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The personal is political with Brittney Cooper: podcast & transcript

Listen in as Chris Hayes and cultural theorist Dr. Brittney Cooper discuss race, feminism and culture.

Talking about the politics of identity, particularly in the age of President Donald Trump, can feel like you’re walking through a minefield. Whether it’s the president’s immigration policy or two black men arrested in a Starbucks, Chris Hayes argues that all the political debates we’re having are wrapped up in personal politics. But when it comes to confronting those personal politics and examining the power struggles that they invoke, conversations tend to get tense and defensive.

Author and professor Brittney Cooper’s story is compelling and traumatic and illuminating and she uses these pieces to explore how the personal becomes political within her own life in her new book, “Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.” If there’s anyone who can talk about the politics of identity, feminism, and how we can understand those ideas through the lens of Beyoncé, it is Brittney Cooper.

Read more from Brittney Cooper on THINK: Being a black woman in America means realizing that doing everything right may not be enough

Chris Hayes: There's a way in which I could watch people get defensive of their own inner lives when confronted with the kinds of structural truth that you're talking about.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah. I mean, I think a couple things about that. One is, that I want the straight white man in your head to ... I want him to be able to hear that first ... It's interesting that the points of connection make him feel defensive rather than connected.

Chris Hayes: Welcome to "Why is This Happening?" With me, your host, Chris Hayes. Starting in the 1960s, there's a phrase that started to gain a lot of currency it was part of the student movement and particularly part of the second wave feminist movement and it was, "The personal is political."

There's some question about who came up with it and the authorship of it is unclear but what is clear is that this became a rallying point particularly for a lot women during second wave feminism in which, the personal is political, meant something really profound about how they understood their lives in relationship to larger political struggles. And basically goes something like this, I'm a woman who, for instance, is not in the workforce, I'm a homemaker, my husband works and I find that I feel unfilled or I feel oppressed or depressed or put down or ignored or lacking in a certain kind of personal dignity terms of the autonomy of my life. My husband has total control of the household. I exist almost kind of subaltern, I exist as a person who's sort of subordinate to him and I just don't feel good about my life.

Now, there's a few ways to understand the experience of that, one way to experience it is, I should figure out maybe an exercise regime or I should take up a hobby or I should find some way to feel happier. Another way to understand it and it's the way the personal is political pushes people to understand it is like, I am trapped in a system of patriarchy that breeds misery. That my happiness and full human flourishing, my full self-actualization, my full autonomy, my full liberation as a human being to be all I can be is bound up with the political movement to topple the kind of patriarchal structures that produces the world that I live in, that is currently making me miserable. That idea is a really important and profound one.

And it wasn't just an important profound one in the 1960s, it is central to the way we experience politics today in a really good way. Sometimes when you hear people critique this way of thinking, they'll use the term, identity politics as a kind of throwaway. That's identity politics, that's some other thing, that's people whining because they don't like their life. But the profound insight at the heart of the personal is political is that our lives as private citizens and as human beings, the most intimate relationships we have, marriage, parenthood, our workplace relationships, our friendships, they're all bound up in a set of political structures that give some people power and take power away from others.

And what identity politics, for lack of a better word, or politics in general tries to do is understand those structures. Brittney Cooper is someone who I think writes about the personal being political, as well if not better, than anyone else writing today. She is a black women, she has a new book out called, "Eloquent Rage", that is partly a memoir but really it's a book length meditation about what it means for her to come to understand the personal being political in her life. And I think she has a way of explaining the force and the power of that phrase, of that way of thinking that very few people have, that allows us, particularly people who are outside of her particular experience, like myself, to sort of interrogate how we see the world, the invisible structures that may have put us where we are and to have a public conversation about the world we want to have that doesn't get bogged down in a lot of the kind of cramped forms of debate that you see around the issue of quote, unquote, identity politics.

So Brittney Cooper has this kind of deep brilliance and empathy and kind of cutting astuteness to the way that she sees the world, the way she writes about her own experience that I think allows us to have a much, much smarter conversation about this broad topic that we call identity politics. And I when I say identity politics, what I mean about identity politics is all of politics. Because every conversation we have these days particularly in the era of Donald Trump, who knows identity politics as well as any politician in American history, all politics we talk about are identity politics. All the debates we have, whether it's about people being kicked out of a Starbucks or it's about the president's immigration policy, they come back to who we think we are, what identities we embrace, who has power in the society and whether they feel like they belong. If there's one person who I feel is able to explain the best parts of understanding our political life through that personal prison, it is Brittney Cooper.

