Author Gives Advice For Young Adults And Reflects On Growing Up Black In A White World
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest, Julie Lythcott-Haims, is a bestselling author whose work has a lot to say about personal growth. Her 2015 book, "How To Raise An Adult," warns parents about micromanaging their kids' lives, which can prevent them from developing the independence and resilience they'll need as adults. Her 2017 memoir, "Real American," is the moving story of her coming to terms with her racial identity. Her father was a prominent African American physician, her mother a white British woman. Lythcott-Haims' new book is aimed at young people just emerging into the grown-up world. It's a handbook of sorts on adulthood, offering insights and strategies on education and career choices, building friendships, coping with setbacks, staying physically and mentally healthy, managing money and more. It's called "Your Turn: How To Be An Adult."
Julie Lythcott-Haims is the former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford, where she earned her B.A. She also earned a law degree from Harvard and a master's in fine arts and writing from California College of the Arts. She joins us from her home in Palo Alto. Julie Lythcott-Haims, welcome to FRESH AIR.
One of the first things you write is that young people have to embrace fending, as in fending for themselves. What's the idea here?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: We're mammals. We're mammals, and our job as mammal parents is to ensure that our young will survive without us. Now, that might not be the answer you were expecting. This is an answer from the field of biology, and I'm not a biologist. Right? But like every mammal parent, it is our imperative to ensure that our offspring can thrive without us. And thrive without us means fend for themselves. So Dave, these are the basics. These are things like look after your own belongings, be able to procure your own food, be able to find shelter for yourself, but also be accountable for your responsibilities. Show up. Be gracious to other humans. Manage your money well. These are the basics that will propel us forward successfully in life. And there are a whole lot of young adults who perhaps have been overmanaged in childhood and haven't had to be responsible for their food or their belongings or their deadlines or their obligations.
DAVIES: One of the chapters I really liked is titled "Stop Pleasing Others," which is something, you know, boy, don't we all do. I mean, I don't know how many of us take our first jobs as adults because of things that can be pretty random. Right? I mean, you're - a friend or a relative connected them with an employer. And at some point you don't really think - well, is this what I want to do? You know, when people say, yeah, I realize this isn't exactly my thing here, but I have no idea what I might want to do or be, how do they get started?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, the first thing I want you to know is stop pleasing others was the first chapter I was able to write. I struggled with writing it, and finally I found my voice in my way into this book by summoning the deep compassion for folks who feel an obligation to please others and for folks who really don't have any idea what they want to do. So it's in the middle of the book, but it was actually my way into the subject. For folks who have no idea, this is what I say. I say, look, sit with yourself in a quiet moment. Just put down the technology, put down the noise, and try to be with yourself. Listen to what comes up when you say, what would I do if it was just up to me? Listen, what comes up when you say to yourself, what if nobody was judging me? What would I do with this life?
Your soul, your spirit, your gut, your mind will start to deliver you some information. Now, your job is to try to listen for that voice and stop listening to the other messages in your mind that are the expectations and judgments of well-meaning others - family, extended family, peers, society writ large. Each one of us, I do believe, has deep within us a sense of what we're good at, what we love, where we feel a sense of connection and belonging. And figuring out what to do for work entails searching for that inner voice. And then, Dave, it entails finding the courage to honor what you hear. And that's, you know, speaking up and saying to family, hey, you know, I think instead of this job, I think I might like to try this. Instead of that graduate school program, I think I'd actually rather try this. And it's feeling the courage of those convictions. And the more you start to articulate it to yourself and to others, the braver you get about crafting your own path and marching down it.
DAVIES: One of the intriguing ideas here was that you want us to connect with others. You want us to talk to strangers, make eye contact with them. Why?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Millennials and Gen Z's have been raised with the mantra, don't talk to strangers. We've done that to them. We've delivered an overbroad message around safety that really undermined the development of the skill of interacting with one's fellow humans. So I'm here in this book saying, hey, guess what? You've got to start talking to strangers. Everybody outside of your family begins as a stranger, and humans are everything. There's research that shows that whether you live a long life is a function of how great your relationships are, not whether you have high cholesterol or low cholesterol in mid-life. And so the point is you got to start connecting with people. You got to learn how to be with humans. You need to learn how to advocate for yourself, treat others with respect, ask for help when you need it, offer help to others. Interactions with humans are really the juice of this human experience. And so, yeah, I'm trying to offer a generation of folks who've maybe not built that skill - I'm trying to offer them, entice them toward doing it.
