And Now: A Relatively Brief Interrogation of Allison P. Davis.
On the matter of 'Montclair Karen,' Black writers, white editors, woke white friends, and the celebrity peen that helped bring a nuanced cover story on racism home. But really.
‘You happen to catch that last New York magazine cover of 2020, the story of Montclair, New Jersey’s ‘Permit Karen,’ and the family she menaced? I haven’t stopped thinking about it since it ran. You read it, right? You should. Everyone else did. ‘Know why?
It’s excellent in all the great ways a magazine feature should be, but also — crucially — hits different. Quite. Look: You’ve no doubt read one of the many, many great pieces of journalism published over the course of the last few years about racism and being Black in America. Many of these stories exist within stark, simple, oft-repeated contexts: Police violence. Opportunities unfairly denied. Obviously rigged systems. The exploitation of Black bodies and Black voices. And then some.
But take a big step back, and you might get the feeling after reading enough of these that they tell the tales of the racism beat as much as they provide comfort in the form of a binary (racism and especially racist white people, bad; anti-racism, good) that services everyone but the people these stories actually concern (Black Americans). How discomfiting — rather than evoking solemn nods of reaffirmation — can so many of these stories truly be?
[Unpacked: Look at who’s still running the large majority of media — who’s assigning and editing stories on racism. Shocker: They’re still mostly white. One thing I’ve heard repeatedly over twelve years in media are the ways Black writers at publications are continuously weighted with the burden of writing about racism, by white editors, after they were assured it wouldn’t fall on them, yet again, to do The Explaining.]
Hence, this piece: What happens when woke white people — and especially the kind who feel like they’ve created a progressive, anti-racist enclave in the shadow of a major metropolitan city, like the kind who work in New York media — what happens when these people are viscerally confronted with the fact that no matter what they do and no matter how they try to rectify inequity that they’ll ultimately always stand on the high tilt of an uneven board? But even more: What of the Black family that does everything they can to enmesh themselves in these well-heeled, supposedly safe, welcoming, equitable places, only to learn (yet again) that this just won’t be the case? And they’ll have to live with that reminder next door forever? What then?
That’s the premise of the Montclair Permit Karen story. Not hyperbole: I can think of few pieces of magazine writing I read in the last twelve months as important (or as elite in execution) as this. Like anything I love, I needed to know more. So I hit up its author, Allison P. Davis — longtime staffer of The Cut/New York, and the author of the forthcoming great, horny tome of our time (Horny) — with some questions:
How’d this start? Were you assigned it, or did you see the Permit Karen video back in June, and was it just, instantly: I gotta do this story?
I have a Montclair news alert set because I feel like every New York writer gets one Montclair story! For some reason, that suburb yields a million good ideas. (Reeves Wiedeman wrote a great Montclair story about the summer Justin Bieber was living there that read like a demented Bye Bye Birdie. We actually ended up using some of the same sources.) I’d had a totally different Montclair story in my hopper, I’d been pulling string on it for a while, but it was never really coming into focus.
This one sort of fell in my lap.
I saw the video, and wasn’t quite sure what it was, to be honest. At the same time, a colleague of mine who lives in Montclair sent it to my editor — Genevieve Smith — with a “might be something here.” Genevieve forwarded me that email. I hopped on the phone with [the colleague] to get the Montclair Insider version of events, and a deeper understanding of the town. He hit all of the keywords that make you salivate, you know: “well-meaning liberal enclave,” “thrown into turmoil,” “neighborhood drama,” “well-off white people going nuts.”
Jackpot. How’d you pitch it? Just like that?
It wasn’t so much a pitch as a proof of concept. After that call, Genevieve and I had a conversation to see if the story had any legs, because it was the end of July, the event happened in June, and sometimes it’s really hard to remember that stories are worth living in even after viral-ness has waned, you know? We both agreed that the most interesting part of this was the what happens after the video goes viral, and that would require a really intimate portrait of the family at the heart of it. The first step as reaching out to Fareed Hayat, and seeing if (A) he’d cooperate and (B) what kind of talker he was, since he’d be the center of the story.
Lucky for me, he was game, and was an incredibly thoughtful and captivating interview. And that was enough to run with.
I know you've been working with Genevive Smith for a while. But is there any kind of change to the typical writer-editor dynamic given the race at play here? Specifically: You're a Black writer, she's a white editor, and the story's trifecta is
- A community of well-meaning white people,
- An angry white woman, and
- A Black family.
Was there ever any kind of interplay during the editing process where you had to point out a blind spot of hers, or say, ‘hey, just so you know, this is actually that?’