I feel like you write about the intersection of the personal and political as well as anyone writing today.

Brittney Cooper: Thank you.

Chris Hayes: I feel like your ... You have this way of combining the two of moving through the two and of being really raw and honest, no seriously. And maybe because we're friends on Facebook too, so I get the whole uncensored thing.

Brittney Cooper: I know, poor thing, I'm sorry.

Chris Hayes: I get the whole thing but the reason I wanted to talk to you is 'cause I feel like you've got, in some ways, you have won the meritocratic lottery. And I don't mean that like, you won it through luck-

Brittney Cooper: No, I worked hard for it.

Chris Hayes: You worked very hard, you're obviously an extremely talented individual, you got inner talents that you have honed through hard work and discipline. But you're the paradigmatic American success story, right?

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: Tell me about what your upbringing was and tell me about how you got from there to here.

Brittney Cooper: Sure. I grew up with a single mother in a small town in Louisiana. My father struggled with alcohol addiction, he was violent and abusive. He left our home when I was five but he was subsequently killed in a domestic dispute trying to protect another love interest when I was nine years old. I also tell the story of he and my mother and their coming together and how their love story is shaped by violence by the way in which a lover that my mother dated before she dated my father was angry that she chose to move on and date my father and eventually comes and shoots both of them. Shoots my mother, shoots my father and then weeks later my mother does survive and she finds out that she's pregnant with me and that she had kept her pregnancy through this very violent attack. So my coming into being and my childhood are shaped by horrific forms of violence. My father gets shot several times in my lifetime and he's only alive until I'm nine years old.

The saving grace in the middle of that is that at some point, a teacher in my elementary school, in my public school notices that I can read really well and she moves me from a sort of segregated middle track classroom. She talks to the teacher who teaches the next level up and says, "Can I send her to your class for reading and math?" and that teacher agrees. And it sets me on the path and I take off. In the same year that my father gets killed, I have this one black teacher, who says this kid is talented, I'm going to invest in her. My test scores leaped 10% in one year. This is the kind of thing that we're trying incentivize with teachers now. So I take off. I go on, I have a great career. I'm the valedictorian of my high school class, college on full scholarship, Ph.D by 28.

And I'm thankful for that story but I often think about all of the kids who were in my class who were just as smart, who didn't have the supports and who didn't make it. And I want to call it actually, angst. If there's anything millennial about me, I do have some angst around. In broader America, we call it an American story. In black communities, we think about it as the politics of respectability, right? You follow all the rules, you are articulate, you are a rule follower, law-abiding, all those things and success can be yours. That story worked for me. It worked shockingly well.

Chris Hayes: In fact, you're the cudgel, you Brittney Cooper, you Brittney Cooper and your success with the story that you just told us-

Brittney Cooper: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Are the cudgel wielded by people.

Brittney Cooper: Yes, exactly, I get weaponized. I tell a story in this book about my godsister, who at some point she and I drift apart and she becomes part of a crew of black girls who bully me in school. And when I tell my mom and my mom calls her folks, 'cause we're basically family, her people say to her, "You need to be more like Brittney ." So even in my childhood, I get wielded and weaponized against other children as a marker of ... The things that are happening to them are because of their poor choices, not because of a bit of luck. The structural story sort of comes together for me in a way that it doesn't for some of my classmates.

Chris Hayes: The book is remarkably honest and remarkably well written. When I read the book, I was thinking to myself, "That is a lot of trauma."

Brittney Cooper: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Even hearing you talk about it now, I can feel a little pinch in your voice.

Brittney Cooper: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: It's a lot of trauma.

Brittney Cooper: Absolutely, yeah. No, it is. Look, I don't even know that I knew that I was that traumatized til I wrote this book. Because when you become a black girl overachiever, sometimes overachievement can become the drug, it can become the coping mechanism, you never slow down. You just keep going because you're trying to make a way. So this was the first time I had slowed down and deeply reflected on, as we like to say, all that I've been through. But for me what I care about is, I didn't want to believe the myth of my exceptionalism, I don't want to believe it. And I don't believe it, right?

