Podcast

with Jasmine Bina

13: Race, Identity & Power In Our Online/ Offline Space‪s‬

insights in culture

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Author and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom joins us for an intimate discussion on how the mechanics of the internet, social media, digital marketing and real-life institutions amass power along racial and gender lines. We discuss how certain cultural narratives create our understanding of ourselves and others, how consumption is becoming increasingly political, and the role that brands play in the larger discussion.

Podcast Transcript

July 02, 2020

50 min read

Race, Identity & Power In Our Online/ Offline Space‪s

00:00

Jasmine Bina:
Welcome to Unseen, Unknown. I’m Jasmine Bina. On this week’s episode, we’re talking to =, a sociologist whose research spans higher education, work, race, class, gender, and digital societies. You likely know Tressie from her podcast, Here to Slay, which she cohosts with Roxanne Gay, or the way I know her, which is through her highly acclaimed book, Thick. A collection of personal essays that capture her life through the lens of American culture and societal institutions.

Tressie’s work has had significant impact on our current discourse around race and gender. In our conversation today, we talk about how those two things operate in our digital spaces. Think the internet, social media. But also think digital marketing, branding, consumerism. All of the pieces that make our world go round. These spaces have become the new stage for police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and white supremacy. Well before all of this, they housed the social and cultural constructs that brought us to this point.

I started our conversation by asking Tressie how are notions of race and racism play out in our worlds, both online and offline, and where those notions are headed. Listen closely to this conversation, because no matter who you are, it will reveal something to you about yourself and about your world that you didn’t see before.

01:42

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
There are parts of the covert and overt patterns of racism that the internet, especially platforms, are really good at exploiting and uncovering that also operate in the quote, unquote, “real world”, but they’re just more difficult to see. Then the reverse is also true. There are forms of covert and overt racism that are easier to see in the real world. So maybe thinking about it like the architecture of the real world, the physical world, obscures and uncovers different forms differently than it does online. But there is really just one big pot of stew of stuff that is happening person to person, or what we would say, interpersonally. Groups have these forms of interaction, and then there’s like the big pot of stew, which is like the culture, economics, those big ones that aren’t a place or a thing but that are still really powerful ideas.

So politics, economics, culture, consumption, that shape how race and racism play out in our everyday lives. Then race and racism shape those things. So I think it’s about what’s uncovered and the patterns of race and racism can reveal different forms of how those things work online. But I think it’s all emerging from that same sort of ooze, of stuff that creates culture and experience.

 

03:10

Jasmine Bina:
So what’s an example of a platform that kind of brings this to the surface in a way we wouldn’t normally see?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I can think of two examples, and I’m absolutely borrowing some work from one of my recently graduated graduate students, a big shout out to Tabitha Locher, who did a wonderful thesis about humor, irony, and racism on the streaming gaming platform Twitch. We were able to think through how something about how Twitch is designed, or the architecture of that platform shapes different kinds of racism and what we would call race talk, or the way that we talk about race in everyday life, even when we ostensibly are not talking about race.

So her example. We know that when we say that, “Oh, we don’t go to that side of town,” we know what that means, right? We may not overtly say that that is about race, but it is a certain way of talking about race. So one of the things that she finds on the Twitch platform is that because it privileges anonymity, as you pointed out, and because people are disembedded from their local context. So when you log into something that is a streaming platform, there is something about dropping into this stream of constant activity, the way that one does on these gaming platforms, that I think cognitively separates you from your real world.

04:34

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
So there are things that you would say in that space because the consequences seem different. Right? The people in the machine aren’t these sort of fully fleshed out people to you. But the problem you have there is that you need to build instant culture, instant community. So when I log on to Twitch at 3:00 A.M., from say, Indiana. I could drop into an ongoing stream of people from all across the world in different time zones, and that’s what cool about it and what is attractive about the platform to me. But if I want to be a member of the community, I need to instantly be able to communicate with these people. We need to share a language.

Here’s where the real world part picks in. The biggest ideas, the most global ideas that we share across time zones, across identity, across place, are ideas about race. So one of the easiest ways for me to become a member of community really quickly on something like a streaming gaming platform is to make a joke about racism. Or to make a racist joke. Because it works whether I am in the UK, whether I’m in Indiana, or whether I’m in Mexico, right? So that’s a way to just really quickly shortcut the community building in a streaming platform.

Another example is a platform that I use a lot, which is Twitter. Where it’s actually a little harder to do, so you see more covert forms of racism and more implicit forms, I think, of racism, on those platforms, which is why I think there’s been such a coordinated conversation and pushback against trolling, against these coordinated misinformation campaigns that so often use race and racism as part of their attacks on people.

Because on Twitter, we aren’t dropping out of a stream and into ongoing stream. You see sort of the same accounts over time. You develop a language that doesn’t need to rely so heavily on overt ideas of race and racism for you to be in a community. So when somebody drops in, and suddenly starts race bombing the conversation, it’s a norm violation, and people can feel a certain way about that.

So it’s the same behaviors, but something that would instantly build community on Twitch actually undermines community on Twitter. But they’re both pulling from the same ideas, which are, what are the acceptable ways to talk about race and racism in certain places?

07:10

Jasmine Bina:
Right. There are also visuals or memes that I think you kind of have to dig a little bit to understand that even though they get wildly popular, they are reinforcing racist beliefs. As you were talking, it made me think of, do you remember that meme? I think it was last year where it’s like, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, and they’re in a picture together, and it’s like a 100 and whatever billion dollars in one picture and not a Gucci belt in sight. Not a flashy, you know what I’m talking about? Yeah.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Yeah, yeah.

Jasmine Bina:
You’ve talked about something along these lines in the past about consumption, luxury, wearing, displaying. How does a meme like this, if we had to decode this, what is it really telling us?

