About Time

Once unsure of where her life was headed, UNC professor and New York Times columnist Tressie McMillan Cottom is in demand, in control — and done with regrets.

By Beth McNichol ’95

In the 1990s, The Tressie McMillan Show on Greensboro’s WKEW AM-1400, hosted by a then-unknown 20-year-old, had a strong following of senior citizens. For three hours in the middle of the day, its titular radio wrangler took calls on the Million Man March, school districting and the local college scene. She’d pose questions, the audience would call in with their opinions, and Tressie would sprinkle the conversation with “what I felt were the facts you needed to know,” she said.

In the weeks before she landed the job, however, Tressie McMillan Cottom often was unsure of the facts she needed to know. She was in the middle of what she called her “difficult years” when she was “just sort of out there floating, not really knowing what I’m doing with myself.” She would visit her best friend at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro for two or three nights at a time. She missed many classes at N.C. Central University in Durham, where she was enrolled on a full scholarship. Beneath it all was a “what-if” that would nag her for decades, well into the years when she would become an award-winning academic, author and 2020 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant award winner: She had wanted to attend private Spelman College in Atlanta.

Many high-achieving Black women had graduated from Spelman, one of only two all-female Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the country. (The other is Bennett College in Greensboro.) They were the kind of women that McMillan Cottom — a natural nerd who read prodigiously and leapfrogged a grade level and attracted Yale recruiters — yearned to become. But there was no full ride to Spelman. “So,” she remembers her mother saying of Central’s offer, “there’s your choice.”

“You know,” her father told her one day as she sat in his Greensboro office, killing time, the AM-din of WKEW humming in the background, “they need to get somebody Black on there. You would be good at radio. You talk all the time.”

She offered up a 20-something’s eye roll. Her dad, Michael Coleman, ran his own photography and videography company, McMillan Cottom said. He had worked in public access television and been a DJ in the 1970s as an undergraduate at N.C. A&T, where he was known as Mike Cole, The King of Soul. She humored him and called WKEW to ask if they were hiring. After she hung up, Coleman phoned in as a listener with a timely suggestion.

“I sure would like it if you got somebody young, maybe even somebody Black on there,” he said.

The station called McMillan Cottom back and offered her a tryout.

“I thought it was the best, coolest thing,” she said of her radio experience, which ended when WKEW swapped its talk format for the kid-pop of Radio Disney in 1998. “And my father loved it.”

Today, the Charlotte native has made a career out of telling audiences what they need to know. While many have tackled the plundering economies of education, technology, whiteness, beauty and pop culture, McMillan Cottom combines her personal experience, academic training and nuanced eye to reveal what these systems of inequality share: An American identity that feeds on its paradoxes. She’d do it first as a doctoral student at Emory, where she trained an investigative eye on the structure and purpose of for-profit colleges that would lead her to provide expert testimony before the Senate in 2019. She’d do it in her “Tressays,” rigorously researched commentaries combining on-point personal history, cultural criticism and prose crafted to gain purchase from even the stingiest of minds. She’d do it in THICK: And Other Essays, a virtuoso collection that became a National Book Award finalist in 2019.

This spring, McMillan Cottom began illuminating readers as a regular opinion columnist at The New York Times after several months of writing a subscriber-only newsletter for the paper. It’s her most public gig yet, and it brings full circle her 2017 Twitter thread calling for a Black woman to win full-time space on the opinion pages of a “prestige publication.” In 2018, the Times hired its first Black female columnist, bestselling author and civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander.

In THICK, McMillan Cottom explained her beef with the lack of representation, highlighting a Times column in which fellow columnist David Brooks linked gourmet deli meat to social class and mobility. She noted that Brooks seemed to have little social interaction with Black women — to anyone who might be more concerned by the effects of globalization on the supply chain for hair weaves than equal access to soppressata on a striata baguette.

As McMillan Cottom wrote: “One man’s Italian meat is another woman’s Afro-curl 1-B bundles.”

“[I wanted] a black woman somewhere in this world to have the freedom to be banal as a matter of course for her job,” she wrote. “I wanted her to be well compensated, protected, and free to fail. I wanted one woman who might touch a comb I use or walk a block I travel to talk about anything her heart desired for a publication where whatever is said matters, by default.”