Chris Hayes: But talk about that first part, you don't want to believe it.

Brittney Cooper: I don't want to believe it.

Chris Hayes: It's like a faith.

Brittney Cooper: It is because I was set up to believe it. I'm achieving and I've got a lot of black kids in my community who are bullying me and saying, literally saying, this Obama story, right? You're acting white, you wanna be white. And I experienced that, that was my childhood. I didn't particularly grow up having black friends because I got ostracized from the community as someone who was ultimately trying to approximate whiteness. One, what happens is that I get to go to a historically black college. I talk about the first day being on campus, being the first day of my life that I'm not presumed to be the smartest black kid in the classroom and how just that was both intimidating and exhilarating at the same time. So that was very helpful to me but because I then I got a political analysis there, all of a sudden I was able to go back and reflect on my story and recognize the ways that ultimately that this is a story of luck, this is not actually a story about my particular ingenuity and that's not trying to take anything away from myself, it's trying to say, there's all kinds of genius in my community.

There were other black children in the higher level classes with me and their trajectory has been really different because the levels of support that you have to have to make it out, they had to have everything go right. So if one thing went wrong, it could derail you forever. And that's the thing that I don't think we talk about enough, when we say, this hard luck, pull yourself up by your bootstraps story, it still is reliant on you never having a bad day in school. Talking to a teacher, getting pulled out of class, none of the things can happen. Or it's you can be a great kid but even when I was doing well, I had racist teachers who intimidated me, who made me cry every day. And the only thing that helped is that mother felt confident enough in her own ability to advocate for me that she would come to the school and she had the kind of job that was forgiving enough that she can take off for an hour of her day and come without it meaning that she was going to lose her job. And so if you don't have just all of those levels of support, then you can be derailed at any moment.

Chris Hayes: I think about second chances a lot in the context of the world that I saw, which is a very different story, I grew up in the Bronx in a middle class family. And then went to a magnet school which was interesting from a class perspective. Then to an Ivy League college and again from a class perspective and watching the ways in which, people with enough power or affluence or privilege can fail and get back up.

Brittney Cooper: Still be okay.

Chris Hayes: Right, and get second chances and you watch people with addiction, mental health struggles, human stuff-

Brittney Cooper: That we all have.

Chris Hayes: That we all have. Not like, oh, these bad people with addiction and mental health, that's human life.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: And the ability to be able to get back up from that.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: One of the things you're wrestling with in the book is figuring out how do you merge your understanding of you as an individual and you as a product of structure, seriously.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah, no. There's this moment that I think many overachieving black women have, where they recognize the ways that the structure gets you anyway. So I talk about how ... I'm 37, I'm single, I don't have children, I don't own property. What I have is a lot of degrees. That's what I have. I don't have wealth that attends to those things, I don't have all the other sort of stuff that comes with it. And so in some ways, I think a lot in this book about the ways that I become a different kind of statistic. I become the kind of overachieving black woman that has degrees but has struggled to find romantic partnership and while that's shifting thankfully, it has been a long road and the shift didn't happen when I was in my prime childbearing years.

I think about my struggles with infertility and the way that that often catches up to black women who make all the choices. So for me because my mother was a teen mother, my one narrative was don't have a baby. So now, I'm 37 and I have the kind of life where I could have a kid but I can't really easily have a kid.

Chris Hayes: That is some-

Brittney Cooper: Oh yeah, you want to cuss, you just want to cuss.

Chris Hayes: It is, it is. I mean 'cause it's like, "Okay, I did it."

Brittney Cooper: I did everything right and now here we are and look, my mom even in ... I talk in this book about how my mom buys our first home and she buys it largely because I become a latchkey kid so that she doesn't have to pay daycare cost. And because of where we lived in the country, within a years time, she saved enough money to initiate the process for buying a home. I'm 37 and I don't own property. And that way, my story is very millennial. There is a way in which we ... I have not been able to build on the generational progress that even my mother was able to make. Because I live in a different part of the country, demands are different, etc. So the structures catch you, they catch you even when you're an individual overachiever and it's that thing that I want to say to folks around why we can't just invest all our energy in being our very best selves in the ways in which that can become insufficient.