07:53

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Decoding is the exact right word. So Stuart Hall is this famous cultural historian of race and racism, and he had this idea that the way that racism perpetuates itself in a contemporary society is through the way we can encode messages in our everyday discourse so that for you to get, it’s like getting the joke. Right? Which is actually it. So a joke and a meme is a really good example of this because it only works if the people who are sending the meme and the people who are receiving the meme share the same understanding about the symbols in the meme. Right?

So you could send that same thing about Bill Gates and a Gucci belt to someone in Korea, and they’d be like, “I don’t get the joke,” because consumption and status work very differently there. There’s no race attached to the idea of status symbols in other cultures. In the US, race is encoded so deeply in our ideas about class and the right way to consume things that for that meme to work, we both have to share the idea that, oh, poor people of color buy things wrong. They spend too much money on luxury consumer goods.

I have talked about the idea that the joke works if I think I am part of the group that consumes right. So the joke actually really falls apart if I go, “Hey, I actually absolutely understand why a poor person would spend money on a luxury item.” Right? It could signal belonging very critical ways to a group of people. It could be a way for you to get status in a world where there’s very little of it to go around. Listen, status makes your life easier. When I can walk into a room, and people assume the best of me, I get different access to whatever the group controls. Right? I can get a phone call sooner. I could get the clerk to respond me in a different way. I could get a teacher to speak to me differently.

So I can actually think of a really good reason why a poor person could have the Gucci belt, but if I can’t think of that reason, then the meme is funny. So yeah, memes tap into our shared understanding about race and also class and gender, I might add, and sexuality, and heteronormative. If the joke lands, it has to be because I share your ideas about the symbols in that meme. If it doesn’t land, here’s the wonderful thing about memes. We can always say, “Oh, well, they don’t matter. They’re so low. They’re such low hanging fruit.” No one’s hurt when we share a meme. But the ideas that make the meme work actually do hurt people.

10:41

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. What was surprising to me about this one too is it was so widely shared. I wonder if half of those people realize that it was resonating with them because of the racist beliefs that they had adopted. Let’s keep talking about visuals and images here. I think you wrote someplace that visuals can be hard for a sociologist because you have to break them again.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Yes, they can.

Jasmine Bina:
But visuals have been a big part of the social discussion right now. Visuals of black men being killed by white police or black woman being killed by white police or images of people who are murdered, but back when they were at their graduation or with their family. The thing about these images, as we contemplate them, is that you have an immediate emotional response. They’re easy to share. They compel you to do something in the short term. But isn’t short cutting something? Is it kind of allowing us to skip some sort of larger moral process?

11:44

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I think so. So the thing about images. When television was invented, and became a widely available technology, there was all this fear, truly, about whether or not human beings were capable of processing images in this way. That it would sort of reprogram our relationship to reality. Now, that may have been overstated, but I think one of the things that we are really grappling with over the last few years is it may not have been as overstated as we would like to believe.

Images work because they do seem to have a direct path to our emotions in a way that text does not. You can escape into text. But you have to work at it. Right? You have to sit down with a book. You have to engage in the stories. You have to adopt the premise of the text. So you have to sort of buy into it. Visual images shortcut the buy-in. You’re in that world whether you elected to be there or not. That’s why they’re so powerful. It can play on your emotions without you being consciously aware of the fact that that is happening. 

12:57

This is what I think we lose in the process. There is a lot of social science, actually, to this, that people develop greater capacity for empathy through reading than they do through visual images. We think that might be because you have to be consciously engaged with what you are interacting with when you are reading the text, whereas images work on us in a passive way, and therefore don’t ask much of us. So once the image stops, your empathy stops. So then what’s the feedback loop? It sets up a set of incentives kind of like the way Facebook reaction emojis do, which is you start to crave how many likes you get on Facebook, which shaped us for Instagram, which made us ready for TikTok, where it’s all about the audience feedback.

That’s why the internet runs so much so on images, because it does that. It sort of shapes our capacity for feedback, but it also creates the desire for more feedback. So we’ve become the mouse chasing the pellet. So we never stop to think about it because once the image is gone, the emotion ends. So the risk of that is, what has to happen in the case of police violence and the images of it, for example, is that for a state and a place of empathy, people have to keep being abused by the police. We need another image. We need another image. We need another image, for people to care.

That’s the catch-22, and what I think a lot of really brilliant activists have pointed out. The limits of the empathy of video images of police brutality is very narrow and doesn’t develop the capacity for sustained change.

14:57

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. We’ve spoken on this podcast before about how, we’re so limited in terms of empathy anyways. We have a hard time empathizing with the group, though we can empathize with the individual. We can hear about causes for entire nations or displaced people, or it won’t compel us as much as an image of a little girl, let’s say, who’s starving someplace.

It brings up this other point too. Tell me if you agree. I feel like sometimes if you see these images, the reaction for some people is to distance themselves from being part of that system. It makes me think of the Karen meme that’s just going around everywhere. The idea that Karen can be so neatly packaged, and she’s just this other. We’re not complicit. We didn’t create. We’re not a part of that.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I’m not a Karen. Yeah, yeah.

Jasmine Bina:
Exactly. It feels like by identifying her, by naming her, by putting parameters around her, by giving her a certain haircut and putting her in a grocery store, it’s so clear that she’s not us, but it actually erodes our potential to really understand our role in all of this, I think.

15:49

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
So labeling the thing that is happening is a really powerful tool for resisting something that would oppress you. So what starts out as a subculture in this case, young, black, online culture, I would say, creates this idea of Karen. But they didn’t create Karen. They didn’t create Karen-ism. They labeled it and they packaged it for their form of communication, which is online sharing and meme-ification. The flip becomes when we start to focus on the signifier or the package or the idea of Karen, and we stop critiquing what made Karen, and who is Karen.

