Thick, by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Apr 5 21:24:07 PDT 2020

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Publisher: The New Press
Copyright: 2019
ISBN:      1-62097-437-1
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     247

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an associate professor of sociology at
Virginia Commonwealth University. I first became aware of her via
retweets and recommendations from other people I follow on Twitter, and
she is indeed one of the best writers on that site. Thick: And Other
Essays is an essay collection focused primarily on how American culture
treats black women.

I will be honest here, in part because I think much of the regular
audience for my book reviews is similar to me (white, well-off from
working in tech, and leftist but privileged) and therefore may identify
with my experience. This is the sort of book that I always want to read
and then struggle to start because I find it intimidating. It received
a huge amount of praise on release, including being named as a finalist
for the National Book Award, and that praise focused on its
incisiveness, its truth-telling, and its depth and complexity. Complex
and incisive books about racism are often hard for me to read; they're
painful, depressing, and infuriating, and I have to fight my tendency
to come away from them feeling more cynical and despairing. (Despite
loving his essays, I'm still procrastinating reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's
books.) I want to learn and understand but am not good at doing
anything with the information, so this reading can feel like homework.

If that's also your reaction, read this book. I regret having waited as
long as I did.

Thick is still, at times, painful, depressing, and infuriating. It's
also brilliantly written in a way that makes the knowledge being
conveyed easier to absorb. Rather than a relentless onslaught of
bearing witness (for which, I should stress, there is an important
place), it is a scalpel. Each essay lays open the heart of a subject in
a few deft strokes, points out important features that the reader has
previously missed, and then steps aside, leaving you alone with your
thoughts to come to terms with what you've just learned. I needed this
book to be an essay collection, with each thought just long enough to
have an impact and not so long that I became numb. It's the type of
collection that demands a pause at the end of each essay, a moment of
mental readjustment, and perhaps a paging back through the essay again
to remember the sharpest points.

The essays often start with seeds of the personal, drawing directly on
McMillan Cottom's own life to wrap context around their point. In the
first essay, "Thick," she uses advice given her younger self against
writing too many first-person essays to talk about the writing form,
its critics, and how the backlash against it has become part of
systematic discrimination because black women are not allowed to write
any other sort of authoritative essay. She then draws a distinction
between her own writing and personal essays, not because she thinks
less of that genre but because that genre does not work for her as a
writer. The essays in Thick do this repeatedly. They appear to head in
one direction, then deepen and shift with the added context of precise
sociological analysis, defying predictability and reaching a more
interesting conclusion than the reader had expected. And, despite those
shifts, McMillan Cottom never lost me in a turn. This is a book that is
not only comfortable with complexity and nuance, but helps the reader
become comfortable with that complexity as well.

The second essay, "In the Name of Beauty," is perhaps my favorite of
the book. Its spark was backlash against an essay McMillan Cottom wrote
about Miley Cyrus, but the topic of the essay wasn't what sparked the

  What many black women were angry about was how I located myself in
  what I'd written. I said, blithely as a matter of observable fact,
  that I am unattractive. Because I am unattractive, the argument
  went, I have a particular kind of experience of beauty, race,
  racism, and interacting with what we might call the white gaze. I
  thought nothing of it at the time I was writing it, which is
  unusual. I can usually pinpoint what I have said, written, or done
  that will piss people off and which people will be pissed off. I
  missed this one entirely.

What follows is one of the best essays on the social construction of
beauty I've ever read. It barely pauses at the typical discussion of
unrealistic beauty standards as a feminist issue, instead diving
directly into beauty as whiteness, distinguishing between beauty
standards that change with generations and the more lasting rules that
instead police the bounds between white and not white. McMillan Cottom
then goes on to explain how beauty is a form of capital, a poor and
problematic one but nonetheless one of the few forms of capital women
have access to, and therefore why black women have fought to be
included in beauty despite all of the problems with judging people by
beauty standards. And the essay deepens from there into a trenchant
critique of both capitalism and white feminism that is both precise and

  When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing
  the dominant culture's assessment of me. I am naming what has been
  done to me. And signaling who did it. I am glad that doing so
  unsettles folks, including the many white women who wrote to me with
  impassioned cases for how beautiful I am. They offered me neoliberal
  self-help nonsense that borders on the religious. They need me to
  believe beauty is both achievable and individual, because the
  alternative makes them vulnerable.

I could go on. Every essay in this book deserves similar attention. I
want to quote from all of them. These essays are about racism,
feminism, capitalism, and economics, all at the same time. They're
about power, and how it functions in society, and what it does to
people. There is an essay about Obama that contains the most concise
explanation for his appeal to white voters that I've read. There is a
fascinating essay about the difference between ethnic black and
black-black in U.S. culture. There is so much more.

  We do not share much in the U.S. culture of individualism except our
  delusions about meritocracy. God help my people, but I can talk to
  hundreds of black folks who have been systematically separated from
  their money, citizenship, and personhood and hear at least eighty
  stories about how no one is to blame but themselves. That is not
  about black people being black but about people being American. That
  is what we do. If my work is about anything it is about making plain
  precisely how prestige, money, and power structure our so-called
  democratic institutions so that most of us will always fail.

I, like many other people in my profession, was always more comfortable
with the technical and scientific classes in college. I liked math and
equations and rules, dreaded essay courses, and struggled to engage
with the mandatory humanities courses. Something that I'm still
learning, two decades later, is the extent to which this was because
the humanities are harder work than the sciences and I wasn't yet up to
the challenge of learning them properly. The problems are messier and
more fluid. The context required is broader. It's harder to be clear
and precise. And disciplines like sociology deal with our everyday
lived experience, which means that we all think we're entitled to an

Books like this, which can offer me a hand up and a grounding in the
intellectual rigor while simultaneously being engaging and easy to
read, are a treasure. They help me fill in the gaps in my education and
help me recognize and appreciate the depth of thought in disciplines
that don't come as naturally to me.

This book was homework, but the good kind, the kind that exposes gaps
in my understanding, introduces topics I hadn't considered, and makes
the time fly until I come up for air, awed and thinking hard. Highly

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-04-05


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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