Joy Reid on Making TV History: ‘I’m Proud to Carry With Me the Ghosts of the Black Women Who Were Just as Smart as Any Man’

On May 29, just after 7 a.m., Joy Reid appeared on MSNBC in a breaking-news segment headlined, “Anger Erupts in Wake of George Floyd’s In-Custody Death.” Reid was the sole Black woman on the panel. “What are your thoughts this morning about that pain, that collective pain?” the host asked her.

“Everyone Black I know feels hunted,” Reid said in her tour de force answer, adding, “Just stop killing us. This is not a huge demand.” 

America isn’t used to this—a furious Black woman commentator appearing on a major news network to talk about the fact that Black people are “good and sick of being killed for nothing in their own country and treated like subhuman.” For most of TV news history, political commentators have been presumed worthy of the role of America’s opinion makers based on being white, masculine, and stern.

Consider this contrast to Reid: In 1982, CNN’s popular punditry show Crossfire welcomed a KKK grand wizard as a guest. Reid's inaugural show will feature two Black women: Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot. 

It’s not just her content that separates her from the pundits most of us grew up watching, but also the way she shows up to do her work. In her interview with Glamour, Reid moved easily between chatting about Prosecco to talking about fact that “this country was built by and for white men” to speaking candidly about how she had to stand up for herself early in her TV career when her hair literally started falling out because of stylists who weren't used to dealing with Black hair. 

On Monday night, when her new show, The ReidOut, premieres on MSNBC, Reid will make TV history. She will become the first Black woman to host a prime-time talk show on a major network. The 51-year-old daughter of immigrants—a Harvard graduate who was declared “NO talent” by the president and is known for her strong Twitter presence—will take Chris Matthews’s longtime nightly slot. The Hardball host resigned in March following accusations that he made inappropriate comments to female guests. (“Compliments on a woman’s appearance that some men, including me, might have once incorrectly thought were okay are never okay,” he said in his final show. “Not then, and certainly not today.”)

Reid’s time is here. And her triumph has been a long time coming.

Glamour: You’re about to make history! What are you doing to celebrate?

Joy Reid: My favorite cocktail is Prosecco and St-Germain, but I’m not gonna open the bottles until Monday night! It’s been so hectic trying to get ready that I haven’t had time to 100% process it—I’ve just been going and going and going. I’m sure it’s going to hit me at like 6:59 on Monday night and I’ll be an emotional basket case. But I’ll get through the show.

When people praise you, they often talk about your immigrant parents, or your Blackness, or the fact that you’re a woman. Do you ever wish you would just get compliments like a white man?

Yeah! I mean, I think that that is unfortunately a feature of our society, which is an extremely patriarchal and racially polarized construction of this country. This country was built by and for white men. The thing that we call “privilege” is that white men in particular don’t have to ever answer for being, whereas women always have to answer. I am proud to own all of my labels. I’m proud to carry with me the ghosts of the Black women who were just as smart as any man but couldn’t become a lawyer. And the immigrants who have not been able to achieve what they want because they’re kept back or, today, literally locked out of the United States. All of those labels are just a part of who I am, and I’m very proud to carry all of that right with me to 7 p.m.

I’m sure you didn’t grow up seeing perspectives like yours on TV. They’re barely in the mainstream now. How does it feel to be pioneering this?

I’m very humbled by it. It is incredible to think—we’re in the 21st century, you know, and we’re now having the first Black woman host of a prime-time cable show. I think it’s a privilege to represent who I am, and I don’t think it’s a burden. It should have happened sooner in this industry but the industry is still writing itself. I’m seeing companies take stock of the fact that they’ll have five white men sitting around a table on air and saying, “Maybe we shouldn’t do that.” There must be an Indigenous person, there must be a woman, there must be an AAPI person (Asian American and Pacific Islander), a Black person. This is something you have to do consciously. The media’s got to deliberately make the workplace more diverse—the airways, the booking department, the standards department, the hair and makeup teams, the crews.

During the recent George Floyd protests, there have been controversies where newspaper management implied that Black journalists couldn’t cover these stories objectively. What was your reaction to that?

