Public intellectual, sociologist, and National Book Award finalist Tressie McMillan Cottom has written a superb book Thick and Other Essays that employs a sociological approach known as “thick description” that may be one of the most insightful books I have read all year. The collection of essays uses an approach that allows Cottom to integrate her personal experiences while simultaneously writing rich analyses on a variety of subjects relevant to Black experience. The book, which is the first I have read by the author, uses a method of social analysis that is profound while also remaining accessible.
The compendium of eight essays employs an anthropological theory known as thick description, which uses a cultural experience to dissect a particular society, experience, or group while also grounding it in theory. It is a smart way of understanding a cultural experience by inserting your own experience but only to better understand the social location of one’s subject or topic of discussion. In other words, on a topic such as Black women’s health, Cottom has incisively integrated her own experience delivering a stillbirth as a springboard into a discussion about the ways in which the medical establishment decenters Black women’s experiences and thus renders them “incompetent” for those experiences that fall outside mainstream (read: white) women’s pain experiences.
This social analysis reminded me of the path breaking book Culture and Truth by Chicanx cultural anthropologist and Stanford professor emeritus Renato Rosaldo some three decades ago. In that book, Rosaldo defies the standard anthropological approaches, including thick description, and instead brings his own personal experience into the lens of his social analyses. In studying the Ilongots in the Philippines in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, Rosaldo had not really grasped how the Ilongot’s experiences of grief translated into rage. Instead, he adopted the stereotype of grief only as sadness. That is, until his wife Michelle died suddenly while conducting field research with him. Then, Rosaldo experienced grief as rage and in the process came to radically reinterpret his understanding of the Ilongot people. In experiencing his own pain, Rosaldo repositioned himself and his understanding of his subject. It began to explode the way he understood many different groups he studied.
I came to Rosaldo’s research in working through different theoretical models for my own research several decades ago and it helped me to recognize the way in which we, as Chicanx scholars, come to our own research from a different vantage point. It took several decades for Chicanx scholars to be able to assert our own “positions” and thus in more authentic vantage points in the process. In this same way, it seems that Cottom succeeds in inserting her own personal experience to help her (and us as her readers) understand her subject in more authentic ways. To say that I was mind blown by Cottom’s shrewd social analysis is an understatement. In her essays, Cottom has offered commentary on such wide-ranging topics as beauty culture, the politics of material consumption, Black identity in academia, the elasticity of whiteness, and Black women’s health. The analytical angle is best summed up by the author as a model in which “along the way I shared part of myself, my history, and my identity to make social theory concrete.” And, in this way it brought me back to Rosaldo’s work that similarly blew open my thinking years ago.
There were so many insightful essays in this book. In the chapter on beauty culture, Cottom uses the lens of the movie Grease, which she watched as a high school student to demonstrate the way in which whiteness becomes the normalized model of beauty. Using an anecdote in which one of her white male peers seems to become unglued over the transformation of Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) at the end of the movie, the author offers brilliant analysis:
“beauty isn’t actually what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order.”
Thus, in showing us that the white young man prefers a blonde slender woman, she shows how all other body types (and in her case Black women) are “not located in the beauty myth.”
In another of my favorite essays titled “Know Your Whites,” the author expresses the concept of “knowing your whites,” or understanding the psychology of white people and “the elasticity of whiteness.” By that, she means that the notion of whiteness is flexible depending on the situation whether political or culturally expedient. It is the idea that Cottom is close with some white people while at the same time not entirely trusting white people as a social group. That is “knowing your whites,” or knowing how they think, feel, and react in certain circumstances. She shrewdly uses this lens to suggest that whites believed in the “idea” of a Black president but not necessarily in racial equality and thus, demonstrates the elasticity of whiteness. This argument goes back to Cottom’s main premise. The fact that she, and other Black people, recognize the difference between their faith in Obama and white people’s belief in the “idea” of a Black president speaks volumes. When white folks only consider the “idea” of a Black president or the intellectual exercise of Black Lives Matter, they do not truly recognize the position of Black experience. And, this, indeed, is the reason for the concept of allyship in #BLM and not membership in Black Lives Matter.
The distinction is important. Cotton’s lens for understanding these issues allows her experience to inform her social analyses whether it be discussions about notions of beauty, academia, health, consumerism, or Black girlhood. This book is highly recommended for those interested in Black culture, public intellectualism, and social theory.
By Tressie McMillan Cottom
248 pages. 2019.