Chris Hayes: The other side of this. I'm gonna jump into the shoes of someone that is not me but I can relate to a little bit.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: Some little voice in my head.

Brittney Cooper: Okay.

Chris Hayes: Which is a straight white man, who doesn't get all the complaining.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: Okay. No, because I see this happen all the time in the discussions we have. There's that joke about the two fish swimming. The two young fish are swimming through the water and an old fish comes by and says, "Beautiful day, enjoy the water." And one fish says to the other, "What's water?"

Brittney Cooper: Yes.

Chris Hayes: And the joke is, they don't know what they're swimming in.

Brittney Cooper: They've always, yeah.

Chris Hayes: So if you're a upper middle class straight white man, right? You don't know what the water is.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: The structural stuff is so invisible, by design, that's the whole point.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah, exactly.

Chris Hayes: But what you do know is, I got bullied. I got my heartbroken by mean girls. I was ostracized. I felt hurt. I felt like I've struggled. I've had bad bosses. I feel like I can't catch a break. I feel like I'm unlucky in love. I feel like, yadda, yadda, 'cause you're a human.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: And there's a way in which, I can watch people get defensive of their own inner lives, when confronted with the kinds of structural truth that you're talking about.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah. I mean, I think a couple things about that. One is, that I want the straight white man in your head to ... I want him to be able to hear that first ... It's interesting that the points of connection make him feel defensive rather than connected. Why doesn't it inspire any kind of empathy? Like, "I see this happening and let me understand another person's experience of it and how it might be different." So I wonder about that, it's that defensiveness that becomes the problem because the story that I'm telling is not just a black girl's story. Many professional women struggle with, I put my career first and now what do I do, how do I build a family, how do I have a partnership. All of those things. The other thing though that've said to ... I had a straight white man come to one of my book talks and confront me. And talk about how he-

Chris Hayes: They will always do that, that's the other thing.

Brittney Cooper: Take up all the space in the room and confront me and ask me to defend it. The thing that I said to him is, what happens if you entertain the notion, that being a white man doesn't mean that you can understand every experience. What happens if just have to concede that maybe there's some parts of this that just don't get but even in the not getting, that doesn't mean that they're not true, that they're not real. There's this enduring joke that happens among black folks particularly when we're online about how we watch HGTV. And how we see white families and it's like the guy is like. "I'm a businessman." And his wife is like, "I'm a stay at home mom and our budget is $900,000." And me and my friends who are upper middle class, we are professors and our budget is nowhere near that. We talk to each other and go, "How are white people living, what kind of money do they have and were is it?" Because we have some of the best jobs that you can have and we don't understand.

We have to acknowledge all time that there's just some stuff that we don't, in our experience, we don't have access to. I think what happens if we see that as a common ground. Maybe I don't get your whole story but here are the points of connection that I get.

Chris Hayes: I think as a white person, I'm trying to do a better job of understanding that emotional place of other white people.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: Partly because I feel that emotional labor shouldn't be done by non-white folks. I feel like it's kind of on us to do it. But it's also, the guy that comes to your book event, what? I just want to sit down for an hour of therapy and be like, "What's up dude?" No, seriously, I really mean that. What are feeling right now, what are you holding right now inside that heart of yours that is making you come to Brittney Cooper's event?

Brittney Cooper: And show out. And part of it is really something basic, which is that folks don't want to feel like they're bad, people don't want to feel like they're terrorists, like they're the cause of someone else's pain. And part of what it means to grapple with whiteness is that, as a political project, it's so deeply tethered to dominance and causing pain to other people that that's what true. And the thing that I always want to be saying to people is, the issue is not trying to hold the weight of whiteness, it is trying to do the work of justice. Why can't that be the shift? We don't need you to hold the weight of ...

Chris Hayes: That is my thing about allyship as a category or all of this. It gets very confessional and touchy-feely about how I feel. Look just go out, do me a favor, go out and go knock on some doors for the DA candidate in your borough who's trying to make sure not everyone's locked up.

