Thick: And Other Essays is a both/and kind of book. That is why I loved it and explains why my brain shuts down when I try to write about it. The book contains deeply personal accounts of the author’s life littered with footnotes for research that expand upon what’s happening on the page. It is one woman’s story, but it is consciously locating the story within theory and research. It is personal and academic. With this collection of eight essays, Tressie McMillan Cottom illuminates her life as a black woman in a racist America, allowing us (especially a white “us”) to see the lines that connect her individual experience with the collective (and empirically verifiable) experience of black women.
I’m a white lady who married into a black family. So, of course, the lines McMillan Cottom draws from the individual to the collective lead directly to my daughters, my in-laws, our friends, and the women in our community. I read this book not just because I love McMillan Cottom’s online presence, but because I knew I needed her wisdom to help me better love, understand, and protect my family and our community. Reading Thick was bracing, refreshing, and convicting. And I didn’t just learn about “the African-American woman’s experience,” as though people’s lives are simply fodder for my brain. I learned about myself—where I fit into the scheme of American society and how my acquiescence to its racism damages my family and our community.
From beginning to end, McMillan Cottom reminds readers of her social location: she is black, a woman, a PhD, a North Carolina native, and “thick.” My Presbyterian tradition would consider each of these a part of divine providence (aside from the PhD, which was a consequence of hard work). Like I tell my girls, “God gave you your hair, and it’s beautiful.” It’s the providence of God that each of us is born into the body and social location we have, but as McMillan Cottom reflects on the reality of living in her body and the place our society would like to push her into, she finds that she is, too often, disincarnated, devalued, and dehumanized. And it is gutting to see how careless American society is toward black women and girls.
I can’t talk about every essay—I don’t have the authority—but McMillan Cottom enabled me through the thickness of her content and prose to recognize not just her specific experience, but my own place within the structures that compel us all.
In “Dying to Be Competent,” she recounts how indifference killed her in-utero daughter. She was married, professional, and pregnant and saw a good doctor in the white part of town. She did everything right. But when she started bleeding about four months into her pregnancy, her concerns were dismissed, her body was ignored, and her baby was born without the ability to survive. It’s a story all too familiar among black mothers whose mortality rate is 243% higher than their white counterparts. Black babies die twice as often as white babies. When I had issues with my pregnancies, I was treated with respect and care, and even if the issue was mostly my anxiety, I was offered solutions to alleviate it.
The terrible end to McMillan Cottom’s pregnancy illustrates the struggle for black women to be viewed as competent. She writes, “We cannot know ourselves, express ourselves in a way that the context will render legible, or prompt people in power to respond to us as agentic beings.” I remember the first time I recognized a black classmate’s competency in college after a Southern, and occasionally neo-confederate, upbringing with only a handful of black people in my life. The realization bloomed: “Oh, maybe I’m racist. Of course she’s as capable as I am.” When our society cannot handle the idea of capable black women, it denies their full humanity, their ability to navigate the world, their interpretations of their own feelings and experiences. And we are society. We may be the ones who refuse to respond to black people as agentic beings, and cause harm or loss in their lives, or loss of their lives.
In “Black Is Over (Or, Special Black),” McMillan Cottom challenges readers to re-work their assumptions of black excellence, something I had to work through with my own husband while we were dating. Despite the work I’d already done to uproot my own racism, I was dismayed to find that I still thought that black men couldn’t achieve without a special struggle story or exceptional smarts. Because I met him when he was in seminary, I was certain he had to be extra special. Why was my first impulse to put him on such a pedestal? Because in a society that lives and breathes racism, even though I knew his white seminary classmates were unexceptional regular guys, his blackness (according to my racism) could only mean that his presence on campus was due to him being exceptional among his black peers. As it turns out, “You must not be like those other black people,” isn’t a very loving thing to think or say. I remain thankful that he forgave me.
