She has written three acclaimed books, a New York Times bestseller called The Man Who Sold America: Trump and the Unraveling of the American Story, Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons and the Racial Divide and We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama. She is also the host of three podcasts, The ReidOut, What to Reid and Kamala: Next in Line. On top of that, she recently launched a new blog. In a conversation for Marie Claire magazine, WIE Suite founder Dee Poku interviewed Joy about her career trajectory, the importance of voting and all the ways in which women can better stand in their power.
Last year, you made history as the first black woman to host a primetime talk show host. I want to start by casting your mind back, if you can remember, to that day - what were you feeling?
Well, I got a call from our boss’s boss, the head of the NBC Universal newsgroup, Cesar Conde, the first non-white head of a major newsgroup. I had the blessing of meeting him years ago, and we’re just cool like that. So I didn’t know why he was calling. He could have just been calling to check-in.
He said I would be great in the hour previously held by Hardball with Chris Matthews. When he said that, I was kind of dumbstruck. I was a hardcore Hardball fan, and Chris Matthews is like a mentor to me. So I was really sad when he left and was still in touch with him. I had also been filling in from time to time when they needed somebody. He was the first show that I ever filled in for.
I was excited, but it was also a little bit daunting because it’s a big responsibility. I had done a weekend show for four years, and I’d done previous day sideshows. I’ve done enough TV that I wasn’t nervous about the on-air part, just the fact that it was a bigger audience. It was a bit scary, but I was excited.
As women in the workplace, we’ve all been interrupted. I imagine you navigate that often in your line of work. What is the art of making yourself heard?
My mother was a college professor, and she used to say, ‘If you’re in a classroom, always try to ask something. Listen to what is being said, but always put your hand up and ask a question.’ Her point was, you will be remembered. It will make you memorable to the instructor. It establishes that you, as a woman, as a black woman, are present and that you’re not just window dressing.
So, I think the art of making yourself heard is number one, just put your hand up, keep your hand up until you are called on and make sure that you get a chance to speak. Don’t allow yourself to become invisible in the room.
Chris Matthews used to always tell me, ‘The art of winning in this business is the act of showing up.’ A lot of times, we as women, as women of color, will see a job opportunity and will not raise our hand for it thinking, ‘Oh, you know what, I’m not ready for that somebody else is more qualified, somebody else is better for that gig than me.’ I can tell you the white dudes don’t do that. They will put their hand up and say, ‘Yes, pick me. I’m ready. Let me do it.’
Women, in general, need to have confidence. Put your hand up, make yourself heard and don’t allow yourself to become invisible in any space.
It’s so true, and there are actually stats around that as well. Women and people of color won’t apply for something unless we know we meet almost all the criteria, whereas a white guy will apply if he meets 60% of the criteria and maybe even less. Why do you think that is?
They have confidence and believe that they will figure it out. I remember when I used to temp. I would go out and do administrative work and that’s how I paid my way through college.
My strategy for temping was to get to the job half an hour early and just go through the company’s program menus. It was typically a program like Photoshop or CorelDRAW. I would go through the program and know it well enough, so by the time the bosses got there, I at least knew enough to use whatever the program was. My thought process was, I’m here for a day. I don’t need to be an expert in this. That’s having confidence that you can figure it out. That’s what white guys have. They have confidence that if they don’t know, they’ll figure it out. As women and as people of color, we need to develop that kind of confidence because we will figure it out. We always do.
You spend your day interviewing people who are experienced in the art of avoiding questions. How do you navigate around that and get to the truth?
First of all, I over prepare for interviews. If I’m going to interview someone, especially if I know it’s going to be a contentious interview, that it’s not going to be a friendly interview, I have pages and pages of notes. I Google, I have my team do research and I’m up all night trying to figure out every angle they could possibly use so I have a response. One thing I never want to have is nothing to say back. I don’t mind contentious interviews; I think it’s great practice. It makes sure you’re thinking and reasoning in real-time.
Then the second thing is to never move on. One thing that bothers me about what we do in journalism is that if someone doesn’t answer our question, we move on. Don’t move on. Sometimes I’ll go into an interview with literally one question. I’ll have one thing I want to know. And we can go about it four different ways. I’m still coming back to this one thing. I’m just going to keep asking you it over and over and over in every way I can. And if you don’t answer it, that’s the end of the interview.
Insist on an answer. That’s one of the things that we need to do as journalists insist on getting an answer. Follow up, follow up, follow up.
As civilians. How do we continue to hold governments to account, and how do we ensure that we’re driving change and accountability?
The thing to remember is that voting is not the end of the process. Accountability is the process. Just because your person gets it does not mean that’s the end of the story and that you’re now free to allow them to govern as they want to. A lot of us made that mistake with Obama. President Obama got in, and people said, ‘Yay, we won,’ and walked away. Two years later, Republicans swept across the south into congressional seats.
There’s always a reaction to change. There’s always a counteraction. The other side doesn’t lay down. They keep fighting back.
