Lauren Michele Jackson on the Collision of the Internet, Race, and Gender

The Critic and Her Publics is a live interview series that asks the best and most prominent critics working today to perform criticism on the spot, on an object they’ve never seen before. It’s a glimpse into brilliant minds at work, performing their thinking, taking risks, and making spontaneous judgments, which are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

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From the episode:

Merve Emre: I remember the first essay of Lauren Michele Jackson’s that I ever read. It was the summer of 2020, a week into the GF protests. Nearly every media outlet and many English & humanities departments had published an anti-racist reading list or an anti-racist syllabus. Amid this swarm of more or less identical pieces, recommending more or less identical books, Lauren published an essay called, “What is an anti-racist reading list for?”
Here are the lines that I still remember:

“An anti -racist reading list means well, still I’m left to wonder, who is this for? The syllabus as these lists are sometimes called seldom instructs or guides. Genre appears indiscriminately, essays slide against memoir and folklore, poetry squeezed on either side by sociological tomes. This reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities are for educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff wholly segregated from manners of form and grammar, lyric and scene.”

I admired how clearly and how sharply her words cut through liberal pablum, and I loved her range. It was clear that she had read all the memoirs, essays, folktales, and poems that other people had just slapped onto their lists. Her essay sent me on a journey for her 2019 collection, White Negroes, about the appropriation of black culture by a wide range of actors, pop stars, artists, hipsters, chefs, all the people making and sharing memes online—a wide world of black aesthetics without black people, she writes. Lauren is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University and a contributing writer at The New Yorker, where I’ve read her on Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Lana Del Rey, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Sally Rooney, and Namwali Serpell. I read her most recently in the NYRB on the Barbie movie in a piece which demonstrates how exceptional she is at conveying ambitious ideas about race, gender, and aesthetics in an entirely unique, entirely uncompromising take-no-prisoners voice. I’m delighted to have Lauren as my guest today.

For a full transcript and details of the piece Lauren responded to, head over to the New York Review of Books.


Lauren Michele Jackson is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University and a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of the essay collection White Negroes and is currently working on a second book, with Amistad Press. She is part of New America’s 2022 class of National Fellows.


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