A Conversation with Jamelle Bouie
Jamelle Bouie is a writer for The Daily Beast whose work has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, The Nation and the Washington Post. He is also somewhat of a lightning rod for ideologues: you might’ve seen his debate with Buzz Bissinger on NYMag, any number of people in his face on Twitter, etc. I’ve wanted for a long time to talk to Jamelle about writing, racial and political dialogue, the discursive practices of the internet—and how he manages to handle all of those things with great unflappability, grace and humor. (His Twitter bio states, “The real racist.”) We talked on the phone last week.
So, I should probably disclose that we knew each other in college because we were both in this tiny major at UVA where I was hopelessly out of my league and you were consistently very great. In retrospect it was a good program to prep for the pace of internet writing—we’d read (or in my case, “read”) like, The Wealth of Nations in a week and then churn out an essay, rinse, repeat.
It is bananas how much we read.
I was definitely looking at it as writing practice. What about you—in college, did you think of yourself as a future writer?
I don’t think I went into college with any particular thoughts about what I wanted to do. Maybe, vaguely, before college I thought I wanted to do something that was in the public eye—public work—but really, up until I graduated I had no sense of it.
What were your research interests in college? What did you write your thesis on?
My thesis was on how white evangelicals responded to the civil rights movement—recognizing and locating the politicization of Christianity and the start of the religious right in the ‘60s.
Right. So you were always circling the race/politics intersection. I remember you worked at, what’s it called? The politics center where the interns were always transcribing Watergate tapes?
Yeah. I did transcripts, AV stuff, a little hobnobbing with rich people, at the Miller Center for almost exactly a year after we graduated. I applied to the American Prospect fellowship in spring of 2010, got hired in late spring, and moved to DC in the summer.
And you started writing right away?
Did your editor give you assignments, or was it self-directed?
It was self-directed. In retrospect it would have been good in many ways to have a beat, but I was and am sort of a generalist writer—I’ve never really been locked into a beat, ever, for good or ill.
What kind of stuff were you covering at first?
I remember doing coverage of Dodd-Frank, a book review, and the run-up to the midterm elections. That was my big focus, the midterms and their implications.
Your personal interests here translated pretty immediately on a professional level. How long had you been into politics?
I’d always been into history. I got into politics in middle school, did some middle school debate—I sort of wish I could go to one of those debates right now—and in high school I did those requisite civic things, like Model UN. It wasn’t until college that I picked up the interest in political science, the wonkier aspects of it.
I used to want to be a political journalist. After a handful of politics classes at UVA I realized that it was not a good look for me.
And I took a lot of lit classes in college actually.
We switched. So you settled very quickly into the work?
The actual skills of being a reporter, calling people and doing interviews—that took a couple of years to get comfortable with. It’s not my favorite thing in the world to do phone calls.
And now you have found yourself trapped in another one! What was the first byline or article that made you think like, “Hmm, it is now entirely possible that people who’ve never met me are going to have firm opinions on my brain and personhood.” When did you first realize people had your name in their mouth?
That’s a good question. I think it was the first time someone asked me to freelance. Especially if it’s a cold call—if you’re not already putting yourself out there, and someone approaches you and asks if you want to write for them—that immediately says two things: that they trust you can write well, and that they think there might be an audience for you specifically, not just what you’re writing but you as a writer.
When did that happen?
Late 2010, and I can’t even remember what it was, now.
When did you start getting trolled?
I think I’ve always had trolls of some sort. I think the phenomenon of getting attention from the right-wing blogosphere, right-wing Twitter—the very hyper-specific racist trolls that seek out people of color to harass them—that started after the 2012 election. And, that was a good year for me. The great thing about election years for political writers is that, if you write well, you can increase your visibility. Which then of course means trolls.
What did a good year look and feel like to you?
A good year is when I think I’m writing a lot, writing well, when everything’s trafficking very well—traffic patterns where you can notice that you actually have an audience, and people aren’t just stumbling across your writing, but actively trying to read what you do.
I think I started doing a bit more media that year—radio and TV, I mean—and around all of that is when the number of trolls took a sharp uptick. Then, in 2013, I did way more media, I switched jobs, and the Daily Beast gets much more traffic than the Prospect, so it’s a much more public platform. Last summer is when the quantity of racist trolls quintupled.
How do you decide when to engage with someone who’s trying to get at you online?