Brittney Cooper: That's right.

Chris Hayes: Just do that. Take all the angst.

Brittney Cooper: And live your life, that's right. That's the thing, you don't have to have it all figured out, you don't have to have your language all the way right. Trying to do some good still matters. I didn't write this book 'cause I wanted white people to feel guilty, I'm just uninterested in it. I wrote it because I was like there is a way for us to change this and it gets back to some basic principles around, do you like women as people? When women speak do you listen to them? Do you have substantive relationships with women that you're not trying to have sex with? I mean, really, what is the quality of the relationships with women and also queer folk in your life because that will shift and shape your politics. We can begin there and that feels like a more tangible and-

Chris Hayes: Welcoming or something.

Brittney Cooper: Something to enter in that you can do it, a little bit that you bite off, you're biting off more than you can chew. That's the thing that for me seems to matter. When I talked about Beyoncé in this book, I watched as black feminists ripped her apart. When she came out in 2013 with the "Beyoncé" album, when she came out in 2016 with "Lemonade". With "Lemonade"-

Chris Hayes: There was a transformation I felt like in the critical-

Brittney Cooper: I mean it's so messed up. It was like, "Oh wow, your life isn't perfect. We don't hate you anymore."

Chris Hayes: Right, right.

Brittney Cooper: Which I appreciated that she was transparent but why do we need folks to suffer before we feel like we can connect. That to me is a terrible ideration of black feminism. So I wanted to have a conversation a little bit with black women in the book about what is the thing with Beyoncé. What is she triggering? What is it about? In the end for me, it just comes down to a mean girls thing, she's pretty and she's famous and she's got lots of money and she's got this dude and he's all right or willing to change or something. And lots of black girls, who are feminist, want that. And we don't necessarily have it and I feel just like we're mad. If you get all of the trappings the structure is trying to keep from us than what you can't have is woke politics. You can't have feminism too, that's for those of us who don't get all the things. I actually do really think that's what's going on and I think there might be lots of other sophisticated things we can say but in the end, I just think it's middle school stuff, middle school trauma that we don't work out well.

Chris Hayes: But that's my weird ... My theory about all of politics is middle school trauma that we don't work out well.

Brittney Cooper: I agree with you, no.

Chris Hayes: That's what I mean. That's why I think these conversations about identity politics gets so loaded and so freighted because my fundamental belief is that being a human in the world is hard.

Brittney Cooper: Yes.

Chris Hayes: That doesn't mean it's equally hard for everyone.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: In fact, it's much harder for some people than others.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: But the subjective experience of being a human in the world, of being a Beyoncé in the world-

Brittney Cooper: Is hard.

Chris Hayes: Of being President George W. Bush. People with tremendous privilege, people who do terrible things by the way.

Brittney Cooper: Sure. But it's hard.

Chris Hayes: The universal feeling of walking around in this little thing, when you're like pulling the levers of the robot-

Brittney Cooper: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Is the hardness.

Brittney Cooper: It's hard.

Chris Hayes: I feel like there's a fundamental way in which our politics are broken to talk about that.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And to make space for other people, to get back to the idea that what we're trying to do here is get people to flourish. People to love, people to be happy and it feels like the opposite. It feels like we're like, grabbing at that space or something. Or we're having a tug of war, like it's a piece of pizza that only one of us is going to get to eat.

Brittney Cooper: The whole thing, that's right. There's a resentment towards what people call identity politics, when what they really mean is more people are being able to tell their story.

Chris Hayes: That's right.

Brittney Cooper: And that is so interesting. Why do we see more information as harmful, rather than as clarifying.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Brittney Cooper: That if it's hard for all of us at the point that we can see that it's hard for all of us, then we know that it's a structural problem. It's not just like black overachieving women who are single, we're seeing more singleness in the country in general, people getting married less or staying married less and so that shift is going to affect the quality of life of people. Isolation is a bigger killer in some ways, in old age than many of the chronic diseases that we have.

Chris Hayes: Absolutely.

