At the end of her talk, McMillan Cottom fielded questions from the audience. In response to a question on navigating institutions, she acknowledged that Black women can feel additional burdens in their academic and professional lives.

“You keep the parts you love, the great library, the wonderful books, the great ideas,” McMillan Cottom said. “I don’t think you need to take the places that tell you, ‘You shouldn’t speak that way.”

This comment resonated with lecture attendee LaShyra T. Nolen, a dual-degree student at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Kennedy School.

“I think being a Black woman navigating Harvard, the last comment that she shared, when you come into these institutions, you take what you need and what you don’t, that is how I approach my every day,” Nolen said.

“There’s so much good that comes with being in this space, but there’s a lot of heaviness as well,” Nolen added.

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