I think this would be powerful if white women’s engagement with that meme, for example, should be not, “I’m not a Karen,” but to sit in, instead, the space of, “Wow, how am I like her?” Right? We don’t have the same haircut, but I’ve overreacted like that in an environment. Or I’ve also assumed the worst of someone in an interpersonal interaction. It wasn’t the grocery store, it was the workplace. Or it wasn’t at Red Lobster, it was at the bank.

But to look for points of similarity, that moves from a place of consuming the Karen meme to developing, yes, the capacity for being what we would call critically self-reflexive, which to think about yourself. Not in a narcissistic way, but to think about yourself as others experience you. Can you be reflective in that way? It’s an uncomfortable space. But to look at those memes that are about whiteness in particular, I think it’s really important. Because it’s the most unspoken of our race talk. Right? The racial ideology that we’re not supposed to label and speak about.

17:41

But to think about how you’re similar. Not to distance yourself. Because here’s the thing. Karen’s don’t fall out of the sky. They’re not anomalies. They came from somewhere. If in a culture that is as racially segregated as ours is, very few white people, for example, have non-white friends. We know it statistically. So if black people are experiencing Karens with the frequency that we can now document, then some white person somewhere knows a Karen. I mean, that’s just statistically the probable case, right?

So I will often say to people who immediately jump up and they go, “Oh, God, no. That’s not me. That would never be me.” I go, “Well, you must know someone. You must have seen this somewhere.” The real space of moving from consuming what I would call the racist signifiers, which can make you feel good in a moment. Like, “Ooh, I’m not her. Ooh, good for me, right?” And moving instead to a place of, is this good for anybody for this kind of thing to exist? Is to sit in the moment and reflect on whether or not anything about that meme is similar to you, instead of moving so quickly to the ways that you are different from it.

18:56

Jasmine Bina:
This work of being self-reflexive and seeing how you connect, can that happen online? Or does it need to, by definition, happen offline?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
That’s a really good question. I am almost sure that I am professionally obligated to say that it can happen online. Whether or not I think, so okay, I think in the internet we have, it is difficult for it to happen online. But the internet we have is not the only internet that could be. There was a way for us to do digitally mediated or the internet connections that is not the form of platform capture that we have right now. So there’s a way for us to have these dense forms of internet based connections that are not monetized, for example. Or that are not captured in an app or on a social media platform, where I think those types of authentic spaces could be created.

20:01

In the internet that we have, that monetizes attention, that actually shrinks the size of your world. So one of the perverse things that platforms have done to the internet is that they’ve taken connections that were supposed to make your world bigger, but through marketing and targeted advertising actually makes your actual world smaller. So you have 50,000 friends, quote unquote, “friends.” But based on those 50,000 friends, the platform now delivers to you a smaller and smaller sliver of the culture, because it will only give you the things you like.

Right? So that’s the perverse relationship. So in that space, it’s really hard to become self-reflexive because you never spark against anyone else, right? Never have that moment of friction that is necessary for that space to open up. So it is possible on a version of the internet. It’s really tough with the internet that we have.

20:59

Jasmine Bina:
Right. Now, when you’re talking about the fact that the way these platforms are monetized, and the fact that the algorithm, essentially, shows you more of what you want to see, even though, let’s say, the people you are connected to is a fair cross section of the US.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Exactly, right.

Jasmine Bina:
How does this start to shift power and resources and attention capital in certain ways around race or gender or any parameter? How does it start to pull all of that?

21:29

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
When what we pay attention to becomes as segregated as where we live, the powers accrue the same way online as they do offline, which is that we narrow the pool of voices that are considered legitimate. We start to attach a value to them, whether that’s attention or money. What’s starting to happen online is those two are starting to converge as both attention and money. That’s what I think influencer culture is, the consumer power of online purchasing does to us. By turning so many of interactions in to exchanges. So we attach a value to a smaller pool of quote, unquote, “legitimate,” or desirable voices, the targeted groups, the high quality groups of users. We’ve got affinity groups. We have all this wonderful language for it, that really boils down to we are recreating the offline status hierarchy of race online.

Once that codifies, then all of the new forms of quote, unquote “disruptive technologies” really have to replicate that to disrupt. So the disruption cycle just sort of accelerates the accrual of resources to a smaller group of people. Whether again, that’s attention or their value to marketers or those who invest and sell goods online.

 

22:55

Jasmine Bina:
The way you’re describing it, it sounds like it does it even more efficiently than it might happen.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Benjamin’s a wonderful social scientist, and he has this wonderful book about race and technology where she makes the point about, that what technology promised was this disruption of the cycle of racism, because it would open up the space for minority groups to basically flatten the power differential of size. So one of the problems that a minority group has is just that there are fewer of us, right? Numbers matter. What the internet was supposed to do is connect those smaller groups to other smaller groups, and sort of level the assymetry of numbers online.

Instead, because the way platform capture works, and advertising models have driven the shape of the internet, it speeds up the process of hardening the lines of race online. It just speeds up the cycle, because it becomes so much easier to coopt those minority voices, sort of whitewash them very quickly, attach them to the more desirable accounts or brands or ideas, and make them valuable, and technology has just sped all of that up.

24:11

Jasmine Bina:
This is where I think it gets really interesting. We’re talking about resources and attention capital. I don’t know that there’s a place where you can see it more clearly than in the beauty space. You can’t talk about beauty without talking about Instagram. It’s basically where beauty brands and lifestyle brands are born. It’s where they thrive, and Instagram is setting a lot of the norms for what counts as beauty. What are some just obvious and not so obvious ways that Instagram has defined our current standard of beauty? Or maybe just amplified what was always there.