Now, McMillan Cottom is that woman, to the delight of her hundreds of thousands of followers. As The King of Soul might have said, sometimes you’ve got to call the station and tell them what you want to hear.

Hidden powers

McMillan Cottom trained an investigative eye on the structure and purpose of for-profit colleges that would lead her to provide expert testimony before the Senate in 2019. Her “Tressays” are rigorously researched commentaries combining on-point personal history, cultural criticism and prose crafted to gain purchase from even the stingiest of minds. Her book THICK: And Other Essays was a National Book Award finalist in 2019. Photo courtesy of Tressie McMillan Cottom

When she was first approached by the Times, McMillan Cottom wasn’t sure she wanted the job. It would be life-changing, and she liked the life she had built as an essayist, an associate professor in UNC’s School of Information and Library Science and a faculty researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life.

And make no mistake: McMillan Cottom has built this life with intention because she’s lived the difference. “I had every kind of job, mostly in the same sort of thing: customer-facing, that lower-middle-management tier where I just felt totally stuck,” McMillan Cottom said.

She dropped out of NCCU and worked as a trainer for Sprint Corp. call centers and as a recruiter for a cosmetology school and ITT Technical Institute in Charlotte, a for-profit institution that offered degree programs in careers ranging from criminal justice to information technology.

At ITT in 2008, McMillan Cottom became alarmed by the school’s hard-sell tactics that piled mountains of debt onto the most vulnerable students. After she was pressured to enroll a young man named Jason by saddling him with short-term loans, she’d had enough. McMillan Cottom called NCCU’s registrar and asked to come back, a story detailed in her heralded 2017 book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. She resigned from ITT the next day. On her way out, McMillan Cottom stepped into the bathroom, dialed Jason’s number and urged him to contact the local community college counselor instead of taking out more loans to attend ITT.

McMillan Cottom’s discomfort was prescient: ITT closed its more than 130 locations, including in Charlotte, in 2016 after a federal investigation into its practices blocked the school’s access to federal student loans.

By 2009, McMillan Cottom had degrees in English and political science from NCCU. After hearing her talk about for-profit schools and her experiences at ITT, a mentor at Duke University told McMillan Cottom she was a sociologist waiting to happen.

She finally enrolled in an Atlanta school — Emory University, not Spelman — and launched the rest of her life. For her doctoral dissertation, McMillan Cottom completed the initial enrollment steps at nine for-profit colleges and spoke with more than a hundred current and former students to understand how and why the schools were expanding rapidly. And why it mattered.

Along the way, McMillan Cottom wrote hundreds of essays for her blog and for national publications on student debt and other topics, introducing her voice to the world. Once, as a teaching assistant at Emory, she told sociology professor Richard Rubinson that a CBS television crew was coming to film her leading a class. Rubinson, McMillan Cottom’s doctoral adviser, said she always had “presence.”

“She was my student, but I didn’t realize that she was becoming this kind of personality online,” Rubinson recalled with a laugh.

Rubinson recalled that one year Emory was recruiting new students who would come in for an interview. “One of them said, ‘Now, do you know Tressie? Can I meet her? I’ve been reading all her stuff online,’ ” he said. “Tressie was better known than any of us were. So, it was really quite a thing.”

McMillan Cottom wrote “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” in 2013, during her years at Emory. In it, she explains the status signaling that leads people with little money to buy expensive handbags and how the right silk top for a job interview could lead to a minimum wage job and health care for your baby — even as it depletes your bank account.

The essay is still taught widely and in unusual places, including at an engineering school, in a game theory class and a New York University course on fandom. Not a week goes by that she does not receive an email or a letter from a reader thanking her for it.

“You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor,” she wrote. “And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.”

The beauty of “Logic,” like so much of McMillan Cottom’s work, is her insistence on meeting people at the coordinates in which they make their decisions, needling beneath that lived experience to understand, and then placing those decisions within the context of status and power — who has it, and who does not. McMillan Cottom said that pulling back that curtain is the underestimated gift of having an HBCU education, where the skill is baked into the curriculum.

“I saw Emory differently than everybody else who was there,” McMillan Cottom said of the private, predominantly white institution. “I do remember when that ability started clicking for me. I remember walking across campus that day and looking at all that white marble and all that glass. And there’s something about that built environment. And thinking, ‘I might not be of this place, but I understand it.’ Even when it was really difficult or the culture was really hostile, I just remember thinking, ‘I can figure this out.’ It was powerful. It was edifying. It was probably what carried me on through.”