And what you’ve seen with Trump is that, like the Covid variants, the variants of trumpism are here. He starts out and we think it’s just one bad guy. But there are all these variants. He doesn’t even have to do anything now. There are all of these other people who are self-motivated to undermine elections, take away voting rights and human rights and the rights of women to have freedom over their bodies.
Just because Biden is there doesn’t mean the fight is over. And it also doesn’t mean you don’t have to fight Biden sometimes; you still have to keep him accountable. We voted for him; therefore, we had a certain set of things we wanted done. We need to insist on them. It’s like the interviews. We need to insist on an answer. We need to insist that we do not accept human rights violations at the border with Haitian migrants. We asked you to change immigration; we’re going to need you to follow up on that, my friend. We voted for you, which means you’re accountable to us.
What do you think are some of the most effective forms of keeping governments accountable?
Dr. King said, ‘We can’t change the hearts of every racist sheriff, but we can vote the sheriff out.’ I still believe the most effective form of modulating and modifying government is voting. The problem is, for a lot of people voting only happens every four years during the presidential election. But that’s not right.
Look at what’s happening in our school boards; you have the same side that doesn’t believe in democracy that thinks you can’t talk in realistic ways about race, or somehow you’re destroying white children’s minds. Those people aren’t coming for the presidency. Right now, they’re coming for the school board. We have to vote in local elections. And those take place almost every year or at minimum every two years.
Vote for your judges, for your prosecutors, for your school board members. Be a relentless voter who votes for everything.
Next, make sure everyone in your circle of influence can vote. Make sure that those systems are open and that registration is available for everyone who wants to vote.
Then once people are elected, stay in touch with them. Do you know what freaks politicians out the most? An email. If they get a bunch of emails or phone calls, it destabilizes them. So to be an active citizen, make yourself heard. Marching is great. It’s important. We need to be out there marching, but we need to do everything up before we have to march.
How do we get to the point where we don’t have to march?
Vote. Listen, don’t be afraid to vote out people from your own party who aren’t doing the right thing. If you don’t feel that they’re doing what you want them to do. Don’t be afraid to vote for an alternative. You should feel like you are an empowered voter. And you should get what you voted for.
If you bought an appliance, and it wasn’t working properly, you’d send it back. Right? If you bought an outfit online because you thought it looked beautiful, but when it arrived, it didn’t fit, you’d send it back. Or you’d at least go to the tailor and fix it. You wouldn’t just live with an ill-fitting outfit that doesn’t look good. Take the same action with your government and with your civics that you would with anything you bought and own because, in fact, the government is just us. We pay them. We’re paying for it.
Last year, after the Black Lives Matter marches, there were numerous pledges of allyship. A year on, I’m interested to know, what changes have you seen?
Well, I think what happened is that initially, George Floyd did shake up the world. His daughter said he changed the world, and he did. The injustice of his death was undeniable. This brave, brilliant teenager who filmed it stood there and took all that trauma so no one could deny it.
What happened then was throughout much of white America, there was a lot of shock. And there was a lot of determination to be allies and to get involved. And so you started having these conversations about anti-racism that you hadn’t had really since President Obama was elected the first time and people saw the racism he endured. Then the church was shot up in Charlottesville. Then Trump got elected. Now this whole critical race theory BS. There is a layering of shock that is making people realize there is something really wrong here.
White people are joining in. People are marching in places where there are almost no black people. Washington state is marching, Oregon is marching. Things like the 1619 Project again woke people up like, ‘Oh, you mean, the founding of this country was wrapped in slavery and racism.’ The backlash is from people who don’t want that taught. They believe the only way to get rid of racism is to not talk about it.
So while on the one hand, a lot of people woke up, on the other hand, there are a lot of people who want to put them back to sleep. Even if that means by force, an example of that is the insurrection on January 6.
How do we keep this movement alive?
I worry about that because people do move on. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s hard not to just talk about that because, people are dying. We’re almost at 700,000 dead, just in the United States alone, let alone around the world. So many other things intrude, there’s always another tragedy to pursue, and race and these issues get pushed to the back again, which is why they have persisted.
We don’t do a systemic fix; we do pinpoint fixes, we fix little pieces of it, we convict one cop, then we move on to something else. This is one of the things that is frustrating about our politics right now. We should be well into the systemic fixes. There are so many just legislative fixes that were on the table, everything from the George Floyd Act, which would have moved us toward more just policing, that’s probably dead.
Right now, our democracy is so hobbled that we can’t pass basic, simple bills that would fix immigration. Until we resolve the democracy piece, I feel like we’re not going to be able to fix the rest.
So day one for any incoming democratic administration needs to be fixing the infrastructure of our democracy?
100%. Like that should be done. And it needs to be done yesterday because we don’t know how long this Democratic majority will last. I think Americans have this conceit that we’re always going to be a democracy. We have only been a democracy for 247 years. We’re not an old country. There’s nothing that says we have to stay a democracy. We need to make sure that we’re very vigilant because if democracy crumbles, you can forget the rest of these conversations. None of them are going to happen.