24:44

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). There as this very hopeful moment when the internet looked like a way to surface alternative versions of beauty and value and worth. Right? It was a place where you could find other people that not only maybe valued what you value, but more importantly, what we were all looking was a place where we were valued. That’s really important for people who live in a majority culture where they are the minority, because nothing you value is ever going to be thought of as inherently valuable unless it’s stripped from you. There’s nothing more a better case of that than the case of beauty, which is minority or subcultures can come up with their own versions of what’s beautiful. But at some point, you’ve got to leave your subculture, if only to go to school, to go to work. Right? To encounter the external world.

Where beauty is a very form of capital, particularly for women who have to use because of how patriarchy is set up, they have to use beauty to a certain extent to gain access to spaces where they can compete and develop themselves. So the minute that we have to trade on beauty, again it becomes valuable, and that’s what Instagram figured out. That we love to look at beautiful things, and we love to promote our own ideas of beauty, but we also like for people to pay attention to us. When those things are in tension with each other, you will start to mimic each other or mimic the dominant form of the belief system, in this case, what is beautiful, so that you can get more attention.

It is again, the attention economy of what will attract the I’s. If there’s a preexisting idea of what constitutes beautiful or acceptable bodies, then that becomes monetized on the platform, and the beauty industry has taken the Instagram, for obvious reasons. It gives them that visual story, that again tends to short circuit our path to empathy, right? That’s why we like to think of our preference for what we find beautiful as apolitical. Like, oh, no, that’s not politics. I just like what I like. I’m just hard wired to like blondes.

26:58

Jasmine Bina:
Which is a lie.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Right, such a lie. Everything that we have a quote, unquote, “preference” for, we are pulling from these big cultural ideas. But on a platform like Instagram, that gets lost. There’s no context on Instagram. There’s just the snapshot and the caption and how many people like you. There’s no context for where the idea of blonde comes from, or blue eyes, or thinness or height or long legs, big boobs. All those things get sort of excised from the culture that produces them, and suddenly it just becomes preference, and customer taste. Right? What your followers want to see.

Then it also has created a space of freedom for minority beauty influencers, to try to create their own thing, but that also allows the majority culture to take the parts that they like from that minority culture, and then turn them into something valuable without paying the people who produced it. So you see a really tiered system in that influencer culture, beauty influencers on Instagram. Where some of the most popular influencers might be from minority groups, but some of the people that are earning the most money are not. It’s the Kardashian-ization of [inaudible 00:28:17] life, right? Everything likes some of these things that come from minority cultures the moment they become divorced from the minority people. Instagram, like we were talking about, Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever, just sort of speeds up that process, and adds a whole other layer of profitability to it.

28:34

Jasmine Bina:
In case anybody’s confused, I came across a stat that said filtered photos are 21% more likely to be viewed than unfiltered, and 45% more likely to receive comments. You learn that super fast. When you get on the platform. Then there’s some more obvious stuff too. Like you described, the basic whitewashing of influencers, or even just simple things like filters that create a new standard of beauty, and all of them lighten your skin tones.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
That is correct. It’s lightening creams, it’s the digital versions of lightening creams, which is one of the number one best global beauty sellers. There’s not a culture in the entire world, and you talk about a dominant idea about race, by the way. One of the most dominant ideas about race around the world, places where they’ve never even seen an actual blonde person, right? Is the idea however, of a global beauty ideal. That is one of the most successful ideas, and it is an anti-black idea.

One of the ways that we measure that is that every society you can buy skin lightening cream, everywhere. Loreal is one of the biggest sellers of skin lightening cream all around the world. They package it for different local context. So whether she want to be fairer skinned in East Asia, or you want to be lighter in South Asia, or you want to be whiter in South Africa, right, it is the same idea all over the world.

Instagram and filters and Facetuning have just taken that idea and digitized it. So yes, every filter not only quote, unquote, “softens” your complexion, but it also lightens it, because the idea is that to be lighter is to be more beautiful, and therefore attract more attention.

30:23

Jasmine Bina:
It literally is in the air that we breathe. I didn’t even really see it that much until I started reading your book last year, and I realized how much colorism there is in Middle Eastern culture. My parents are Iranian, and it’s very prevalent. But you don’t even realize that you’re observing that narrative until, well, for me, I read your book, and then I couldn’t unsee it.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Well, that’s amazing in an I’m sorry kind of way. But yeah, that’s amazing, thank you.

Jasmine Bina:
Well, your book is incredible. We’re going to talk about it now. So your book is a collection of essays. Every one of them is profound, and all of them focus on the structural violence that is committed against black woman. You can’t read this book and not realize how that structural violence isn’t making all of us sick in some ways.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Yes. Yes. That for me is the takeaway. Yes, that it implicates us all and makes us all worse off.

31:30

Jasmine Bina:
Absolutely. Something that was interesting to me, it was clear to me when I read your book, a lot of these ideas, and this happens in our work too all the time, come back to capitalism. It’s inescapable. You have a passage in the book, and we’ve already talked about this a bit, but I just want to read this passage, and if you want to expand on it, that’d be great. But it’s a long passage, so I’m going to read it. You say:

Our so called counter narratives about beauty and what they demand of us cannot be divorced from the fact that beauty is contingent upon capitalism. Even our resistance becomes a means to commodify, and what is commodified is always, always stratified. There’s simply no other way to coerce. Beauty must exclude.

I don’t even know if you need to explain that. I feel like any woman hearing that is going to feel it, and I understand that this is from your perspective as a black woman, where it’s extremely personal as well. It would be great if you could talk a little bit about what the context around this was. What you really meant by this.