Working-class and first-generation students, McMillan Cottom has observed in her teaching, also have this intuition when they arrive at elite institutions like Carolina: The ability to walk into a room and evaluate status — where it sits, where it stands and when it subtly shifts.

“It’s a superpower,” said McMillan Cottom, who joined UNC in 2020 from Virginia Commonwealth University. “Their ability to walk into a space and do that is unparalleled. They just don’t know it sometimes. We need to give it words. We need to label it and help them figure out that they’re doing it. It’s really empowering when you go to a school where so many of your peers have been prepared for this environment their whole lives. When you realize that you’ve got a thing that not everybody around you has? Life-changing.”

McMillan Cottom has made a career out of telling audiences what they need to know. While many have tackled the plundering economies of education, technology, whiteness, beauty and pop culture, McMillan Cottom combines her personal experience, academic training and nuanced eye to reveal what these systems of inequality share: An American identity that feeds on its paradoxes.

“Write Like Tressie”

Photo: Anna Routh Barzin ’07

McMillan Cottom first grasped how her Times column had drastically changed her life when she visited Paris this past summer. During introductions on a group tour of the Louvre, half of her fellow tourists exclaimed, “Oh, we know who you are!”

“I’m standing in the freaking Louvre! You know people read the Times,” McMillan Cottom said of its almost 10 million subscribers, “but you don’t really understand it until something like that happens. And you go, ‘Holy crap! I guess that’s a lot of people.’ The scale of the audience will always surprise me.”

There is an element of walking-through-Emory’s-campus to working for the Times, McMillan Cottom said. “No matter how critical you are of these places, you got a little respect for them or a little awe around them.”

It helped that Ezra Klein, another Times columnist, warned her that she might feel that way.

“He told me the biggest challenge of becoming a columnist at the Times is that the very thing they want you to come do, which is write in your voice, becomes really hard to do because you’re so in awe of the Times,” McMillan Cottom said. “He told me, ‘Write like Tressie.’ ”

And she has.

In her debut column, McMillan Cottom gave a little side-eye to the Times editorial board, who had written that the fear of being shamed had become a threat to free speech. McMillan Cottom had a different view of shame — the kind of shame that has been necessary to move the needle forward on civil rights and women’s rights throughout modern history. She wrote that shame had made it possible for her column, and her, to exist.

“Shame can be excessive — toxic shame, it is called — but it can also be functionally good, like when it keeps your pants on in public,” she wrote. “Despite the bad rap that shame gets in our overly psychoanalyzed culture, it is merely a feedback loop that tells you something about your behavior as well as the expectations of others.”

McMillan Cottom also examined the popularity of the conservative television series Yellowstone, comparing the Montana ranching family at the show’s center with the current state of the GOP: “Like Republicans, the Dutton dynasty has one defense against demography and time: Buy guns and hoard stolen power.”

Roxane Gay, a bestselling author and the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in media, culture and feminist studies at Rutgers University, said McMillan Cottom combines sociological chops with stalwart confidence.

“Yellowstone is an incredibly popular show with a specific demographic, and she, you know, went into that fire, nonetheless,” said Gay, who partnered with McMillan Cottom on a podcast called Hear to Slay from 2019 to 2021. “That, of course, incenses a lot of people. But she does it anyway and produces really incredible work while doing so.

“She’s willing to have those difficult conversations,” Gay added. “She’s willing to say the unpopular thing. She’s not trying to appease anyone.”

McMillan Cottom’s courage climbs out of dehumanizing personal tragedy. In her early 30s, she lost her daughter after premature birth. McMillan Cottom said the medical team blamed her for the outcome despite doctors ignoring her labor symptoms for three days. She and her then-husband had done everything they thought they should, right down to choosing an obstetrics practice “on the white, wealthy side of town,” she wrote in THICK.

McMillan Cottom told the story to punctuate a point about structural incompetence. “I was highly educated. … I had health insurance. I was married,” she wrote. “All of my status characteristics screamed ‘competent,’ but nothing could shut down what my blackness screams when it walks into a room. I could use my status to serve others, but not myself.”

Losing her baby then, she told Tommy Tomlinson on the Southbound podcast in August, led her straight to the present.