I covered the Walter Scott case in 2015—he was a Black man who was shot to death by a white police officer, who shot him in the back as he ran away. All of the local news reports came out using the old standard for the way we do the news, which was: The police are the government, so we believe the police. We read the police report on air, and we say, “This is what happened.” But all of those reports were wrong. Because all of those police reports took the police officer at his word that Walter Scott had fought him for his taser, and that the police officer shot him because he feared for his life. That’s always the excuse: “I feared for my life, I thought he had a gun.” That’s been the narrative for hundreds of years. It’s a way that Black people have been killed with impunity by the police. It took Black journalists—and it took a brown man who actually videotaped it—to show that the whole narrative turned out to be wrong. Someone like me who’s incredibly skeptical of police, who grew up fearing police—I never take them at their word. They have to prove to me that what they’re saying is true just like anyone else.

The problem is our newsrooms have been so undiverse and so full of so many people who have the same positive experience with police that there’s no one there to question the narrative. So I don’t think what I bring when I’m covering Black Lives Matters is bias; I think it’s experience. If there’s nobody in the room who has empathy for the dead, we’re never going to be able to report these stories accurately.

You’ve been held accountable for hurtful statements about LGBT people, and you’ve talked about how you’ve worked to change. [Editor’s note: In 2017, Reid apologized for having written homophobic blog posts in the mid-2000s. In 2018, more discriminatory posts were resurfaced from Reid’s defunct blog. She first claimed that the posts were “fabricated,” then, after public skepticism, apologized.] So many people were raised in more conservative households like the one you’ve described and are intent on changing. What was that process like for you? 

When that happened, the people I turned to to say, “Talk to me, and tell me what that pain means for you and what I need to do better,” were people from the LGBT community. You’re almost always going to get grace from a community when you’re trying to learn and create a new you. That’s what I did, and the warmth and the kindness of people in the LGBTQ community lifted me and allowed me to hear them and to take responsibility directly, and I think that’s the thing you can do. Whether it’s about LGBT issues or racial issues, all these things are just learned behaviors that can become unconscious, to the point where you don’t even realize that it’s you. I think it’s important to just be open.

Being on TV all the time must mean focusing a lot on your appearance, within a very serious news role. How do you balance that part of the job—and can you share any favorite beauty tips?

Growing up, I was definitely, in addition to a nerd, a tomboy. All I knew about makeup was: put some powder on before you go to church and make sure your lips aren’t chapped. Once I started doing a show, The Reid Report, this is another key issue of diversity—I was able to bring in a team that really had a speciality in being able to do Black hair and makeup. It’s actually different. It’s one of those things that sometimes goes overlooked in the media industry. I was losing my hair at first when I was getting my hair done professionally, ’cause I was getting heat in it every day. I actually had to stand up for myself and say, “I really can’t have this much heat in my hair.” You don’t want to be rude, right? You want to just let people do your hair, and the next thing you know your hair’s falling out. Then once I had my own team and they were amazing, I just fell in love with makeup! I was like a whole different person! I felt so good! And now that we are on lockdown and doing the show from home, my glam squad is not here, and I’m having to figure it out for the first time—I’m 15 years old again! I’m learning. Luckily—thank you, Crown Act—I’m able to wear my hair braided, which is so much easier, it’s so much less maintenance, so much less work, so that’s been helpful. And I know how to do one basic makeup thing. Just one thing!

You have a talent for speaking so strongly and directly and saying things that are true long before they are popular. Where does that courage come from?

Oh, that’s my mother. My mother was a very blunt-talking person. I think because she was an immigrant, she didn’t have some of the subtleties of the way Americans talk about race. She talked about race the way she did in Guayana, and she taught me to be very, very blunt. The reality is, I think, Americans have had a really muted reading of history, because our public education was designed to make good citizens, not necessarily super-knowledgeable citizens. We’re still uncovering heinous, horrible, horrifying acts of brutality that are embedded in our history and that actually created part of what we had. I was, you know, “yesterday old” when I found out that Central Park was a Black community that was wiped off the face of the earth to make this park that’s beautiful, that we enjoy, but it used to be the home of Black people. Most of the time we just don’t know things because we aren’t taught our history properly. We need to feel comfortable with our collective story if we’re ever going to get anywhere as a multiracial country. So I believe in bluntness. It’s the only medicine that will get us there.

Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.                    

Originally Appeared on Glamour