Monday, December 16, 2019
Julie Lythcott-Haims Gets Fiery About Being a Real American
Julie Lythcott-Haims’ New York Times bestseller, “How to Raise an Adult,” has been translated into 22 languages. PHOTO: Nils Ribi/Courtesy Sun Valley Writers Conference
Monday, July 29, 2019


Julie Lythcott-Haims created wide white margins in her new memoir “Real American,” she says, because “as a black African American woman I don’t have access to the full page.”

Like many others, she’s been told to go back where she came from.

“Truth is, I’m so American it hurts,” she told 1,700 people at the Sun Valley Writers Conference this past week.

“I’m a seventh-generation American made that way by a great-great grandmother who was a slave. I come from people who survived what America did to them. Am I a real American?”

Lythcott-Haims, who spoke at the Sun Valley Community School’s 2019 graduation, wrote the memoir to examine racism and show how micro-aggressions can puncture self-esteem with “a thousand sharp cuts.”

But, she said, it is not a memoir about suffering. She grew up in a middle-class home, the granddaughter of a physician and the daughter of a man who served as assistant surgeon general in the Carter administration and helped eradicate small pox.

“My white British mother had a PhD—yes, my white parent was the immigrant,” she told the crowd.

Still she felt the pain of racism. White children asked her, “Where are you from from?” when they saw her kinky hair.

And she was 4 when she sensed that there might be something wrong with people with dark skin. Some people looked at her black father with the eyes of a burning cauldron while no one looked at her white mother that way, she said.

Lythcott-Haims said she was discriminated against when her white friend, who evidenced the same scholarship as she, got pulled into the gifted program, getting to do cool projects. And, when she told her friend she wouldn’t have liked to have lived during “Gone with the Wind” days because she would have been a slave, her friend replied. “I don’t think of you as black. I think of you as normal.”

When she turned 17 someone wrote “Niger” (sic) on her locker. And a classmate’s father cornered her, asking her if she thought it was fair that she got into Stanford and his son did not, even though their grades were the same.

“He thought my blackness had stolen his son’s place. And, when I got a D in communications that first semester, that haunted me making me think I didn’t belong there,” she said.

It was only when she shared her most painful secret that she shed her self-loathing.

“I admitted that, as a child I hated being black. That I was afraid of blacks and just wanted to do what was expected of whites,” she said. “It was only then that I could look into the eyes of black students and feel compassion, as if I was seeing their magnificence for the first time. It was like climbing out of a deep depression—I didn’t know I was so affected until I wasn’t.”

Lythcott-Haims referenced several well-publicized cases involving police shootings of black males. And she told about a friend with a PhD who was accused of stealing the very nice car he was getting into.

“We should not abide people who say they are terrified about running into a black person,” she said. “God gave us this black and brown skin for a reason. If you’re going to be terrified, you need to be terrified justifiably.”

Lythcoth-Haims is married to a Jewish man “and, when we observe Passover, we make sure our two children know we’re descended from two of the most reviled groups of people on earth. I ache that any human is at war over questions of identity, religion or skin color.”

She doesn’t hesitate to come to the aid of others whom she believes are being persecuted because of their skin color. When she and her husband saw images of migrant children at the border, they jumped into their Jeep Wrangler and drove to the scene to see what kind of help they could offer.

“We are living through a moment,” she said, referencing white nationalism. “It’s back and wicked and wild. And if that’s not okay with that you can get in your car and drive.”

She looked around at the Sun Valley audience, with its plethora of white and grey hair.

“I can tell by your hair color that you’re part of the great generation that was out on street corners protesting. Get out on those street corners. Let’s go!” she said.

She softened.

“When you find yourself about to stereotype a person, get mindful and see if you can’t treat that person like you would like to be treated. Be the change you want to see. That’s what’s required in America.”



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