Now, I want to be clear, Dave. Some people have trouble making eye contact, and it's really important to say that. This book tries to be deeply inclusive of the entirety of the human experience. So in the pages of the book, as I'm saying, try to make eye contact; it matters, I acknowledge this may be hard for you or next to impossible if you're on the autism spectrum or if you have social anxiety or if, culturally, you're not supposed to look people in the eye. I offer that caveat and then I say, all I'm saying is, if you can, it does reap some benefits.
DAVIES: You know, your first book, "How To Raise An Adult," warns parents against overmanaging their kids' lives. But there's one area in this book where you kind of lean the other way, and that is in the area of mental health and the growing prevalence of a wide range of, you know, conditions, disorders, diagnoses that affect young people. What do you want young adults and their families to know here?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: First and foremost, that having a mental health difficulty, challenge, disorder is normal. One in two 18-year-olds these days have a diagnosis of a mental health difficulty or a learning difference. In the past, we would have asterisked such things near the back of a book. Oh, hey, if you have a struggle, go to Page 359. No, I'm putting the fact that many, many, many of us contend with various situations, as I call them in the book - I'm putting that center of the page. There's nothing wrong with you. This is a normal aspect of the human condition to struggle in some way, shape or form with stuff. So I want any reader who is dealing with something, whether it is a diagnosis or there isn't a diagnosis for it, but something is clearly up, I want that reader to feel seen and supported and normalized, as I am trying to do for every single reader.
DAVIES: Yeah. Well, and you confess that your own son, Sawyer, who was diagnosed with ADHD early, struggled and there were ways that you probably should have been more attentive to it.
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah. Dave, I've raised Sawyer here in Silicon Valley, Palo Alto, - really bright kid and just was rooting for him to be magnificently successful in the hardest classes. And he got a diagnosis of ADHD and anxiety when he was in the fourth grade. And I think in hindsight, my husband and I didn't quite understand what that meant. He seemed to be so smart and capable and kind and lovely and had good friends and was doing just fine. And we really failed to deeply understand the diagnosis. And, boy, did those chickens come home to roost. As I say in the book - and I have my son's permission to share this - he really got into a downward spiral when he got to college. When the scaffolding of home and high school was taken away, this kid began to really struggle. And that's when my husband and I finally bought all the books on ADHD and anxiety.
When our son came home from college, Dave, he saw the books stacked on our desks. He saw that we had flagged them up with Post-it notes. And he looked at me and he said, Mom, I saw the books. And my heart started to beat rapidly because I thought, oh, no, he's going to feel like we're pathologizing him. We're reading up on our son and his diagnoses. And I felt really fearful. And my son looked at me with a smile. And he put his hand on my shoulder. And he said, Mom, thank you for taking an interest in understanding who I am. And so I put that story in the book, Dave, because - and I say in the book, if you need somebody to read this page, flag it, because I have made that mistake as a parent. And if there's anything I can do to be of use to others, I mean, that's, I think, my metapurpose in being a writer and being an author and trying to put my stories on the page and other people's stories on the page, to help readers have an easier time of it.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Julie Lythcott-Haims. Her new book is "Your Turn: How To Be An Adult." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VITO LITURRI TRIO'S "JUST A DREAMER")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Julie Lythcott-Haims. Her new book is "Your Turn: How To Be An Adult." We'll also talk about her 2017 memoir called "Real American." Your memoir, I have to say, this is a really powerful read. And it's a coming-of-age story. A lot of it is about wrestling with racial identity. Let's just talk about your family. Tell us about your father first.
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: My father was born in the Jim Crow South in 1918. He would have been 102 if he was still alive. He emerged out of that incredibly racialized environment, went to college at Bates, went to med school at BU, became the first Black professor at a medical school south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the 1950s, went off to West Africa to help eradicate smallpox, became the assistant surgeon general of the United States under President Jimmy Carter. And I'm the product of his second marriage to my mother, a white British lady.
DAVIES: Right. And they met in Africa. How did she get there?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, my mother left England as a 22-year-old. She was fleeing a difficult circumstance there and got a teaching job in Ghana teaching math and science to nursing students. My father was a diplomat doing this work around public health in Ghana. And they met at a party. And they sat on a couch and talked for hours and fell in love. And they were together from that night until the night that my father died in 1995.
