Books

For People of Color, 'Real American' Is a Memoir with Big Questions

Julie Lythcott-Haims gives a voice to the internal dialogue—the self-loathing, really—of living a life as a biracial woman who, for most of her life, wasn't quite sure if she was allowed to call herself black.

About 25 pages in, I realized the irony of my hesitation to review Real American, a new memoir about one's place within the spectrum of race by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Standford dean and successful public speaker.


Real American

Julie Lythcott-Haims

(Henry Holt and Co.)

October 2017

Like Lythcott-Haims, I'm biracial (my mom immigrated to the US from Mexico in 1958), and I worried, being only half Hispanic, that I wasn't "brown enough" to comment on race. In Real American, Lythcott-Haims gives a voice to the internal dialogue—the self-loathing, really—of living a life as a biracial woman who, for most of her life, wasn't quite sure if she was allowed to call herself black.

Lythcott-Haims was born in 1967 to a black father and British (white) mother. Written as a collection of vignettes (each chapter is 1-2 pages), Real American is a mostly chronological collection of anecdotes, thoughts, and occasional poetry that addresses the events that shaped the author's understanding of race. The timing of such a memoir seems apropos. In the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, there have been a handful of attempts to candidly discuss race in a nuanced way. O.J.: Made in America, the eight-hour documentary series from ESPN, was less about the trial and more about the political climate -- from the spectacle of O.J. as the first black man to really pass as the nonthreatening negro (he was the spokesman for Hertz, after all) to the Rodney King riots that ushered in an era of documented double standards.

But Lythcott-Haims isn't giving us a flashy rags-to-riches story here. Real American is a book that asks a macro question—"Ain't I a Real American?"—through micro stories. As a toddler, she wanted friends, but what happens when a caramel-skinned child runs up to a white neighbor's kid? Does she embrace her? As a young girl, Lythcott-Haims wanted straight hair like her white classmates, but her white mother couldn't tame her unruly curls. In high school, racial confusion has fully set in. She wanted to attend a school dance, so, naturally, she called up the only other black kid in school, even though they barely ever said a word to each other. But it only makes sense, right?

Lythcott-Haims is an interesting case study in identity because she's not famous and she's not from the streets. She's from an upper middle-class family that moved around a lot before settling down in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. She comes from an educated family: Her dad for a time was the U.S. Assistant Surgeon General and her mom held higher degrees as well. Her fortunate class status allows us to do something kind of rare in discussions of race: focus less on environment and more on the individual, particularly hatred from self (low self-esteem) and veiled hatred from others (microaggressions).

Let's talk about the former first. Amid all the catchphrases—the War on Drugs, black-on-black crime, etc.—society's supposed concern for POC (Person Of Color) may as well be summed up as How do we save these barbarians from themselves? and Do you think black children aren't absorbing the underlying condescension? Lythcott-Haims takes these inherent self-esteem issues and adds another element: But what if you're not white enough and not black enough? It sounds like an abstract dilemma, but Lythcott-Haims, if she's done nothing else with this book, has shown just how complicated that question can be. It takes the author 177 pages to say, "They see me. I'm good enough as is. I don't have to fear I'm not Black enough. I belong." The journey to that statement, that constant anxiety of not being "enough", is at the heart of the book and by taking her time, Lythcott-Haims produces a truly victorious moment. It took her 40 years to get to this point -- and she's an articulate, self-aware woman. How many Americans never get there? How much harder is it to get there, when thousands of your fellow citizens are chanting "Make America Great Again", a statement so thinly veiled, I need not explain it.

Yet America truly is a mixed-race nation, so Lythcott-Haims struggles with multi-rationalism don't end with her own self-discovery. She marries a white man. She has two children. The question of "what to do differently than your parents" takes on an entirely different weight when the answer is "I wish my parents let me own my Blackness." That burden is only compounded in a decade when parents have had to somehow explain Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown's violent deaths to their children.

Frankly, the "current years" are usually something of an epilogue in memoirs, but I thought the honesty in the sections on her children were among the most poignant in the book. Her daughter Avery passes as white -- as I do -- and she struggles with what that means for her and for Avery. She wrestles with how she feels about her daughters light skin. It's a disorienting thing, not entirely looking like your offspring. But part of Lythcott-Haim's personal journey is in understanding how hatred of self skews how you observe absolutely everything in the world, even the people you love. These chapters helped me understand my relationship with my own mother, a woman who's skin is several shades darker than mine. It was a gift I wasn't quite expecting from this book.

The less feel-good moments come in Lythcott-Haims precise depictions of microagressions—tiny doses of racism that happen again and again, even from friends. As a waitress, a summer job Lythcott-Haims held after her freshman year of college, people are baffled to learn she goes to Stanford. After 20 years of serving as dean at that same school, a videographer for a promotional video for the school shares his surprise about her eloquence. One woman, a friend, even lets it slip that it's just great that Avery, Lythcott-Haim's daugher, can pass as white. Wow.

Real American is a lot of things. It's an exploration of one woman's understanding of race, and her place within it. It's that same woman trying to figure out what gives her life meaning and how to pick a career best suited for herself. It's about placing her story within a larger story of ancestry and tradition. It's about reclaiming labels that sometimes feel elusive, but we get to observe as Lythcott-Haims discovers her identity on her own terms: Black, Black woman, Black American woman.

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