Tressie McMillan Cottom, a 2020 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and author, spoke at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on Thursday evening. The Kim and Judy Davis Dean’s Lecture in the Social Sciences annually invites a leading public figure to discuss their ideas and perspectives, and McMillan Cottom did not disappoint. Her discussion touched on Black identity, pop culture, and restrictions on women’s rights, and was met with a positive reception from the audience.
During her talk, McMillan Cottom shared insights from her book, “Thick and Other Essays,” which compares generational experiences. She emphasized that Black life in America is better than ever before, despite being structurally unequal. McMillan Cottom also discussed the importance of understanding that identity and experience evolve with time and circumstance.
One of the central themes of McMillan Cottom’s work is pop culture and aesthetics, which she discussed with Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin. McMillan Cottom’s recent TikTok ban over a post discussing blonde hair as a racial status signifier was also a topic of discussion. McMillan Cottom explained that people reinforce social hierarchies like racism and patriarchy in their everyday interactions, and that aesthetics are essential to understanding these dynamics.
When asked to reflect on how the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision would affect the status of women in the United States, McMillan Cottom expressed concern that these new laws would constrain women’s economic decision-making and social participation. However, she remained optimistic that women would continue to navigate these challenges and succeed in their academic and professional lives.
At the end of her talk, McMillan Cottom fielded questions from the audience and shared advice for navigating institutions. Her words resonated with attendee LaShyra T. Nolen, who spoke positively about her own approach to navigating Harvard.
Overall, McMillan Cottom’s lecture was insightful and thought-provoking, and her perspectives on Black identity, pop culture, and women’s rights were met with enthusiasm from the audience.