For the most part, Genevieve never hesitates to say what she doesn’t know or admit her blindspots as a white editor. When she doesn’t know, it’s: “Well, you tell me!” It’s helpful, on one hand, because it forces me to really elucidate things which could’ve been misunderstood by a reader — and then, led to an open invitation to the social media mob, blah blah blah — but it occasionally left me feeling like I didn’t have a safety net.
I’ll be too honest here, but writing about race at a publication with mostly white editors is daunting. It’s part of the reason I don’t often write explicitly about race (like: it’s clearly a theme I tango with in indirect ways, but never overtly). I was second guessing myself a lot during the process of writing this, and wasn’t always sure what I was trying to articulate, or if the thing I was articulating was fair, or right, or just based on my own weird experience. It was hard to be met with an “I don’t know either” off my “please someone just tell me how to think. I’m uncomfortable asserting any expertise here!!” But ultimately, it was good, because I’ve gotta learn to trust my own instincts, or [some helpful lesson here].
Leading question: Before you started, how personally acquainted were you with Montclair as That Incredibly Progressive, Well-Heeled, Ostensibly Woke Liberal Jersey 'Burb? I knew it as the place a tonnage of media people migrated towards from NYC over the last decade. That fact made this story, for me, emblematic/illustrative of a lot of white media people's relationship with their Black colleagues: Well-intended, but…
I knew a fair amount about Montclair itself. I mean, so many NYC media people live there, I hear all about it! But I understood Montclair on, like, a spiritual level, even though I’d never been before this story.
I grew up in a wealthy Baltimore suburb that’s a version of Montclair (well-heeled, doesn’t hide racism as well, conservatively progressive), so, ‘really understand the “only black family on the block.” But it’s like you said: my social universe is made up of Montclair simulations. Everything about it felt familiar enough for me to be able to really probe and question in a more advanced way.
The story is one of the most perfectly-paced things I've read in a minute. You construct the entire frame — set, setting, prelude, incident, prologue — and then the story starts. It’s one of the many ways this thing transcended more than a few feature writing cliches. How’d you decide on the structure?
You know those really great sexual encounters, where you just intuitively know how your body should move with another person’s body, and what rhythm works, and when, and it hardly takes any words, and you’re not stuck in your head, and nobody elbows anyone in the face? That’s what writing this story was for me.
I’d let it simmer in my brain for so. long. that by the time I’d made an outline, I knew exactly how I wanted the story to feel to the reader, and used that as my map (I won’t say “structure,” because I actually suck at that). I knew I needed the reader to feel seduced by the town — by the same feelings of safety the Hayat family felt when they chose to move to Montclair. I knew they needed to know the family, so they’d be sure nothing could happen to them. Then, I needed to quickly disorient that.
But mostly I just knew the piece had to make readers feel uneasy from the jump: Initially, in ways readers didn’t realize, and then, in ways they recognized, and then, in ways they probably didn’t want to deal with. BUT! My brain is pretty scrambly. I find myself bending a chronology or telling a story in a non-linear way because it makes sense to me emotionally, but doesn’t map onto how thinking actually functions.
Any particularly difficult parts in writing/finishing the story?
The one thing I really struggled with was the ending! In a dream world, maybe, something monumental would have happened. In November, when I was struggling through a first draft, I was talking to my Dad about the story, and how “the aftermath” didn’t really feel like anything at all, because how could I possibly make “well everyone lived in their homes but felt a little bit weirder than they had before,” narratively exciting? He’s a big ol’ science nerd, and started explaining tectonic plates to me, as a metaphor, and how things explode briefly and intensely, and then settle back down and seem calm — but really, the pressure is still building, out of sight.
Normally his lectures make me snoozey, but like: Damn. He helped me out big time with that one. He helped me realize the story needed to end on that sort of note. I think he’s mad I didn’t reference tectonic plates overtly, though.
So after alllll that, I turned in a “vibe,” and then Genevieve imposed a structure. As long as the meaning is there, and thinking is there, and the reporting is there, she’s incredibly good at taking a 10K+ word, half-shaped hunk of clay, and helping me finish the sculpture while preserving the “me”-ness of the story. She trimmed away a lot of the excess so that the beats landed, and I didn’t step on my own points, or joke the joke, etc. I owe her a lot.
The most gobstopping, crucial moment in this story for me was this:
…I cringed in ways I didn't know I could.
Ahh, the “dear white friends,” paragraph. I was incredibly hesitant to write that. I get why it was an effective moment, but I don’t like “I”-ing so much in pieces, and love to find a work around. I tried the third person, a second person approach, a royal We — all that shit. But the ‘I’ was the most impactful.
Look, it’s not like I’m Jane Elliott over here, but that section felt so painfully true of the way so many supposedly smart, woke white people offloaded their guilt or indulged themselves this summer (I'm reminded of the "white signs at Black protests" piece) instead of taking a backseat and operating with grace/a deft touch. I think we both know some of the same people in New York, who work in media. At the very least, I imagine plenty of your friends are smart, self-aware people. Off that, a two-parter:
(A) On a scale of "singular" to "deeply emblematic," where do you rate that experience with all of your years working in media, or even just living in a city as supposedly cosmopolitan as New York?
