Updated: Feb 2
As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.
This week my third “Writer on Resilience” is Julie Lythcott-Haims, writer, speaker, and former corporate lawyer and Stanford dean. Her first book was New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult, an anti-helicopter parenting manifesto. I read her moving and inspiring second book, Real American: A Memoir, which was my top nonfiction read for 2020. She has a third book coming out in April: Your Turn: How to Be an Adult.
This interview with Julie is timely for the first day of Black History Month, which was founded by another famed Black educator and groundbreaking historian: Carter G. Woodson. It began as a week instead of a month, and we have colleges and universities to thank for extending it to a month in the 1960s. Woodson was the son of former slaves and the second African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard.
Every year, Black History Month has a theme, and this year the theme is The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity and will explore the African diaspora.
What better day to launch this interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims than the first day of Black History Month? Julie, who descended from immigrants and an African who was enslaved, wrote,
“My great-great-great-great grandmother Sylvie was a slave in Charleston, South Carolina. She bore three children by her master, Joshua Eden, by which I mean he raped her; there is no consent in slavery. I come from people who survived what America did to them. Ain’t I a real American?”
Julie goes on:
“When the amorphous mob harrumphs about the needs and rights of ‘Real Americans’ they don’t picture me. People like me. But is anyone more American than those of us formed by America in an angry war with herself? I’m so American it hurts.”
“I’m hoping folks who are the majority, who are white, who inhabit identities that are not othered, I’m hoping they feel compassion. I’m hoping my story invites them in and makes them want to know a little bit more. I’m hoping that anyone who reads it will be willing to be more compassionate toward someone who lives a different life experience.”
Julie is Black and biracial, daughter of an African-American father and a white, British mother. She grew up mostly in white spaces, which affected her ability to develop a healthy sense of self.
“I was the Blackest thing in my childhood, which was an all-white environment. And now that I'm inhabiting diverse spaces and loving myself as a Black person, I just look at my skin and think, my goodness, Julie, you are so light.”
Julie’s father was an acclaimed physician, educator, and public health expert, Dr. George Lythcott. He helped eradicate a different kind of plague: smallpox. The family followed him all over the world as he pursued his work. He worked as dean of the medical school at Columbia University and for the Carter administration in the late 1970s. I also discovered he was dear friends with Dr. Bill Foege, the brother of my close friend, Annette Stixrud, who I interviewed for my podcast a few months ago.
Julie’s mother Jean Lythcott met George while she was teaching in Ghana. Highly accomplished as well, Jean taught science and education at Columbia and Stanford and co-founded the Martha’s Vineyard Charter School.
Throughout her childhood, Julie experienced microaggressions like a friend who loved “Gone With the Wind” telling her she thought of Julie as “normal, not Black.” In high school her locker was defaced with the N-word. And when she got into Stanford, the parent of a friend doubted her academic credentials, as if she had only been let in because of her race. She didn’t know then how lonely she felt.
“I didn't know that what I was experiencing was a thing called a microaggression. We didn't have that language then. I knew that racism was the Klu Klux Klan burning a cross on your lawn. The things we think of as just the mean things—the bullying, or the ignorance or slights—they all were so momentary, so fleeting.”
Julie often found herself wondering if it actually happened the way she thought it did…especially when people around her said it wasn’t a big deal. Although her parents would have been sympathetic, she didn’t want to weigh them down. Her father had survived the Jim Crow South, born in 1918 and growing up outside of Tulsa right after the Greenwood riots.
“My father endured so much…I appreciated the fact that whatever small slights and insults were coming my way, I was not having police dogs sicced on me…I'm not being taunted with the N word as I walked to school…I was not being prevented from riding on buses…I knew that my experience was easier than that of the Black folks who had come before me.”
Julie’s book Real American was like a love letter to her parents and their stories. Their marriage was considered illegal in 14 states when they got married, and both of them had incredible childhood and family stories. They both broke a lot of glass ceilings.
When her father worked in West Africa to help eradicate smallpox, he was treated as a smart, thoughtful, hard-working person, and the color of his skin was not an issue.
“He just soared in that environment and then came back to the US. As my mother would put it, he was determined not to have his wings clipped. And so he chose to move us to these various communities, usually outside a major academic campus or big city.”
These communities happened to be largely or entirely white.
Although her father was a brilliant pediatrician, he didn't know much about the psychosocial development of a biracial or Black child growing up in white spaces.
“It's hard for any child, whether you're of color, queer or gender nonbinary, your religion does not match that of the people around you, or you're poorer than everybody else around you...It's hard for any child to be the only one in a category, and the more visible your category is, the more alienating it can be.”
Julie wishes her parents had realized she could have benefited from being around other people of color who could mentor and reassure her. At the end of Real American, Julie shared how she had a hard conversation with her mom, questioning why they raised her in predominantly white spaces. Julie and her mom are close, sharing a house and planning to write a book together.
“She's now close to 82 and very much alive and kicking and smart and fearsome, boisterous, and wonderful. My parents raised me in a very loving family. I was loved and supported. I was given opportunity. All of that is true. And my childhood was devoid of any cultural richness with respect to Blackness, and that left me alienated from the Black community and from my own self.”
Although Julie laments that alienation, her mom was doing the best she knew how to do at the time. When her family moved to the US, her mother Jean encountered American racism for the first time at the age of 30.