McMillan Cottom notes that the idea of scarcity is behind many of the worries about “special blackness.” In a society centered on whiteness, the space available for black people to flourish often feels small. Frequently, the perception is that a few slots are made available for diversity’s sake, but when they are full, there’s no more room. But McMillan Cottom doesn’t worry about accessing power within a white-centered culture. “If you think that I am intelligent and ambitious and reasoned and formidable, if you think one good thing about me at all, then I insist that you reconcile that with me just being regular black-black.” She has the confidence and courage to be who she is all the time, no code-switching or trying to be anything other than a black woman from North Carolina—a salutary lesson for white evangelical American Christians who feel like they are a minority despite the overwhelming data to the contrary, and wisdom to consider before demanding minority assimilation in our white evangelical churches and organizations.
While every essay is worth reading, the one I can’t stop thinking about concerns beauty. Christians talk about beauty all the time, but McMillan Cottom offers a stinging definition: “Beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order.” Just thinking about this essay terrifies me as I consider my daughters who will live lives knowing that their proximity to whiteness may be the reason people consider them beautiful, or their blackness will render them ugly, or their mixedness will get fetishized. We Christians may wish for or even operate according to another definition of beauty, but here in America the existing social order’s preference is slender, blonde, white women.
A few years ago, McMillan Cottom wrote an essay about Miley Cyrus’s appropriation of black culture in which she matter-of-factly described herself as unattractive. The response from both white and black women was remarkable, and prompted the essay, “In the Name of Beauty.” Many black women were hurt by her apparent belief that because she was black she was unattractive. White women responded by insisting she was “as cute as a button” or “should love herself.” From McMillan Cottom’s perspective, they needed her to buy into the same system of beauty into which they are consumed. I’ve never been good at beauty work, so her willingness to opt out of what she calls America’s coercive and weaponized beauty standards gives me relief. But it’s not really about me, is it? So what does this mean for white women?
She writes, “If I believe I can become beautiful, I become an economic subject. My desire becomes a market. And my faith becomes a salve for the white women who want to have the right politics while keeping the privilege of never having to live them.” I’m not sure every white woman like me would agree with McMillan Cottom’s idea of “right politics,” but we would do well to count the cost of our “beauty” for those who can never achieve it.
As white women, if our definition of beauty excludes people, then it is vain because we have succumbed to a consumerism that devalues our fellow image bearers. A quick skim through the ESV’s search function shows that trustworthy beauty is only for the king. Elsewhere we know—we know—it is vain. Our concern about the beauty industry should go beyond the purity of ingredients and whether or not they’ve been tested on animals. Men and women alike need to interrogate our choices of performing or pursuing beauty and discover how much the standards of whiteness in our culture are constraining us.
Despite being a short book, there’s so much to Thick. A trained social scientist reflects on her lived experience while incorporating research into her writing: it is thick indeed—a buffet of knowledge, both personal and societal. I have seen the responses of other black women describing how reading this book makes them feel seen and known. They live in a society that lies about them and McMillan Cottom tells the truth, with footnoted receipts to boot.
The both/and-ness of this book, the personal history, the theory, the footnotes to studies, all of it shows us a path to a better, freer life where we do not judge by the societal standards of whiteness and its implications for everyone who is not white. The depth of wisdom and care McMillan Cottom shows for black women also describe the way I want to be treated, how I yearn to grow to treat others because I, too, fail at the standards of white womanhood. We all fall short. But these standards have no savior. If we are not free of the standards, we must hide our failings by embracing a fake scarcity that is only satisfied when folks who blatantly break the standards by existing in their non-white skin have less. If we can break free from the judgments of the standards of whiteness, we can find the space for everyone to flourish. We don’t have to hoard resources, material or spiritual.
Black people don’t need us, they don’t need our church. The terrible work of white Christians led to the creation of black denominations with black leadership and safety from personal white racism and oppression. But if our historically white churches are able to unhook from the burr of these standards of whiteness—a burr that came from a plant we grew and loved—we may become a place where black people are known, seen, loved, and empowered in their giftings. We may become a place that trusts the Bible more than our assimilation to a wicked and deceitful culture. We may become a place that grows and glows with discipleship. We may be healed from our anemic response to suffering and hardship. We could gain so much, and be so much closer to the Revelations 7:9 ideal. Salvation comes from the beautiful lamb-king alone.
Cover photo by Houcine Ncib.