(B) Have any of the people who reached out over the summer during the protests read that passage, and reached out to you again with a reaction?
I run the risk of losing some friends, etc, here, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I think that beat [in the story] is deeply emblematic of my time in media/life. Like: Spinal Tap it goes to 11, emblematic. It’s just taken different forms over the years: 2020’s Venmo reparations were something different in 2011, but the core is the same.
To answer your second question: I once had a dear white dude friend ask me a question about growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and I was drunk enough to get really real with him. At some point, he got so uncomfortable, I’m pretty sure he dumped a glass of red wine on his pants to escape to the bathroom, and end the convo. I know there are a few people close to me, or not so close to me, who see themselves in that paragraph, but nobody has said anything, really.
Is there anything you left on the cutting room floor — any darlings you had to kill — that you'd wanna run here?
I met so many good characters in the Montclair universe that didn’t make it into the story, or couldn’t be fully developed into standalone characters in the story. There was this one woman, a real estate agent, who told me she knew "where all the bodies were buried” in Montclair I was obsessed with. She was an amazing gossip, was able to get me a lot of information I needed from people who probably wouldn’t have spoken to me without her. She kept calling herself “a mouthy white woman!” And let it be known: She only spoke to me because I wrote a post for The Cut about Jason Derulo’s dick, and she loves Jason Derulo. Like, that was her vetting process. If I could have, I would have written 2,000 words just about her.
Let’s talk about The Cut for a sec. Stella Bugbee’s out as EIC, Lindsay Peoples Wagner is in. Stella built that thing, really — I remember being at the little media rollout for it, and I don't think anyone could've imagined the impact it had on the overall New York brand, or that its impact on so many things — womens' media, women-run media — can be overstated. Am I being hyperbolic here? What do you think the magazine/site is losing with Stella out, or rather, what do you think her most profound influence on it was?
Stella’s still at the mag! She’s editor-at-large. She’ll be shaping ideas and packages and projects and writing a lot, and hopefully still feeding me good ideas when she doesn’t have time to write them. But: It’s a different vibe working alongside her, versus working under her. I’m really excited for the next iteration of The Cut, because it’s fun to watch things evolve — but you’re not being hyperbolic when you talk about her impact.
I’m mourning the end of this Cut era. It’s gonna sound kind of asskissy, but I’m the thinker I am — and honestly, the writer I am — because Bugbee told me to stop jazz-handing my way through every blog post. She pushed a lot of us to be better thinkers and writers, to not to be afraid of critical thought, not to be afraid of the counterintuitive take, to question why everyone’s fawning over the same person or thing—and if you decided to fawn over it, to really get at the heart of the obsession.
She also taught me never to forsake context, empathy, and fucking good taste. She shaped a lot of us who are just currently starting to hit our career stride. The media world is a bit better because she imparted the wisdom, and we’re out there trying to put it into action.
Last Questions: Are you off book leave now, and back in the saddle at New York? How's Horny coming (heh, sorry) along? Finally, what's next for you, and what're your big plans for 2021, AKA, the Summer of Love?
I’m fully back in the saddle! Working on Horny and another TBD project in my off hours (thank god we have nothing to do). But I’m eyeing a Summer 2022 release for Horny, so I can make the most of reporting in the Bacchanal to come.
[This interview was lightly edited for clarity but emphasis on “lightly” because Allison’s just that fuckin’ good.]
Here’s that Jason Derulo post Allison referenced.
Go visit the site for Allison’s upcoming book, Horny, The Horny Census. Do your part and fill out the horny census. Let each hornball be counted.
Follow Allison on The Twitter.
Oh, and here’s that Reeves Wiedeman story on Bieber in Montclair that Allison described as a demented ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ It’s funny as shit.
Guys, please give it up for Allison P. Davis. I got nothing else today, except to say: PRESS CLIPS will be returning shortly. Maybe something about a downtown party? Or maybe something about that Gawker/Apple TV show? Or maybe something actually revealing on Substack! We’ll see! Who knows! That last one was a bit of a hot mess, yeah? Well, friends, you ain’t seen shit yet. Stay tuned. In the mean time, FOSTERTALK is free, and you know where to put those tips.
[Oh, and did you read that whole bit about the Adrienne Lenker record? You should.]
‘Meantime, never forget: You can’t be nobody’s lover (‘til you’re somebody’s friend).
Do with it what you will, that’ll be all for today, class dismissed. Thank you for your continued support of FOSTERTALK, more soon. As ever, -f.