I asked Julie about how she ended up dating a Mormon boy and converting.
“Not only was he Mormon, he was a Republican and I was a Democrat. My parents’ alarm that I would be dating somebody who was a member of a religion that had excluded Black men from being priests only five years earlier…that just alarmed them, and rightly so. I think in part I was beginning my long rebellion against my family.”
Stanford was the first place for Julie to be in a healthy population of people of color. She hoped she would find a sense of connection and belonging…but she soon realized that the rest of the Black kids had something in common that she lacked. She wrote,
“Many years later I learned that Blackness was less about skin color or hair or language and more about a lived, conscious committedness to issues that impact Black people.”
She was convinced they would know she had a white mom and grew up in white spaces and would be viewed as somehow less Black.
“I'm not gonna fit in here is probably the look of worry that I wore on my face as I approached any Black person…So in some ways I self-excluded myself from the opportunity to belong in the first Black community that I met.”
Julie’s dad told her that white boys would be her friend but would never date her. In Real American, she reflects that she married a white Jewish man as a route to belong in America. Her husband, Dan, is an artist and worked as primary caregiver for their family for much of their marriage.
“I thank the Lord and the universe and all the molecules that create this human existence every day for my partner. Dan Lythcott-Haims and I started dating when he was 19 and I was 20. We've actually just hit our 33rd anniversary of being together.”
She shares a funny story of the first time Dan said that when he had kids, he wanted to stay at home with them. We talked about our shared experience of marrying men who have been the primary caregivers for our children and who also were confident enough to marry independent women and share hyphenated names. In Julie’s case, the dual hyphenation was even more intentional, because when she was a child so many people questioned her connection to her mother.
“In mixed race families you never know what kids are going to look like…I don't want somebody ever to have cause to say my child is not mine or our children are not his.”
Julie realizes now she was trained to please white people, so of course she would end up with a white person. If she had waited to settle down until she loved the Blackness in her, it’s possible she might have ended up with a person of her color.
“Dan is so nonjudgmental, secure in who he is, and trusting that he just stands with me and nods and smiles. When I experience the various things I'm experiencing, he is my home base. He is my safe cave. He is my rock. He's just the most eternal thing that I have in this very mortal life.”
After working as a lawyer and then administrator at Stanford, now Julie is at a different space in her life as a self-employed author. I asked her how that feels.
“I am a free agent, not beholden to another person's brand…I don't have to worry that when I open my mouth I'm going to be offending somebody else or harming somebody else’s plans or vision or rules…I am free to be me and it is so liberating. And it's terrifying I don't have a boss…It's on me…And frankly, I like that I’m living on this edge of what I call terrifying and exhilarating. One foot in the wrong direction and my career might fall off a cliff…I think it keeps me humble, sharp, and tenacious.”
When I interviewed Julie, it was shortly after the insurrection in the capital and before we inaugurated our first Black and biracial VP, Kamala Harris. I told her I felt her title Real American seems more important than ever. Julie wrote that Trayvon Martin’s death was her personal Pearl Harbor, the line demarcating before and after she knew Blackness is the core chord in her life, because she is raising a Black son.
While the white nationalists that stormed the capital call themselves patriots and people have been saying this is not what we are as America, Julie can trace her ancestry back to Sylvie, a slave who worked on a plantation in Charleston, SC. You can read Julie’s thoughts about the insurrection here.
“I feel that I'm more a real American than ever. I think we're all real Americans…I don't feel in any way diminished by this. I feel sad, I feel emboldened. I feel I have to do my part to rescue our democracy from the clutches of these sorts of willful lies and conspiracy theories.”
Moving onto Julie’s first book, How to Raise an Adult, she shared four or five things in the mid-1980s that contributed to what we now call helicopter parenting.
“Childhood went from this very free, wide open, expansive time of life to one that was hovered over, watched, managed, handled, fixed by parents…it really wasn't until the last 10 years or so that we began putting two and two together and saying, we have so many young people struggling with anxiety and depression…why is that?”
Studies correlate a highly involved parenting style with anxiety and depression in kids.
“When we're highly involved in a kid’s life…doing too much of the planning and thinking and managing problem solving, coping for them, we're not giving them autonomy. And a person who lacks autonomy doesn't really develop a self, a sense of I know who I am and I know what I can do. I can handle this. I'm going to be alright.”
Julie says it is never too late to start putting the reins back in the kids’ hands, and the longer we wait, the more harm can be done. We talked about how each child is different and might need a different parenting style, especially if they have ADD or anxiety. Julie has delivered several TED talks on this topic, including the one here:
I mentioned an excellent newsletter article she wrote, “Navigating COVID-19 with Young Adult Offspring: Here’s What You Might Hear… Here’s What You Might Say…” about how to help our young adults navigate COVID and the future. I asked her what she tells her kids or other young people when they are scared about the future.
“We're supposed to validate their fears…and empathize with the fear…and then you…want to empower the person to have some agency over next steps toward whatever the issue might be… There are concrete steps each one of us can take so that we feel less helpless against these really large global systemic existential threats.”
Julie’s next book called Your Turn: How to Be an Adult is geared for 18- to 34-year-olds who are struggling with adulting. It is being lauded as “groundbreakingly frank.” You can preorder the book here.