Real American by Julie Lythcott-Haims


When I saw Jenna Wortham’s tweet saying this book about mixed race doesn’t a) make her cringe or b) center whiteness to talk about blackness, I figured it was a book I should read. Jenna Wortham, who writes for the NYT, was in Charlottesville this fall for a panel about race and news media. She was the most articulate speaker even with Jamelle Bouie on the stage.

Julie Lythcott-Haims previously published the NYT bestseller How to Raise an Adult, published in 2015, that pushes back against helicopter parenting. One can well imagine that such a book would be written by someone who has been a dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising.

Her father was the Assistant Surgeon General during the Carter administration. Daddy, as she calls him, had four children by a previous marriage and met her British white mother when they both lived in Ghana. They lived in New York, then Reston, Virginia, and when Reagan was elected, they moved to Wisconsin for work at the University. Though they could have lived in the multicultural city of Madison, they lived in a small town and Julie went to a high school that had very few black students.

She describes her childhood confusion of looking like neither of her parents, of other children’s questions, “What are you?” and “She’s your mother?” She was bewildered by her parents’ answer that she was Black. As she grew up she was always a good student and participated in all the typical activities.

When she was in high school she and her best friend Diana watched Gone with the Wind and Diana thought it would have been great to live at that time. Julie pointed out she would have been a slave and Diana told her she did not think of her as Black, but as normal. Julie writes, “I knew what Diana meant. I felt very un-Black myself, even as my parents continued to insist that I was Black, even as I tried to figure out what that meant and to be that person in this white town.”

When she arrived at Stanford as a freshman, she was hoping to make Black friends. When she attended a welcoming event for Black students, she felt out of place, thinking that none of those students had a white parent and none of them were the only Black kid in their high school. Throughout her college years her friends were white kids and Black kids with whom she shared activities. It was after college when she was in a workshop about institutional racism that she understood the label Mixed/Other was more accurate for her than Black. She says, “For an hour that afternoon, we feel powerful. Empowered. We are outing ourselves as mixed-race people.” And later as a dean she came to feel a part of the Black community.

She describes the day a colleague, a white woman she respected, touched her hair and called it “so interesting” and “amazing.” She objected, saying this was a thing white women do to Black women, treat them like zoo animals and petting them. That day she objected to being petted, she became “the Angry Black Woman.”

She married and now has two teenage children. The death of Treyvon Williams is her Pearl Harbor and she writes with clarity about the racism that results in so many deaths of Black children and men at the hands of white policemen. She recounts those deaths and shame floods in.

In thinking of the questions she wishes she’d asked her father before he died, this one stands out, “How do we coexist with these white people fearing and hating us without fearing and hating ourselves?”

Julie Lythcott-Haims, Real American:  A Memoir, Henry Holt and Company, 2017, 288 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the  public library and from Amazon.

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