I’m generally willing to engage with anyone who has a reasonable question. It doesn’t have to fit my ideological priors: if they’re asking a question that is coherent and makes sense in terms of what I was writing, I’ll talk to them. I generally encourage people to email me rather than use Twitter because that’s a better way of getting a real answer.
As for the haters, it depends. Sometimes there is no rule and I’m annoyed and I’ll engage knowing that it’s going to tumble into something silly. That tends to happen with right-wing writers, Breitbart types, people who spend all their time looking for political writers to troll. This is where we get into the crazy trolls, people who will just say “You’re a race-baiter” in an attempt to prompt their following of internet mouth breathers. Those folks, I never tweet at them other than an “OK.” I’ll often retweet them, though.
I like that. Disseminates the haterade.
Yeah. I try not to do it very much anymore—I know that a lot of my Twitter followers are not necessarily fans but people who have just seen my name suggested to them, and they don’t know you and it’s not fair to them to have to see all that. But sometimes for my sanity I will still retweet a troll.
How would you describe your political views?
I’m a moderate liberal on most things. I don’t find Obamacare particularly objectionable like some people farther to the left do; I think unions are important and that it’s a shame that they’re on the decline, but there have always been limits to what unions can do. I’m not against markets or market solutions.
The most radical I’ll get is when it comes to dealing with the fallout of institutionalized white supremacy.
I would never describe your views as radical.
Yeah, I wouldn’t either—more historical, I’d say—but if I were to go to a random assortment of white people and say some of the things I think, they’d get pretty upset. For example, I think quotas are a pretty good idea, and that’s one of the toughest things to talk about.
It’s funny because I also have left-wing critics—left-wing trolls, even—who I think expect me to be more left-wing than I am. I’m always finding myself explaining to them that I’m a military brat from rural-ish Virginia. Relative to my upbringing I’m a fire-breathing liberal. I have the baggage of having that upbringing; I can’t change that.
There is also the issue of people just expecting certain things from you—good or ill—because of the way they’ve ideologically pinned you based on identity politics. It’s been quite strange for me to find conservative religious sites citing me like “Left-wing feminist Jia Tolentino,” when I’ve really never directly written about my own views or identifications.
Does this frustrate you? Do you feel like ideological dialogue is getting better or worse since you started out?
Certainly on the one hand there are certain elements—more writers of color or women or women of color writing publicly—that contribute to a real sense that the dialogue and discussion is very vibrant and interesting and not laden with clichés.
On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are writing on race who are still relying on clichés, and who are actually playing to biases and doing it very well. So much of our racial conversation is mired in ideas about black pathology that still hold a lot of currency, not just among ordinary people but among elites. There’s a reason why Obama gets elite applause every time he says black kids need to pull up their pants. People like to assume that’s true. As if better behavior will fix major structural problems.
The last two years have been heartening in a way. After Trayvon Martin, there does seem that there is less of a tolerance for crap among black public writers. But, while the audience for really frank race talk is bigger, it’s still pretty small.
Do you get exhausted by playing a role in this dialogue?
I do, certainly. This happens in two ways, two reasons. Someone will say or do something stupid, and you could write about it but you don’t—it’s not worth your time.
The other way is Twitter-centered. Sometimes things go apeshit on Twitter, like you’ll be deluged with really angry tweets from right-wing racist Twitter, people who think you’re history’s greatest monster—a couple of months ago, one dude created a bunch of accounts just to tweet racist things at me. That stuff is too ridiculous to annoy me.
But other times—last summer, in an incident that I think is now vaguely infamous, a writer I won’t name sort of opened up a salvo of anger at me after I said something to her about something she tweeted, and much of it was based on explicit misrepresentation of what I’d said, and she was accusing me of being a racist and a misogynist and that I’d be getting my black card revoked for having a white girlfriend. That was a weird day in Twitter.
Weird is one way of putting it!
It happens. For another example, I was on MSNBC one morning, and offering some very mild criticism of Obama, and I got stuff after that. “Janelle Bouie is just shuffling for his white masters.”
What is your physical reaction? Do you flare up and have to calm yourself down? Or have you developed situational skin-thickness?
My threshold for fighting words has gone up. In that way I guess my skin has thickened in the last few years.
But if someone walked up to me in real life like this, I’d have a hard time talking myself down from fighting that guy. I probably would be able to talk myself down, because fighting anyone would not be worth it, but it would be difficult. And I am a reasonably even-keel person. On the internet, when people say crazy things, that side of me asserts itself. If I’m getting angry it’s usually something I’ve read that has nothing to do with me.