DAVIES: You were born in Nigeria, right?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I was. They moved from Ghana to Nigeria. And that's where I was born. Yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah. And you came to the States when you were young. You lived in Manhattan for a while, then to a community in - I guess, near Palisades, N.Y., right?
DAVIES: Do you remember as a child noticing differences in the way white people reacted to your father from your mother?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Absolutely. I remember being 3 or 4, walking down a sidewalk in our town, holding my daddy's hand. And a white man walked toward us with a sneer on his face, such an angry look that it frightened me. It looked to be the face of a snarling dog. But it was simply a man. And I gripped Daddy's hand for reassurance. And I looked up at him. But he didn't look down at me. He just gripped my hand tighter and pursed his lips and kept walking. And I think, in some ways, being a kid of a white person and a Black person allowed me to A/B test of racism or interactions with strangers. Nobody looked at my mother with that snarling, angry face. They looked at her sometimes with pity and disdain. But there wasn't the anger when she was holding my hand. And I couldn't have called it racism when I was 4. But I knew I was meant to be afraid, and I was.
DAVIES: Wow. That memory stays with you from the age of 4.
DAVIES: Wow. You write that in kindergarten or maybe first grade, you say you were learning that something might be wrong with you. And kids would ask - what are you? - and express surprise that your mom was white. And you would mention this to your parents. What did they say?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: You know, my parents were choosing to raise me in white communities. And that was a decision my dad made. He was, as I said, a product of the Jim Crow South. He was determined to be unfettered by racism. He had experienced seven years of freedom in West Africa as a Black man, where his skin color did not hold him back. And now he had returned to the United States. My parents tried to reassure me that you are Black. You are beautiful. Every parent of a mixed-race child is told tell them they're Black because the world will see them as Black. And they need to grow up proud of that identity. And so my parents were there with that rhetoric. But I didn't understand it. I had this white mother. And it was clear to me that the world valued her more than my Black daddy. So I was wondering as a 7-year-old, why isn't Mommy using her whiteness to rescue me and Daddy from this pit it appears we have fallen into because of our skin color?
DAVIES: The pit being what?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: The pit of unworthiness. I mean, by 7, I think I had consumed enough media, enough messaging. I was preferring white dolls. I was preferring white stories. I mean, I was, like, any - it sounds so awful to say this. I mean, I'm now this 53-year-old, self-loving Black woman. But I'm dipping back into those early stories and trying to tell the truth of them, which is I knew by 7 that something was wrong with Blackness. And I thought, I have this white mother. So maybe we're a little better since we have this white family member.
DAVIES: You write that your mom was the Blackest white lady you knew, maybe even the Blackest person you knew - in what way?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: So Mom was this 22-year-old who left England for West Africa and was embraced there by Ghanaians and by Nigerians, really came into her own in West Africa and moved to America with my father in 1969. And for the first time then, as a 30-year-old, discovered American racism. The dresses she wore were made of fabrics she'd bought in West Africa. So my mother had a consciousness around Blackness, around Blackness being beautiful. And she was bringing that into our home in America, trying to raise this Black, biracial daughter of hers to be self-loving. She was saying all the right things. She was putting up posters of Black girls and women in my childhood bedroom. She was bringing me "A Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats, the first children's book to feature a Black character. And yet I felt it was performative. I knew something was wrong with Blackness. I had been taught that. And I felt a growing annoyance. Here's my white mother trying to tell me I'm Black. She didn't know what to do with my hair. My hair was this mess of tumbleweed. There weren't products then. And she didn't know how to deal with Black hair either. And so I just felt odd. I felt like an other.
DAVIES: There are so many moments that you describe in the book where you run up against white racism, you know, in small moments, subtle ways, I mean, I guess what people often call microaggressions nowadays. I want to get you to share one little story with us. This is - you were in fifth grade. And there was this teacher, Mr. Polanski (ph), right? And there was a question of, are you going to get into the gifted and talented group in the grade? Tell us the story.
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Polanski is a pseudonym, as you might expect. Yes. I was in fifth grade at Lake Anne Elementary School in Reston, Va. This is when Daddy had just gotten his position as assistant surgeon general for the Carter administration. So my best friend Susie (ph) gets pulled into gifted and talented. This was a predominantly white school. Susie is white. And Susie and I are best friends. And Susie is very smart. And I also know that I'm smart. And I know Susie's not any smarter than I am. So she gets pulled into gifted and talented. And it looks awesome. She gets to do cool projects and puzzles. And I'm a little jealous. So I go home to my mom and I say, you know, Susie got pulled into this new thing they have called gifted and talented, question mark. And my mom looks back at me sort of - question mark. And she says, that doesn't sound right. I mean, yes, Susie should be there, but why not you?