Brittney Cooper: So what does it mean if we think about what's happening with black women as a harbinger of things that are to come for the country. That's the thing that we keep learning about people of color, 50 years ago, folks were like, "Black women are having all these babies out of wedlock and Daddies aren't' in the home." Here we are now and the New York Times is wring op-eds about creative family structures and the way that people are redefining the modern family. We were redefining it 50 years ago and it became a marker of ... Back then it was pathology, now it's creativity. So what happens if we look at what's happening with black communities who are the first to experience the cracks of empire, since we know that the empire is cracking and crumbling. And so everyone is going to experience it. If we look at what's happening to us and say, what does it look like to fix or help assuage this, then you help everybody. That's a thing we know, that's a thing we know.

Chris Hayes: That is a great point and also true about the whole conversation about the white working class is about the experience of whiteness-

Brittney Cooper: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Literally recapitulating all of the tropes that had been attached to blackness.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah, that's it.

Chris Hayes: And we see it, we see it in the data. Like, out of wedlock births, things like that.

Brittney Cooper: All of it. Look, the middle class is shrinking and it is shrinking because of a set of capitalist polices that all of us should be horrified by. So sometimes I want to say to white people, your anxiety is real, we are working harder for less money, that's true for everybody. If I go into any room and say, "Who's exhausted?", everybody's tired. That's a capitalist problem of, you work more, you get less. Wage stagnation is real, all folks are experiencing a version of that in some way. The problem is then you look at people of color as the folks that you resent and say that they're taking something from you, rather than thinking, no, no, no, this is something about shifting power up to big corporations, this is something about, a sort of profits over people mentality.

One of the things that I always say when I listen to my peers and even my white peers talking about parenting their children and all of the stress parenting kids. I'm like, so much of the anxiety about playdates and schools and all of that, is you want to make sure that your kid is a have versus a have not, you want to make sure your kid is-

Chris Hayes: 100%.

Brittney Cooper: Is in the middle class when you know resources are shrinking.

Chris Hayes: It literally feels like you are training for an Olympic team where's there's a 100 kids out there and the team's gonna select 20.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: That is the model of parenting, particularly in affluent communities. Affluent white communities but-

Brittney Cooper: Communities across the board, yeah.

Chris Hayes: Affluent communities more broadly as a class statement. That's what it is and sometimes it's literal. Sometimes it's literally the good school has 20 slots. Sometimes it's actually made mathematically manifest. But the structure of parenting in these conditions produces the zero sum thinking that you and I are talking about as the basic of this stuff at the center of our politics. We're competing for that slot.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah, no that's it. From the outside looking in as an Auntie to various children, I'm listening to my friends and I'm like "well, of course you're exhausted, because you feel like this kid has to be in every activity, they gotta be scheduled all the time." My mother was like, "Child, I bought you toys, go play with them, you'll be fine." And know know that parents don't feel that sort of leisure but why don't we see it ... Why is the solution, my kid is gonna be one of the 20, rather than, why are there only 20 slots. What does it look like for us to have polices so there's more than 20 slots. It's like the inability to make that shift, is the thing that keeps messing us up.

Chris Hayes: And that's the whole thing.

Brittney Cooper: That's the whole thing.

Chris Hayes: To me, that's the place where we individual ... That is the American pathology, is that we individualize as opposed to think collectively or politically. We take political issues, we make them personal, as opposed to-

Brittney Cooper: We take personal issues, we look at them as political. That's it.

Chris Hayes: We think, "I am failing, why can't I keep up?" I will say the people who learn not to do that, are really affluent people.

Brittney Cooper: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: This is a thing I learned, my dad is a community organizer, he was like, no one organizes like rich people. You want to talk about collective power, go check out a homeowner's association in a nice neighborhood sometimes. You want to talk about how people get together and they're like, "We have a collective problem. There's too much shade being thrown on our pool. Because this developer wants to build a new building." No, no, no. We shall collectively organize." And it's not like, "Man, that's a bummer, we're not going to get tan." No, that is now a political problem.

Brittney Cooper: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: People with power know how to do that.

Brittney Cooper: That's right.

Chris Hayes: That's a thing that people I think with a certain amount of privilege and power learn how to do, that's taught and passed down, is actually to make those things political. It's so hard to think in those terms for other folks I think.