32:34

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Yeah. I was responding to several things. One was as a sort of publicly visible academic and sociologist, I often get these calls from brands, especially over the last two or three years, where there’s a lot of cultural capital attached to the brand that quote, unquote “gets it right”, it being diversity, inclusion, of what have you. So often times a brand will reach out to me saying, “Hey, we just want to strategize on this thing we’re launching. We want it to be inclusive,” and they always list as the example, the idea is the Dove beauty campaign. They want to do what Dove did with beauty. Which makes it sound like Dove got it right.

Jasmine Bina:
Oh, they didn’t.

33:24

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
No. Exactly. They absolutely did not. They’re always so surprised when they get me on the call. I go, “Well, hey, I’ll talk to you.” I already know they’re probably not going to like what I say. Because I’ll say to you, “Well, first of all, you’re starting with an ideal that I think is actually fundamentally flawed.” If you want to do the Dove beauty campaign, that’s not something I would encourage, because the Dove beauty campaign promotes this idea of everyone can be beautiful, in a context where we know that is empirically untrue.

The selling of the idea that we can individually overcome these big structural forces that absolutely do shape our lives may make us feel good in a moment, but kind of like the way visual images shortcut our empathy, it really obscures the reality of people’s lives, particularly women’s lives, where again, our value is still contingent upon whether or not we are viewed as physically acceptable.

As long as our value as human beings is conditioned on whether or not we are desirable to someone, then beauty will always be political, and when you make money on beauty, then you’re dealing in the politics of that exclusion. We have to deal with the fact that there are actual barriers to being included in that narrative that no amount of working out, eating well, shaping up, narrowing, lightening, whatever, is ever going to overcome. Until we accept that, until we get to a point that there are limits to what an individual can do, we are trapped in the very system that is abusing us for economic gain.

35:12

So what I have argued is that there is a setting yourself free when you acknowledge that I can like myself and all of my imperfections, but that the political problem is not what I have done to myself, the political problem is what has been done to me. Why do I have to consume these ideas about myself to participate in the world? Why do I have to dress this way? Why I have to perform a certain type of acceptability?

One of the things that we ask of women, particularly when they are deemed not attractive, which by definition, non-white women, by definition can’t ever really become as a group. There can be exceptions, but as a group of people, it cannot happen. So one of the things that happens when we stop accepting that that is the case, is we can say, “Oh, I can stop twisting myself into a pretzel. I can reject that. I can say, ‘I feel good about myself.'” That’s just fine. But I can reject the idea there’s something I need to buy to make myself better. That’s the economic piece.

36:20

Jasmine Bina:
It’s not easy.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
No, it is not.

Jasmine Bina:
It takes a lot of decoding and unbundling the world outside of yourself, and it’s different than what that Dove campaign was doing, which was saying, “Oh, if you’re just confident, you’re beautiful.’ Which puts the burden back on the woman. It’s a moral failing on your part if you can’t be confident in this world.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
My God. They drop us into a whole world, where from the moment you’re born, you are shaped into a performance of desire and beauty, and then blame us when we try to do it.

Jasmine Bina:
Yes.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I mean, how perverse is that? If a person was doing that to us, we would say the person is abusive. We would say that person is emotionally manipulative and abusive. But when a brand does it, it whitewashes the abusive part of it, and I use whitewash quite deliberately there. Yes, because it takes away the violence of what that does to a person, to drop you into a system, and then say, “How dare you have conformed to it?”

37:21

Jasmine Bina:
Yes, and that was I think a tough pill for people to swallow when the reality of that Dove campaign, years later on, started to surface. Because that’s what all lifestyle branding became about.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
That’s right.

Jasmine Bina:
It was all about, you can change yourself, and you talk about this. I don’t think this quote I have here, I don’t think it’s from your book. But you had said in an interview somewhere that the lie we tell in our Western ideal of meritocracy is that there’s something that those people can do to themselves to fit in better, but the ultimate truth is that there’s nothing you can do.

This ties really well to another essay in your book, that I think is the most popular essay. It seems like most people found themselves in your essay called Dying to Be Competent. That was an example of, you did do all of the right things, and that’s when you really saw the lie. Like I said, you can try to unbundle yourself from it, but you catch yourself in it all the time. I would love it if you could talk about that a little bit.

38:24

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Yeah. This is absolutely was coming from the sociological side of me, and then the personal side of me, and it’s the point where the two meet. Which is sociologically, we’re trained to look at these big systems, and figure out how they work and who succeeds in them, and who fails in them. As a person, however, who lives in a body that the system was not designed for, I had experienced that sociology very differently than the way we sometimes talk about it, which is from a distance and with a certain amount of expertise is supposed to be separated from your personal experiences, et cetera.

Well, as a black woman who is also a sociologist, there really isn’t any such thing. Instead of saying that was a problem, I wanted to say, “No, but look how much sharper our understanding of the world is when we don’t have that false divide.” When I could speak about the fact that there was a system designed to deliver medical care to me, healthcare. I was pregnant, and I was going through the healthcare system in a pregnant, female body, which is already a very vulnerable position, by the way. Any woman who has ever been pregnant can tell you about the ways that you’re gaslit, infantilized, the way that people speak over you. They want to talk to your spouse or your partner instead of you. The way medical providers don’t listen to you about what’s happening to your body, the way they try to discipline you so you are pregnant the right way. Gain weight, gain too much weight. Don’t think of yourself as disabled even though you’re in crippling pain. Work through it, get over it. Snap back.

39:59

Oh my God, I hate this language where immediately upon having the baby, you’re supposed to snap back, meaning to your original body, forgetting the fact that this major transformation has happened to you physically. The healthcare system does that to every woman, but by design it is structured to do that to some women more so than others, and I was one of the women, that there was an assumption of competence that was afforded white middle class and upper class women in that healthcare system that was not afforded to me, despite the fact that I was very much middle class. I have all of those external markers of competency. I was highly educated, I had degrees, I was married. I had the quote, unquote, “good health insurance” from a quote, unquote, “good employer.”