And so she goes to Polanski and she talks about it. But Polanski is not persuaded. And so my mom escalates to the principal. And this is where my mother's privilege as a white woman, as a very educated person herself, shows up and is of use to me. And she insists that I be tested. And they do test me. They give me an IQ test. And they mail the results to our house. And Mom thinks I'm not watching when she opens the envelope and reads it and squirrels it away in a drawer. And I get put in the gifted group soon after. And then shortly after that at a - in an assembly for our whole grade, Mr. Polanski says to nobody in particular, to the entire room before the assembly starts, he just folds his arms across his chest and he announces, apparently, all it takes to be gifted is for your parent to meet with the principal. And I knew he was talking about me. And I knew he was talking to me. But, Dave, I had peeked at the letter from the district, which said I was in the 99th percentile.
Damn, I wish I didn't have tears in my voice right now because I'm 53. And I'd like to be over this hurt, this sleight that I experienced in the fifth grade. And in the fifth grade, I sat there and looked at Polanski. And I didn't say this out loud. But in my head, I uttered a very silent F you because I knew what he was doing. And I learned in that moment, some teachers are not going to see what I'm capable of because of my race. They're not going to see it. And I am going to have to prove, prove, prove myself every single time.
DAVIES: It's remarkable because, you know, when you're in fifth grade, you're - what? - 10, 11? You could be crushed by that, you know? Is he right? Or I resent my mom coming to see the principal. You didn't. You said, up yours. Yeah.
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. No. You know, I wasn't crushed. That is, it fueled me. It gave me a velocity that said, you better make sure this doesn't happen to you again. But I was crushed in a different sense. I learned more about humans. I learned that some humans are unkind and disrespectful. I lost a bit more innocence about how humans can be.
DAVIES: And you still feel that harm today?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, you know what? I think I feel it. I feel it in my bones because it's there. But I also know it's still happening today. So part of what I think I'm expressing, if subconsciously, is a whole lot of empathy for any kid in a classroom today who is marginalized or unseen because of some aspect of their identity. And that's why my book aims to be so inclusive of all readers, right? I don't want a single person to read this book and feel, oh, wow, she only wrote this for white people. She only wrote this for straight people. She only wrote this for Christians. She only wrote this for highly educated people. I mean, I've just gone to some lengths to put a whole lot of people in the pages of "Your Turn" because I've lived a life of being unseen and marginalized.
DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Julie Lythcott-Haims. Her new book is "Your Turn: How To Be An Adult." Her 2017 memoir is called "Real American." We'll talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN BATISTE'S "KINDERGARTEN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with author Julie Lythcott-Haims about her new book, "Your Turn: How To Be An Adult," and her 2017 memoir, "Real American," which deals with her childhood, growing up and coming to terms with her racial identity. Her father was a prominent African American physician, her mother a white British woman. Lythcott-Haims is also the author of the bestseller "How To Raise An Adult."
I guess you were 10 when you moved to the Washington area, where your father went to work for - in the Carter administration as an assistant surgeon general. You moved to northern Virginia, where there was some diversity among your friends and mates and classmates. But after Ronald Reagan won the election in 1980, your dad was out of a job, and he got an academic post in Wisconsin. And you moved to a suburban neighborhood outside Madison where, as you describe it, you know, the middle school and high school were overwhelmingly white.
And, you know, what's awful about this is that, in adolescence, when you're a teenager, maybe more than any other time in our lives, we - you know, there's such peer pressure, and we really just want to fit in, right? I mean, you - be what other people are - around us are like, and that was just so impossible for you. You know, you're living in this world surrounded by all these white kids. And of course, there are - I mean, you said, essentially, in the paper that the only Black people you saw on a regular basis were your family. On the other hand, there were a lot of media images of African Americans. And I'm wondering kind of how all that affected you and your sense of yourself.
