Blue Cereal Book Review - Bound: Blogging on Gender, Race, and Culture (Tressie McMillan Cottom)

Bound Cover

Disclaimers

I don’t really do book reviews. There are plenty out there already, and I’m not very good at it. But that’s not the biggest problem with my attempting this one.

The real issue – at least potentially – is that I’m an old straight white guy about to share my thoughts on a collection of essays, the subjects of which often involve the annoying tendency of old straight white guys to think they deserve final critique of everything. 

So the irony is a problem.

To make matters worse, just before my final edit of this particular review, I managed to annoy the book’s author on Twitter while trying to be, um… adorable. Funny. Like we’re all buds and stuff. 

The kind of buds where I follow her on Twitter and she has no idea who I am and no reason to care.

Annoyed Tressie

But I’m an old straight white guy with conservative roots who’s been trying to get my head around an entire universe of realities of which I couldn’t even conceive, let alone accept, a decade ago – realities involving gender, race, and culture, oddly enough. I read, and I listen, but I’ll never be as educated as some of the people trying to explain it all to me, nor will I ever have their experiences as people NOT part of the asserted ‘norm’. 

It’s simply not possible.  

Tressie McMillan Cottom needs absolutely nothing from me.  I, on the other hand, need her. And that’s where this gets even more complicated - before I even get to the review…

See, Cottom writes at a level that stretches me, but doesn’t lose me. She writes with conviction I can’t quite fathom, but which doesn’t alienate me. She uses language I can almost keep up with – sometimes I have to reread a few passages, but I get most of it eventually – without bewildering me. And she writes in a voice that continues to draw me in – without… offending? Scaring? Wounding me – at least in too unfair a way?

Yeah, that’s where it’s kinda maybe weird, because I’m not sure I’m her target audience. I AM confident she’s not lying awake at night wondering if she’s chosen her examples or modified her rhetoric just right for maximum appeal to, well… folks like me. 

But the fact that someone of my background, my modest intellect, my mixed emotions anytime terms like ‘cultural appropriation’ or ‘intersectionality’ are bandied about, can learn and gain so much from this collection of essays is exactly WHY I feel compelled to push it on my old straight white cohorts - especially those who’ve found my rants and babbling so bewildering over the past year or two when it comes to issues of equity or socio-political power structures. 

Cottom says it better. And she’s smarter. Knowledgeable. Legit, even – degrees and everything. She writes as an academic secure enough in her expertise not to take herself too seriously while never leaving you in doubt as to just how serious she is

And that’s how half of a book review ends up being disclaimers questioning my right to even comment. And yet... 

Happy TressieThe Essays

Many of the essays included in Bound can be found on Cottom’s website, but were chosen for this collection at the request of regular readers. Some of them assume a familiarity with recent events you may not actually share, but it’s easy enough to pick up the general scenarios from Cottom’s commentary.

As I struggled to express earlier, Cottom’s written “voice” has a way of holding you agape while inserting hard truths straight into your paradigm. Take this bit from “The Logic of Stupid Poor People”:

We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags… If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars? 

I love effective use of tone. I try it often, and succeed at it occasionally. But not like this. The undercurrents are immediate and irresistible. 

One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive…

I remember my mother taking a next-door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way – lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. 

I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee-high boots… I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. 

It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of a respectable black person – her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings – got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging…

Ferrell KilledSometimes her world-weariness bleeds through, even as she’s analyzing events in primarily academic terms. “When You Forget to Whistle Vivaldi” addresses the death of Jonathan Ferrell, a young black man who was in a car wreck and stumbled to a nearby home for help. Frightened (white) homeowners called the police, who in typical fashion rolled up and shot the black guy without waiting to see what was going on. 

Of course, the oft-quoted idiom that respectability politics will not save you is true. Just as wearing long johns is not a preventative measure against rape for women, affecting middle class white behaviors is not a protective measure but a talisman. In exerting any measure of control over signaling that we are not dangerous or violent or criminal we are mostly assuaging the cognitive stress that constant management of social situations causes.

That stress has real consequences…. When the object of a stereotype is aware of the negative perception of her, that awareness constrains all manner of ability and performance. From testing scores of women who know the others in the room believe women cannot do math to missing a sport play when one is reminded that Asians don’t have hops. The effects of stereotype threat are real… 

It’s like running too many programs in the background of your computer as you try to play a YouTube video. Just as the extra processing, invisible to the naked eye, impacts the video experience, the cognitive version compromises the functioning of our most sophisticated machines: human bodies…

{For} all we social scientists like to talk about structural privilege it might be this social-psychological privilege that is the most valuable. Imagine the productivity of your laptop when all background programs are closed. Now imagine your life when those background processes are rarely, if ever, activated because of the social position your genetic characteristics afford you.

That’s a whole lotta reality in so few sentences and such academically pragmatic language. I didn’t even get defensive reading it, and that’s kinda my thing when tackling uncomfortable subjects. 

Cottom’s not pointing fingers. She’s observing and analyzing, calling things as she sees them for both academic’s sake and the inherent value of honest evaluation. That I'd have to love, even if I disagreed on a few details here and there . I’m not sure I do, but it seems like I should in order to maintain a little credibility – like we’d argue collegiately over drinks or something.

In the end, Cottom may be writing in the language of degreed analysis, but her... spirit is simply nudging us to ask better questions and make better decisions. As a public educator, nothing could make me happier than for such a mindset to take wide root. 

College MoneyFrom “MOOCs, Profit, and Prestige Cartels”:

If we accept my story of profit and higher education market we get to different kinds of questions that lead to different kinds of policies. Rather than disrupting higher education because it does not serve the needs of the market we can ask the market why it does not serve the interests of human beings. 

Why, as corporations increasingly use their moral authority and political will to limit their tax exposure and their contribution to social institutions like k-12 schools, why is public education being refashioned to provide them the “human capital” they require to continue their abdication of the greater social good?

Why, indeed.

Whatever Cottom’s intent, whether or not I’m accurately discerning her thinking, I’m thankful for her willingness to put it out there for the rest of us to do with as we will. Writing is inherently risky, and writing on topics so subject to inflammatory rhetoric and intentional misunderstanding is wonderfully bold.

But to do it so well – that… that’s a gift to the rest of us. Especially those of us who arguably have the least right to enjoy the fruits of such labors. 

Thank you. 

RELATED LINK: tressiemc.com / "Some Of Us Are Brave" {Tressie Cottom's Website}

RELATED LINK: “To learn, we have to be social”: Talking Twitter and Teaching with Tressie McMillan Cottom {discover.wordpress.com}

RELATED LINK: Tressie McMillan Cottom  on theatlantic.com {links to her writing for The Atlantic}

RELATED LINK: Tressie McMillan Cottom on dissentmagazine.org {links to her writing for Dissent}

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