But in the moment of interacting with the healthcare system at every single step of the process, I was only granted access once I would concede that I had made a mistake, that I was incompetent, that I had misread my signs of labor, that I should not have been here, that I had done something wrong. That’s a broader critique on the very idea of meritocracy in our society. This idea that meritocracy, our systems that are supposed to promote meritocracy. In my case, I used healthcare, but it’s just as true of education, of work, of technology, of democracy, the criminal justice system, that there is an assumed subject that that system works for.

41:34

But the most basic level is the person who can read English, because all the forms are in English. It’s the person who can afford a representative. Whether that’s a lawyer in a courtroom or an agent of some sort, that signals to people that you need to be treated in a certain way. But there’s an assumed subject in all of these systems, and by design, system after system after system, it becomes clear that none of them are designed for me. I am always the exception, and that there is no amount of earning, external validation, and credentials and symbols that are going to overcome the fact that this is not structured for me.

To circle back to where our conversation started, that yeah, that’s about me. But it’s also about how what happens to me impacts what happens to other people. When the system is designed to make me vulnerable, just to stay efficient, it’s going to make a whole bunch of other people vulnerable too. So yes, the thing that’s designed to exclude me by definition never stops at just me. It will always, always to become more, more efficient, so when we talk about an organization becoming lean or flexible or nimble or flat, what we’re talking about how can it more quickly and efficiently figure out who’s competent and who’s incompetent. How can it sort people more efficiently?

43:06

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
The minute we do that, it’s not just about women, you all, it never stops there. It’s also going to pick up disabled people who may also be black women, but may not be. It is going to pick up people who are not English speakers. It doesn’t stop there. It’s going to pick up poor people. It won’t stop there. It’s going to pick up working class people who are maybe just a little less working class than others. Then it’s going to tap into middle class people, which incidentally is where I think we are right now. It is middle class people feeling that they are not as different as they thought.

Jasmine Bina:
Really, who is middle class right now anyway? I mean, do any of us have savings that will last us longer than a couple of months? It’s a complete fiction.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Yes. If the pandemic has not shown us anything else, I hope it has shown us that. That very, very few of us have enough resources where we are not the incompetent subject really, really fast.

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. I think very few people realize that that entire phrase was completely made up. I think as part of a political campaign. I don’t know how many generations okay.

44:10

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Oh, comes out of the 1940s, yeah. Yep. Yep.

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah, I’m talking to a sociologist. So obviously you know the answer. Okay. I want to mention, you touched on this briefly. What was really powerful about this book, and a lot of your writing, is the fact that we talk to a lot of sociologists on this show, and sociology sometimes just feels very divorced from what it’s actually studying. I’ve spoken with sociologists that are experts in digital worlds just like you, but they don’t even engage in digital media.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Isn’t that weird?

Jasmine Bina:
I know. I still want to interview those people, so I’m not going to critique it.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
No, it’s totally fine. As a sociologist, I think that about my profession all the time. It’s actually really delightful for me to hear someone from outside the profession comment upon that, because I actually, and I’m in a place professionally where I’m thinking about that a lot, by the way. So yeah, no, I know. Totally happens.

45:11

Jasmine Bina:
It feels like you’re opening the door for other people in your position to start writing like this. Because if sociology, I don’t know what the ultimate goal is, if it’s not to actually put a mirror up to our faces, and effect change, right? Because I don’t know that we can trust our social systems or political systems or financial systems to make that change for us anymore. So I do feel like sociologists need other tools, and that’s what makes your writing so, I think, effective for a lot of people. That’s why people see themselves in your book, across the board, people see themselves in your book.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Thank you.

Jasmine Bina:
So you have, it seems, a real opinion on the corporate stuff of all the things that we’re discussing here. I don’t think it’s fair to ask you, “Okay, so what’s the answer?” I don’t know if that’s fair.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Well, thanks. I appreciate it, because we don’t do answers. Because nobody’s ever going to like my answer. My answer is like, more of what we’re doing now, and everybody’s over it, right? But yes, it’s more protest, it’s more pushing back, it’s more naming and shaming and organizing and being super uncomfortable far longer than we want to be uncomfortable. But yeah, nobody likes those answers, which is fair.

46:26

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah, well, but if you have the answers, I would like to hear them. My question was going to be, beyond these attempts. Forget diversity, inclusion, that should be table stakes. Forget posting whatever and making sure your messaging is right. What would it take to kind of solve a problem, like here’s an example. I think it was a New York Times article about how luxury brands are boarding up their store fronts, speaking of imagery. Then they go and hire muralists to paint BLM murals. When they’re really taking their capitalist intentions of protecting their assets and wrapping it in a message. I mean, you don’t have to dig very far to see that. What kind of change would it take for stuff like that to stop happening? That is a big question.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
If we haven’t learned anything from the just phenomenal success, not necessarily good success, but the phenomenal success of monetizing our attention, in the attention economy, in the digital connected society, what I think we should have learned is that our attention is so valuable in a consumer society. Maybe even more valuable than the things we actually buy, which seems perverse to us, which is why I think we haven’t really taken to the idea.

47:50

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
That we will do these boycotts. Amazon blackout day. Literally Amazon doesn’t care. Amazon was designed to be distributed enough that no disruption in any part of its market will affect the overall health of the company. That’s the way globalization works. It was the whole point. But what does start to impact the company, like Facebook, who apparently this week is shaking in their boots over the last couple weeks at the idea that advertisers are starting to pull out, or quote, unquote, “boycotting,” but they’re not boycotting just in money. What they’re really saying is we will turn attention away, and other people saying they will follow suit.