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah, I think the media was this pingpong. It was either the stereotype of Blackness that was routinely showing up in the news about us being violent or lazy or - you know, just all of these stereotypes. And on the other side, there was "The Cosby Show." "The Cosby Show" debuted while I was in high school. And as problematic as the legacy of that show may be, it was a lifeline for me as a Black kid growing up in the cornfields of Wisconsin, where everyone and everything was white, and I was searching for clues about how I was supposed to think and talk and what I was supposed to care about. It was a touchstone to Blackness.
Now, of course, it was an upper-middle-class family, which was also our status. I mean, it was a very privileged Black family, which I - well aware is not the typical Black experience. Nevertheless, it did mirror my experience. So the media became this push-and-pull. I was trying not to be, never to be, the stereotypical Black person, constantly trying to prove my worth, prove my smarts, prove that I wasn't trying to steal from somebody in a store, you know, or that I wasn't bad. I was desperately running from the stereotype and running toward this sort of model, this idealized version of Blackness.
DAVIES: There's one other incident in high school that I have to ask you about, and that was your 17th birthday and the locker decoration that your dear friend Diana made.
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah. Dave. Oh, Dave (laughter). Let me set the scene. I am a senior. I am the only Black student in the school, although a Black freshman will move in in the ensuing months and will be beaten up in a bathroom. But I don't know that yet. It is my 17th birthday. I have been elected president of the student council. I'm on the pompom team. I'm on the state championship concert choir. I'm popular. I have friends. And I'm now president of the student body, and I'm feeling kind of like I own the place. You know, I'm feeling good, and I'm smart, and I'm doing well. I'm achieving.
And I've dressed up for my 17th birthday. I've put on a beautiful dress and high heels and spent extra time on my makeup. And I know that Diana will have made me a beautiful locker sign - five sheets of white paper taped together down the length of this 5-foot locker with imagery and words cut out from magazines. And I know she's going to do this 'cause this is what we do for each other. I've just done it for her birthday. And I'm delighted just anticipating it. I walk into school. I see it. People are saying, happy birthday. I'm smiling and saying, thank you. And I look at the sign, and it's gorgeous. And Diana is there, and we're just - you know, we're best friends, and we're just admiring what she's done, and we're laughing.
And I put my backpack in the locker, and I grab a couple of books for my next couple of classes, and I go to class. And at some point later that morning, somebody came by and wrote the N-word three times on my birthday sign. They were so ignorant they only spelled it with one G. But I knew what they meant. And I was so ashamed that it happened. Now, this sign was cluttered with beautiful imagery and language. So it wasn't - it didn't stand out. It wasn't a glaring set of N-words. It was tucked into the white space between all of the pictures and words that Diana had put on this sign.
And so when I saw it, my mouth went dry. I saw it as people were - you know, in the passing time between classes. And I just pressed my back up against the locker so no one else would see. And then the bell rings. Everybody's gone. And I race over to the office. And they all know me there because I'm the student council president, and they don't bat an eyelash over the fact that I'm not in class - Julie must be up to something good. And I ask for a black Magic Marker, and they give me one. And I race back to my locker, and I go to those three iterations of this shameful word, and I cross them out, time and time again. And I'm done.
And the sign stays up all day. And I take it home, and I put it in my scrapbook on the blank page next to my homecoming tickets. And right before folding this sign up and closing it into the scrapbook, I take a scissors and cut out these three black boxes that are now lids on top of the N-word, and I throw them in the trash. And though they were in the trash, they were also embedded in my psyche.
DAVIES: Did you tell anyone?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I didn't tell anybody.
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I didn't tell anybody. By anybody, I mean nobody. I didn't tell my parents, Diana. I had a boyfriend at the time; I didn't tell him. I didn't tell the school. I didn't tell even myself again that it had happened until I went back to school at age 44 to get an MFA in writing to try to develop the craft and the confidence to write books. And I was in a poetry class where I wrote the polyvocal poem, a poem in seven voices, trying to reflect the voices around me in high school. And this person who wrote the N-word on my locker was one of the seven voices. So I buried it from age 17 until age 44.
But you know what? I spent many of those decades simply trying to never be called the N-word again, trying to be the model "Negro," air quotes, who would just be smart and be capable and be articulate and be this, that and the other so that that would never happen to me again. And that was, really, the beginning of this self-loathing that I describe in the memoir, "Real American," where I'm - we would call it internalized oppression. That's a more formal term. But I was so self-loathing, so ashamed to be the person who had been called the N-word. I didn't feel any agency around speaking up for myself or asking for help. I think I also wasn't positive that help would come.