Like last night I saw this New York Times article—did you see it?
The thing quoting people who asked why the slaves didn’t just peacefully march on Washington? I saw a screenshot and thought it was fake. It’s real?
Yes. That gave me a momentary rage.
It’s interesting to me—although I understand it and respect it—that a Times piece would evoke more actual anger than someone getting so personal as to talk about your “white girlfriend,” which isn’t an isolated incident.
If I were the type of person who got upset about someone who said I was untrustworthy because I had a white girlfriend, that would speak to some deep insecurity about me. And I’m not insecure.
Also, I grew up in a completely white neighborhood, a white school that celebrated Lee—Jackson—King Day until I was in middle school. I have a thick skin just because of that. For the sake of people reading this interview, I’m a dark-skinned guy. Imagine being a dark-skinned 10-year-old in a very white place: I would just get shit constantly. After the dozenth time someone turns off the lights in class, turns to all the white kids, and says, “Where’s Jamelle? I can’t see him!” you just find a constructive way to deal with it.
So, anyone who calls me a racist on the internet does not even register. In seventh grade a kid called me a nigger in the bathroom. There is not much the internet can do to hurt me.
What could someone say to you on the internet that would get to you?
Criticism about the quality of my work. That I could have been more careful, more thorough, that something seems ill thought out. That’s a pitfall in this job that I try to be careful of.
What’s your work routine like?
Most days, my days are pretty normal. I wake up early because my girlfriend’s a teacher, and I’ll read through stuff, make a note of what catches my eye, who I need to email or call to get more information. If I’m doing TV or radio I usually know ahead of time, and TV is mostly on the weekends.
What sort of a writing schedule do you have?
I try to put up two or three things a day, and they’re usually between 500 and 900 words. Sometimes I’ll do actual magazine articles that are between 2500 and 3000 words, but at the moment, since we’re not in an election season, there’s less of an opportunity to go to places and report.
Do you like writing long?
I do. A couple of years ago, I spent a while going to Republican Party meetings in rural South Carolina, which was great, really.
Do you read the comments?
I never read the comments. Never. It’s like gazing into the gaping mouth of the Sarlacc. Nothing good can come of it.
How do you feel about things being pushed into the political realm that don’t really have anything to do with policy—like, say, Justine Sacco?
I don’t feel comfortable with that. I don’t like Twitter mobs even when they’re justified. The Justine Sacco thing—she’s a PR professional, shouldn’t have tweeted that—but I think I can hold that view and also feel really uncomfortable with the frenzy that developed around it.
I hate how distracting those things get.
I find it less awful because of that—lots of things are distracting, right—and more because it’ll become a litmus test, a way to show your bona fides. I’ve had people say that I was endorsing something simply because I wasn’t condemning it. That’s an attitude I see a lot on the internet and I find it really strange.
You’ve got a lot of other interests that show up on your Twitter feed or on your Tumblr—cooking, photography, style, etc. Do you want to start a Jamelle GQ?
In some form, I’ve been writing or thinking about politics since I was 13 years old; it’s an easy thing to build on and develop over time, and at this point I’m not as comfortable writing about fashion in any serious way. I’ll joke with friends that I’ll start a DC style blog shaming men.
A true public service.
But of course, you know, I won’t. And as much as I like food photography, I’m too much of a consumer—I just like it, I just like to eat it, I don’t have anything interesting to say.
So, these things are just my hobbies. And I have been cultivating them somewhat self-consciously, because one of the things about DC is people immediately ask what you do for work, and I’d rather be able to ask what you do for fun.
What is the aspect of you that is most private? Off web?
I don’t talk very much about my religious beliefs—it’s not my style. It would be stretching things to say that I’m devout, but I certainly identify as a Christian.
Who do you always like to read?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Anna Holmes, Rebecca Traister, Monica Potts, Gene Demby—I’ll automatically read whatever they write. I also love Mallory Ortberg.
She’s a genius.
Yes. And I read a lot of people. There are a lot of people writing online that I really respect.
It’s 10 PM right now—what are you going to do when we hang up the phone in a second?
For this entire conversation I have been chopping up kale and spinach. I’m about to put it in a soup I’m making.
What kind of soup?
White bean, kale, parmesan, some bacon for flavor.
That’s one of my favorite kinds of soups.
Yes. I’m going to have a bowl of soup and that will be my very late dinner. And this is around the time I actually turn off the internet and read or play video games. But mostly play video games.