I think our attention and what we will pay attention to is maybe more valuable than where we even spend our money because the way global capital works, the way we spend our money just doesn’t disrupt the way it did 30, 40 years ago. So for that sort of crass performative capitalism, where they quickly co-opt the images of revolution while calling in private police forces to protect their $10 stuff in a store. Probably the best thing we can do is to deny them our attention, believe it or not. Which would mean not taking the pictures of H&M got it right. Or, well, look at this brand with this really cool ad about Black Lives Matter.

49:23

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Frankly, it shouldn’t matter what Nike says about whether or not black lives matter. Nike should be held account to taxation and democratic participation in keeping our society functioning. We probably shouldn’t look to them for a consumer brand message. Now, we should hold them accountable for not being anti-black, but probably trying to seek out a message from them that is pro-Black Live Matter really isn’t the right form of politics for our moment, because it’s too easy to perform it. It’s just far too easy to perform it, and to obscure the way the business actually works.

So I actually think so many of the young activists, by the way, totally get this.

Jasmine Bina:
I was going to say that.

50:09

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I think they get it. They’re the ones who have actually pushed my thinking on this, and have shown that this works in community after community, who I think needs to get this is frankly those of us who are maybe no longer considered young. Okay. We might need to learn it. I think sort of middle America safely ensconced in sort of our own little social world, we need to learn that message. But I’m telling you, young people have got it. They’re not anti-consumption, but they do not look to consumption as their politics in the same kind of way that some of us were raised and socialized to do it.

So I think the right answer is to deny these things our attention, to pay attention to the things you care about. Is the way I’ve heard that said, and it sounds really simple until you realize if you ever track your media diet or something, and you realize you really have spent way more time focusing on the things that you don’t want to see reproduced, and not nearly enough time promoting things that you do what to see reproduced. In an attention economy where so much lives and dies on what we pay attention to, we should probably pay attention to what we want.

51:20

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. It seems like our generation, for some reason, because we were born into this. We were the first generation. We just don’t understand the value of our attention, and we don’t have a good grasp of where we spend it. But I do feel like our children or the next generation, this young generation coming up really does understand it.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Man, do they ever. Which is, this is the natural course of things. They are supposed to understand it better. But I marvel at the speed with which they can just sort through corporate lingo and language and branding and brand speak, and signaling. I mean, they can just slice through it. The part where I think we can help is we can maybe help give them some language around some of that, what we know about consumption and about politics. I do think we have maybe more experience with that, having seen the shift happen. But they absolutely have a speed with which they can analyze those things that we cannot top.

52:23

Jasmine Bina:
Going back to Nike. So tell me if I was hearing this right. You feel like it is their job, because this is where it gets thorny for some people. It is their job to be very political with how they run their business and where their money goes, and where they invest.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Yes.

Jasmine Bina:
Got it. My last question for you. I can’t get away from the book, and it was something that I was thinking about the whole time that I was preparing for this interview. You have a collection of beautiful essays in there. What I kept wondering was, what were the essays that weren’t included?

52:57

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
What an amazing question. I got to tell you, I don’t think anybody’s asked me that. I absolutely love that question. Wow. So I’m in a creative moment where I’m thinking about the next project, so because of that revisited the development of the last book, and so I was thinking about that a lot. I think we started want, I know I started with over 100 essays. There were some previously done. There was some that were kind of seeds of ideas. But I started with a lot, and so it was more a process of integrating some ideas and narrowing than it was broadening the scope. It really was for me about focus.

When you do this type of collection, part of it was that the structure of the essays and how they spoke to each other was as much the message of the book as any one individual essay was. That whether a reader realized it or not, I hope they came away at the end of having read them in their totality together as a conversation across the essays, and that big idea was, “Hey, look what happens when we take black women’s lives seriously.” Look what happens. Look what you understand about yourself now. Look at how differently you’re looking at the things you love. Look how much better you can explain what you believe in. Look at what happens when black women’s humanity is really serious.

54:23

It doesn’t exclude. It actually includes in a way. It’s using a particular language. Black and woman, to include. We think of being particular about our language as a tool of exclusion, and I wanted to show that no, it’s an actual, a calling in, not an exclusionary process. So one of the things I did when I was going through the essays was does this serve this bigger sort of feeling that I hope people walk away with? I’m always thinking when I’m writing, did I write this for me or did I write this for the world? Because there’s a difference. There’s some things that are about me writing to myself and my own understanding, but that won’t necessarily push the understanding of a reader or push a conversation that I think is important.

So for example, there were essays where I was endlessly fascinated with something, and I just had to realize, other people maybe are not.

55:20

Jasmine Bina:
Such as?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Let’s see. I have a whole thing about where did all of the mixed race, interracial couples come from in branding over the last couple years, and I had this theory that we could track it to the rise of interracial couples in network television, and really I ended up tagging it to Shonda Rhimes. I was like, once you gave a showrunner the freedom to cast in a colorblind way, but the showrunner was a black woman, you got these pairings of romantic couples that had never been seen on network television before. And they worked.

So brands start to pick them up as a way to signal diversity without having a diversity message. So a Swiffer now could be diverse if you put a mixed race couple in the ad. Cheerios was another good example. So I have what I call these diversions that I go down, but I thought, does it move forward a conversation, or is it just something that I think is interesting? So that’s once of the ways that I decided, and that’s an example of one of the ones that didn’t quite make the cut. But it’s not any less fascinating to me for it.

56:28

Jasmine Bina:
I was very pleased to learn through one of your blog posts that you and I have something in common. We both have read a lot of harlequin novels, for some reason.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
So many. Oh my goodness, you should have said that in the introduction. We should have started there. Okay, so did you grow up with them, or did you come to them later?