DAVIES: You know, if that were to happen today - I mean, one can't be sure - but I could readily imagine that it would be a media story, and there would be outrage and, you know, action by the school. I don't know what would have happened had you done it then. But you were - as you said, you were accomplished. You were popular enough to be class president. I have to believe you would have gotten a lot of support, and there would have been a lot of outrage on your behalf. Did any of that even cross your mind?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: No. And I do want to just say, I was student council president, which is different than class president. I don't want to take the due from the person who had that role. But, no, it would be different today. In so many places, it would. But what I say to educators today when I talk about this is, if one caring adult had thought to themselves in advance to say to me on my arrival at the school, hey, Julie, you look really different from most of the kids here. Let's face it. You come from a really different background. Should anything ever go down, please know that I'm here. Please don't hesitate to come knock on my door. If one - one - teacher had said that to me, I think maybe I would have felt less alone in that school and in that moment.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Julie Lythcott-Haims about her 2017 memoir called "Real American." She also has a new book which offers advice to young people entering the grown-up world. It's called "Your Turn: How To Be An Adult." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with author Julie Lythcott-Haims. Her new book which offers advice to young adults entering the grown-up world is "Your Turn: How To Be An Adult." We're also talking about her 2017 memoir called "Real American."
You were accepted to Stanford. And you write that college, you hoped, would be your chance to make Black friends, even learn how to, quote, "be Black," unquote. And, you know, when you got there, during student orientation, you saw a flyer to a welcome event sponsored by the Black Community Services Center. There was a kind of an African American-centered dormitory, and a lot of kids stayed there. You decide to go. What was the experience like?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I walked up to this dorm lounge. I could see through the window a whole lot of Black and brown kids who seemed to already know each other. There was laughter. There was just sort of a relaxed vibe, and I longed for that. But I also felt instantly like an outsider. I thought, how do these kids already know each other? Aren't we all freshmen? And I just worried. I worried I don't have what it takes to interact with Black kids. I don't know Black kids. I don't know how to be Black. They're going to know I have a white mother. They're going to know I grew up in white spaces.
I just - that internalized oppression was just shouting at me, you don't belong, you don't belong, you don't belong. I knew I wasn't white, but I was also pretty sure by that time of life that I wasn't Black, either. It looked like this enticing treehouse in the woods, and I was climbing the ladder and, you know, wanting to be let in but couldn't even bring myself to knock at the door. I mean, I did go in, but I just felt really out of place. I thought they were rejecting me.
In hindsight, what I can tell you is I was showing up with such a look of, I don't belong, I'm afraid, I'm afraid you won't like me, I'm afraid I'm not Black enough - I was showing up with that vibe oozing out of my pores, probably screaming out of my eyes, that the looks that I saw as rejection from the Black community, from students in the Black community that I was encountering, were really this sort of internalized self-rejection. And I know that because once I became this self-loving Black person who was no longer ashamed to be so light-skinned and have this white mother, the Black community was there to embrace me, and folks said, hey, we've been waiting for you all along (laughter). Welcome.
DAVIES: It took a long time to get there, I know.
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: It did. But boy, was it the most loving embrace I've ever experienced.
DAVIES: There's a painful section here, which - I'm just going to read this, where you write that - much later, you write that what you now know to have been true of yourself in childhood and young adult - (Reading) One, I hated being Black. Two, I was afraid of Black people. Three, I tried to be what white people valued.
I will just tell readers that the journey to your coming to a different perspective on all this is fascinating reading. And we won't have time to go through all of it here. Is there a moment that you could share that was important in that journey?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah. So what you've just shared is probably the most vulnerable writing I have ever put to page and published in a book. And I felt it was essential because it was my truth and because it was the pivot point for me. I said those things out loud before putting them in the pages of a book. I said them to my executive coach at Stanford. I'm now - I've been a corporate lawyer. I've been - I'm a university dean at this point. I'm working with an executive coach who's helping me be more effective in the workplace. And I admit to her these three things that you've just listed, and I am probably sobbing in the most ugly way as I say these things 'cause I feel, first of all, that I'm the only person who's ever felt this way about my own people, and I'm so ashamed.
And then what happens is - it's like I've released it from me. I realize that this racism, this internalized oppression that made me feel those things, had had a clamp on my heart, on my psyche. And what I've effectively done is - it's been like a bully that's been holding on to me and that I finally turned around and faced it and said, stop it. And when I had the guts to say that out loud to someone I trusted and to myself, I made the bully run away. And that self-loathing self-loathing was replaced within an instant by self-love.
