On ‘The Daily Show,’ Cottom talks ‘Thick,’ why she’s done code switching, and the joys of being petty

“Black women always have a right to be heard,” the VCU professor said in a conversation with Trevor Noah.

Tressie McMillan Cottom and Trevor Noah on the set of the Daily Show.
Tressie McMillan Cottom and Trevor Noah on the set of "The Daily Show."

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was interviewed Tuesday on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” about her critically acclaimed new book, “Thick: And Other Essays.”

Cottom’s book, published this month by The New Press, is a nuanced and multifaceted portrayal of the experience of black womanhood, exploring topics including beauty, media, money and pop culture.

Noah, who last interviewed Cottom in 2017 about her previous book, “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy,” (The New Press), called “Thick” an “amazing book by an amazing woman.”

In Tuesday’s interview, Noah asked Cottom what she aimed to accomplish in writing “Thick,” a term he noted encompasses personality, body and “all the ideas that go into what society perceives black women to be or what she should be.”

“‘Thick’ was the last essay I wrote in this book. When we titled it, it all sort of came together for me,” Cottom said. “There’s this theme running through the history of black women’s experience of this country, and of the world, that is about us being nuanced, and sometimes too nuanced, for the world to perceive us as we perceive ourselves.

“And it was in that nuance where I wanted people to get comfortable. We’re not usually very comfortable in places where we don’t have easy black-and-white answers. And this book is about complicating all of that, but in a way that centers the experiences of black women as being human experiences, which is what I thought — if there is any contribution by this book — it is that.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom on Daily Show

Noah asked Cottom why she chose to write “Thick” as an eight-essay collection rather than one long book. She responded that she didn’t think one long book would be able to encapsulate all dimensions of black womanhood:

“Oddly enough, essays are a better approach because you can take these slices of our life,” she said. “And you run this risk [with one long book] of people thinking that this is a definitive book on what it is to be a black woman.

“So one of the things that happens when you’re a black woman and you have some public personality, you become everybody’s black friend who doesn’t have an actual black friend.

“I didn’t want to give the impression that by reading one definitive text about black women that you knew everything there was to know about black women.

“What this does instead is give you a slice of life and the thinking and philosophy of black womanhood as I understand it. Not just as someone who has lived it and experienced it, but as someone who has studied it and thought about it at these different levels. So essays allow me to sort of slice those sections of our life experiences off in a way that I think a single narrative wouldn’t allow me to do.”

Noah also asked about Cottom’s opinion in “Thick” that major media publications have not done enough to hire black women, particularly on the opinion pages.

“You talk in the book about how publications, for instance, don’t hire enough black women as voices to constantly contribute,” he said. “They just want to jump in and be like, ‘Hey there’s a black issue. Black lady, can you jump in and write this for us? But we’re not going to hire you permanently.’ Why do you think that’s so important in the conversations that America has in and around its politics or social issues?”

“It’s important on a couple of levels,” Cottom said. “It’s important to black women because we deserve it, right? If you have earned a spot to contribute to the public discourse, then you should be at publications that help shape that kind of discourse. Our opinion pages — those mastheads — as much as we like to think that they no longer matter, indeed in the age of social media they may matter more, and not less. Because we tend to turn to the publications that we trust more when news becomes more difficult to trust. If those are going to be the publications that we trust, it should like the people whose trust we are asking for. So that’s one reason.

“And the other reason is that I believe the philosophy that black women have developed over hundreds of years says as much about black womanhood as it does about everyone else’s experiences. And, frankly, I just think we’re smarter if we listen to black women.

“It’s not to say that black women are always right. But black women do always have a right to be heard. And when you don’t model what it means to take black women seriously in our public discourse, it reinforces the idea that people don’t have to take it seriously.”

Cottom was also asked about her discussion in “Thick” related to how she undertakes “small and meaningful protests” in her life, notably including a refusal to code switch.

“You say … ‘I’m going to be the blackiest black that I can be.’ That’s a really interesting idea,” Noah said. “Why do you think it’s important to do that? Do you think code switching reinforces the stereotypes that people have about black people? So they go, ‘Oh, you sound more white. Ergo, whiteness is associated with smartness.’ And then you go, like, ‘No, I’m going to be as black as you think a black person can be while still maintaining that level of intelligence.’”

Cottom replied: “Code switching is a marvelous cultural tradition and I love it. I love that I’m able to do it. I also love that I’m able to choose not to do it. What I am doing when I do it is I am acknowledging the fact that I have achieved certain status symbols that we tend to associate with people who don’t look like me.

“And I want to make people uncomfortable with the fact that they are uncomfortable with me. Reconcile the fact that if you think I am anything worthwhile — intelligent or attractive or important — I want them to reconcile that with the fact that I sound like I sound, I look what I look like, and I am what I am.”

Noah also asked Cottom about a part in “Thick” where her favorite used bookstore took her purse while browsing out of fear that she would steal.

“Do you ever feel the urge to go back to that bookstore, like, ‘I’m here to sign my own [book] now?’” Noah asked.

“We have a word for that,” Cottom said, “and that’s called being petty. And yes, yes I have.”