Jasmine Bina:
No, I discovered them when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, and I didn’t go home one summer because I don’t know, I was depressed and not talking to my parents, and I was like, okay. I have to fill my summer with something, and there was a giant stack at the Salvation Army.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
That’s exactly where I would get them. Because for a dollar, they’ll give you a whole sack of them for two dollars. They’re so cheap.

57:12

Jasmine Bina:
There’s so much. You don’t have to read too many to see the same patterns emerge, and it’s like eating junk food. You feel icky after reading them. But I need to know, where are you zeroing in on this content? Why does it resonate with you?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Oh, what a wonderful question. I now attribute it to, in part, I think I’ve just always been curious about how other people live. Nothing in a harlequin book resonates with my actual life. There’s no dukes or lords. Nobody’s coming on a horse to save anybody where I’m from. So it was quite literally like reading, I don’t know, the cultural diary of people that I would never engage with in real life. It was actually a very long time before I realized all white people did not come from a duke or a lord, and did not grow up on a horse farm in Wyoming with an attractive head of the family, who left a whole bunch of money. In the will, there was a requirement that you had to marry someone who would take care of the cows. I didn’t know that that actually didn’t happen in real life.

But I was fascinated by the peak into, and I think what I can now say it was, I was fascinated with privilege. I was fascinated with inheritance because I just didn’t operate in that way in my world. Actually, I learned a whole language of class from them, because so many of them borrow from the British system of class, which is not how it works in America. So you get these, what titles were, and how property worked, and that women were always property. I think it was a peak into trying to think about what gender meant, and how gender worked. Talk about beauty economy, right? The entire harlequin world is built, there’s not an ugly woman in harlequin. There isn’t a single one who doesn’t have flaxen hair that blows in the wind and eats all she wants and never gains weight, and she’s always desirable. So that fiction and ideology was just endlessly fascinating.

Then there was also just a little taboo breaking. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be reading them. That part’s always a little fun.

59:42

Jasmine Bina:
I think anybody would have that experience now too because there’s something weird about, they were always impossible stories. I saw the same thing, the same trope where a jerk falls in love with a beautiful woman, and he’s a total, I was going to say dick to her. He’s not nice to her at all, and she has to somehow get him to fall in love with her, but she can never voice how she feels. It always comes to this climax where she can never say how she feels, he has to just come to understand it through her withholding or whatever weird thing that she does.

Jasmine Bina:
Which is also thematically, I don’t watch too many Hallmark films, but I know you always have an interest in Hallmark films too.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I’ve watched them all for you. You don’t need to watch them. It’s totally fine. Some people find it very weird that a scholar of race and racism and inequality and economic class would watch Hallmark movies. So one of the things, though, that I like about Hallmark movies is that there’s no guessing. So much of my professional life in the real world, especially now, there’s so much predicting we need to do, and it’s all happening so fast. So the Hallmark universe is so predictable. There’s never going to be a villain who’s motivations I don’t understand. Every story is going to end nicely. It’s going to be wrapped up.

01:01:03

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
But I also think of it as like a weird Wes Anderson universe, in that it is the exact inverse of the real world. So it has all of the elements of our everyday life, but flipped upside down. Yes, all of the world in Hallmark is white, but in that world it’s good. The residential segregation seemed to have happened, but everybody likes it that way. Yes, there are poor people in the Hallmark universe, by the way, which I find so fascinating. But they’re never hungry or cold or homeless. They’re just kind of temporarily out of money. Which is such an American fantasy, right? We all think we’re just temporarily broke.

Jasmine Bina:
Oh, yes, I know that myth. Yes.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
Right. In the Hallmark universe, it actually happens. Right, and so it takes all of these really American idea and flips them upside down in a falling through the looking glass kind of way. That as a sociologist, where my whole job is figuring out how the social structure works, it sort of de-familiarizes it, in a really interesting way. Like, Hallmark did gender and class. Flips them upside down so I can examine them, which is really helpful because again, I don’t navigate those spaces of privilege and wealth, and as a sociologist, it’s actually really hard for us to gain access to those places. If you’re not born to them, you’re not going to just walk into a really elite social group and start studying it. Power doesn’t like to be studied.

So one of the ways we can do that is through the popular culture that’s created about power and privilege, and believe it or not, I think Hallmark is an example of that. They wouldn’t say so. They think they’re working class culture. I’m like, no, this is all a love story to capitalism. It’s all a big love letter to money. That’s all it is.

01:03:02

Jasmine Bina:
Is it true that you’re going to cover this for a new podcast?

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I kid you not. I’m actually talking about this. I’ve got an actual team of people. We’re getting together to talk about the perverse mundaneness of the Hallmark universe and what it says about our real world.

Jasmine Bina:
There must be so much to dig in through there.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
I think so. I mean, I hope it’s not that essay that I tossed to the side, where I thought it was only interesting to me. I think if we do this right, that it is interesting to people who don’t read Hallmark novels. I think this is interesting on so many different levels, once you get over the sort of ick factor about it being a Hallmark movie.

Jasmine Bina:
Right. Well, thank you so much. This was such a rich conversation.

Tressie McMillan Cottom:
It sure was. I cannot thank you enough for being a wonderful interlocutor, and having me on. This was so much fun for me.

01:03:59

Jasmine Bina:
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen, Unknown. Our family of listeners is growing fast, and we appreciate each and every one of you that’s coming along for the ride, asking questions of the world, and having big conversations with us. Come join us online too. You can find me @triplejas on Twitter and Instagram. That’s triplejas. Sign up for our newsletter at conceptbureau.com/insights. We’ll talk to you soon.

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