And the best way I can describe it to you is the next day I came to work - and I'm working on the Stanford campus; I know tons of people. There are a lot of Black folks on the campus, folks I've known for quite some time - students, faculty, staff. And it's like every Black person got a memo saying, will you smile at Julie today? And I think what was happening was I was finally smiling at myself. I was finally this self-loving Black person saying - you know what? - it's not about what white people think. I am a person who's worthy of being treated with dignity and kindness. Black people are amazing humans. And I was saying that to myself. So now as I'm walking through the world and encountering Black folks, my eyes are saying the same thing to them, which is why I'm getting smiles back. It was the most beautiful transformation.
And I know listeners may have a hard time understanding, and yet I know there are listeners nodding their heads with understanding because if you have been a member - if you are a member of a marginalized group and you have felt that degree of internalized oppression, you know what that feels like, and you are longing for that liberation. And it is available to you when you just turn and face what has been done to you and decide - you know what? - I am in charge. I'm not going to let them define how I feel about myself.
DAVIES: Your father died several decades ago, I guess, right? You were in your 20s. You did talk to your mom about some of these issues and the difficulty that you had growing up in this white community and this white high school. Can you tell us about that conversation?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: My amazing mother, Jean Lythcott - 82 years old. And we've chosen to conjoin our lives, live together, to try to afford living in Silicon Valley. And so we are a part of each other's daily lives. And for that reason, as I have come to this place of self-love as a Black woman and come to terms with an upbringing that was quite flawed in many ways - although I know my parents are doing their best in choosing to raise me in predominantly white, almost exclusively white communities at times, it harmed me. And I have needed them to know. The person I need to take it up with is Daddy. I think Daddy is the parent who probably should have known better. But as I've said, I couldn't. I didn't even know to have this conversation. I didn't have this consciousness before he died.
So I've taken it all out on my white mother, which I say with a chuckle, but also with a lot of compassion. Mom was the only parent here as I was doing this work, and boy, did I go at it with her. And to her credit, all my mother has ever wanted is for her Black daughter to love her Black self. She has wanted that for me since I was born. And so she has this profound delight that I have arrived at this place. And what she will say to me through tears is, I was doing the best that I could. And I am able to say through tears, Mom, I know you did. I know you are doing the best you could.
So we have had that reckoning. And it wasn't one conversation. It was many conversations. Mom began quite defensive. And of course, that just fueled my anger. And we've now moved through that and gotten to a place where we can accept that we've lived very different life experiences. For a while, my mother, I think, felt, you know, I married your father; I've given birth to you. You know, I am white, but - I am not that typical white person. And I've said, yes, but, mom, when the Ku Klux Klan is marching, you know, in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., they're coming for people who look like me, not for people who look like you. Your whiteness shields you from that. Even though you love Black people in the deepest part of your bones, you are not Black. And we do have different experiences, and I really would like for you to acknowledge that. It doesn't mean you love me any less, but please don't purport to have the same experience I do. That's been an important conversation. I think that's a conversation any white parent who's got multiracial kids or transracially adopted kids of color, that white parent needs to understand, you know, you can have compassion - and you must - but you are not walking the same path as your children.
DAVIES: Yeah. And how did your mom respond to that point?
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Beautifully - absolutely beautifully. She's incredibly emotionally intelligent as well as fiercely intellectual. And she understands it on all levels. And she's doing the work. You should see her. She's part of the League of Women Voters here in Palo Alto. She's doing a lot of anti-racism work in our local community. She's an educator. She cares deeply about the experience of kids of color in the public schools because she was my parent, and she knows what I went through. And she is still fiercely advocating for the right of Black and brown children to be fully seen and supported and heard and cherished in the classroom.
DAVIES: Well, Julie Lythcott-Haims, it's been great talking to you. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Dave, thank you so much. What an honor and a pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Julie Lythcott-Haims' new book is "Your Turn: How To Be An Adult." Her 2017 memoir is called "Real American." Lythcott-Haims is also the author of the 2015 bestseller "How To Raise An Adult."
Coming up, John Powers reviews the first English translation of "Lady Joker," a crime novel that sold a million copies and spawned a movie and TV series in Japan. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUSAN ALCORN'S "NORTHEAST RISING SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.