Brittney Cooper: That's one of the core things for me is, what does it look like to get to see your particular issues as a political problem, because I'm thinking about this, I've been thinking watching the Parkland kids, watching this Austin bomber. And one of the things that I always think whenever there are these sort of issues of domestic terrorism at the hands of white men, particularly in the Austin bomber's case they talked about how he was going through things in his life. I always think, white actually do conclude that their personal stuff should become the community problem, that's always the calculation when you go shoot up a school, is that my things that I'm angry about, I should take it out on everyone-

Chris Hayes: Externalize.

Brittney Cooper: That's right. Look, there is a more productive version of that, right? The sort of privileged who ... The thing about communities of color, and the thing about, for me what I took from mother's struggles was that, I mean I wouldn't say that I went around judging her, but I looked at her life and I assessed and I said, "Here are the place were you made wrong choices." And so I won't make those wrong choices and then I won't have the trajectory that you had, I will have a different trajectory. And again, that's an individual ... In some ways, it's imbibing shame from those choices and saying that, If I wanted a better life for myself I would make different choices.

Here's the thing, if my mother calls me and I'm screwing up my life, that's what a pep talk sounds like from her. I assume that if you want different things to happen than you'll do different things to get it. Then I realize that's who my mother is-

Chris Hayes: Okay, but then here's ... This is to me, the final question here which is that it is also the case that at the same time you gotta think structurally and politically and gotta take responsibility for things you do in your life.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: Right?

Brittney Cooper: I mean say this to white people.

Chris Hayes: No, I'm not saying to you, obviously.

Brittney Cooper: I know it. I know.

Chris Hayes: One place that I saw this most intensely is there's an amazing group in New York City called the Osborne association and they work with the incarcerated, the families of the incarcerated, the formally incarcerated. And they with ... On two tracks. So they do actual stuff in prisons, stuff with ex-offenders, and then reform.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: And one of the things they do that I think is so interesting is that they maintain these two tracks.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: Which is, it is a structural problem, the amount of people we put in prison particularly, the amount of people of color.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: Also, you individual, who assaulted someone, need to come to terms with what you did and ask for forgiveness for that and work through why you did that. And that those two things are not, they have very radical politics and radical belief in self responsibility next to each other.

Brittney Cooper: Sure.

Chris Hayes: They are kinda combining the structural and the individual in this really fascinating way to me.

Brittney Cooper: I like that. I think I would say to you that I think it's the thing that I try to live out in my own life. That the issue is never ... For me, the issue was never whether I would take personal responsibility-

Chris Hayes: No, your whole book is about a person who-

Brittney Cooper: But I'm trying to say for other folks who are listening though, one of the things that I say in this book and I do think it's right, the problem with neo-liberalism, a big fancy term, which in this iteration just means, that we privatized stuff that is supposed to be public. We make personal things that are structural. And so all we do is preach up people and say you should have made better choices-

Chris Hayes: That's right.

Brittney Cooper: But my question about the structural and the reason why the model that you're talking about works, is only because here is the assumption that they're making. That, yes, you should make better choices, but you can only make better choices if you have better options. And so what they're doing is creating a world in which there's a different set of options and now, you optimize people's ability to think through. The issue becomes that we keep on yelling at people about how their reality is a function of their bad choices, and there is less reckoning with the ways in which our current structure keeps on narrowing the options available. Even as we said to an affluent family, who is trying to make sure their kid get educated. It's a narrowing of options, if you say only 20 kids can make it. And your kid is the kid who is like, yeah, I could read or I could just think my own thoughts or I don't want to talk to people, or I'm an introvert.

All of these sort of things that you work out with time by you might not be an overachiever initially. And so that's a narrowing of options and the fact that we see it happening across class, across race, across all kinds of demographics should be the basis for solidarity rather than competition.

Chris Hayes: Solidarity rather than competition is a good, I think a good watch word. Brittney Cooper is a professor of gender studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of "Eloquent Rage" which you can buy right now, it's a fantastic book, it's a quick read, it's a fun read. It's really, really great book. Brittney, thank you so much for coming on.

Brittney Cooper: Thank you, Chris.

Chris Hayes: "Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News Think produced by the "All In" team with music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more from Brittney right now with her new piece on NBC News Think, visit to read it.