“Who you are going to be in the world starts the moment you start deciding what that trauma is going to do to you,” she told Tomlinson. “I don’t think I’m a writer — I know I’m not a public thinker — if I hadn’t gone through that. … I don’t know that I would’ve taken the risk to go to graduate school. I don’t think that I would have taken the risk of all the hits of being a public person — when you’re Black and a woman and Southern, and everything that came with that — if that trauma hadn’t reset my baseline for how badly I could be hurt.”

“You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor,” McMillan Cottom wrote in 2013. “And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor.” 

The post-Obama voice

McMillan Cottom is most powerful when she turns her sociological insight on her audience, cutting through our soft surface to get to the marbled core of our motivations. From Dolly Parton’s timeless and cancel-resistant appeal to Barack Obama’s belief in our better angels, McMillan Cottom shows that who we choose to love is often a projection of how we need to see ourselves, a balm for our American contradictions.

“The idea that Dolly is Dolly because of the strength of American diversity is one that pretends to be about how good Dolly is when it is really a story about how good we believe we are,” she wrote of Parton’s broad popularity across gender, race and class in her Substack newsletter, essaying.

“I have come to believe that it did not matter that Obama had faith in white people,” she wrote in THICK. “They needed only to have faith in him: in his willingness to reflect their ideal selves back at them, to change the world without changing them, to change blackness for them without being black to them.”

McMillan Cottom spent the Obama years in graduate school, grappling with her sense of how structurally unsound the bridge from his hopeful White House to the next administration, the next iteration of America, always seemed.

“I might be a product of a post-Obama America,” she said, as a television at the bar behind her beamed clips of Serena and Venus Williams, whom McMillan Cottom interviewed about the Black family and the meaning of legacy for Harper’s Bazaar in February. “The type of complexities we’re wrestling with right now just happen to be exactly what I was built and made to do. I would’ve made less sense, frankly, in Obama’s America. … I just wouldn’t have been the right kind of thinker and writer for that moment. I’m much more critical, like, ‘I don’t know if progress always goes in a straight line.’ Some of what I now know, or how I think and write, is a product of me not feeling like I fit in during those moments. Things are a bit more sober now. And I have enough checks on myself where now I can be more sober, too.”

Talk of the past took McMillan Cottom back to who she was before she became well known, back to that acceptance letter from Spelman that haunted her for more than 20 years, to the long line of amazing women who had received their degrees from the dream college she had turned down.

“A couple of years ago, I was saying this out loud,” McMillan Cottom said. “And my friend was like, ‘More amazing than you?’ She was just looking at me like, ‘What are you saying? Where else did you want to be? What are you mad at?’

“I hadn’t even realized I was holding onto it so,” McMillan Cottom said with a laugh. “It’s a story I was clearly telling myself, that my life would have been so much easier, and so much more exceptional, if I had done this thing. And as it turned out, it’s probably all right.”

Everything has turned out just fine for the former WKEW talk radio host. She’s continuing research on how online businesses don’t always level the playing field for entrepreneurship the way we think they do. Her graduate students at UNC are following her lead, looking at how the void in teaching tough topics in schools is being filled by TikTok and what that means for the education economy and the safety of America’s youth. And she’s part of a burgeoning think tank at UNC’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life who are working to bring conversations about social sciences to the public.

She also announced a two-book deal with Random House last year that will include an exploration of the forces of white identity titled Basic. Her book The Vivian, meanwhile, will examine Black motherhood through her mother, an alumna of the Black Panther Party who is a recurring character in McMillan Cottom’s life and work.

“Vivian now takes about 30 percent credit for everything I do,” McMillan Cottom said about her mother. “She’s like, ‘If you can think that way, I must have given you something that helped you think that way.’ ”

Her father, who died in 2016, didn’t see McMillan Cottom’s rise to the Times. But he was fascinated by all that had transpired, she said. Here she was, breaking down Black women’s and men’s experiences for an audience much larger and more diverse than The Tressie McMillan Show could ever have imagined. And people were listening, rapt.

“Let me get it straight,” her father once told her. “You’re just gonna tell white people this stuff?”

“Yeah,” McMillan Cottom replied. “And if I do it right, this is my job forever.”

Beth McNichol ’95 is a freelance writer in Raleigh and a former associate editor of the Review.

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