In her Dec. 20 presentation “On Being Black and Biracial in a Country Where Black Lives Weren’t Meant to Matter,” Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford University’s first dean of freshmen, explained to the Rotary Club of Los Altos why her trailblazing achievements didn’t seem to be enough.
Lythcott-Haims said her biracial background is a heavy burden to bear and an even heavier one to hide. She described herself as a third-generation college and graduate student, the daughter of a black physician descended from an African slave, whose wife was white and entered the U.S. from England.
“My immigrant parent is white,” she said, noting that the Trump administration’s rhetoric assumes that all immigrants are brown people.
Moving beyond the biracial roots that she once felt defined her, Lythcott-Haims has experienced success as Stanford dean, corporate lawyer, author of the New York Times best-selling “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success” and presenter of one of the top TED Talks of 2016.
Journey to success
The letter “A” symbolizes the arc of a novel or memoir, Lythcott-Haims once learned in a creative writing class; most writers take their readers on a suspenseful journey up the slope of the “A” until they reach the climactic moment of the book, and the downslope is the denouement. However, the arc of Lythcott-Haims’ memoir, “Real American,” published in 2017, is the opposite, descending down the arm of the letter “V” before emerging and soaring again.
She began life with unusual assets, having been raised in a middle-class, white community by a father who served as the country’s assistant Surgeon General under President Jimmy Carter. Nevertheless, she was called the “N-word” on her 17th birthday at her all-white high school.
As she entered adulthood, Lythcott-Haims began to feel that people’s perception of her was based primarily on her skin color.
The realization filled her with self-loathing, a period of life she depicted in her memoir as the bottom of the “V.”
Even after graduating from law school, becoming a corporate lawyer and earning the title of Stanford’s first dean of freshmen, Lythcott-Haims said she still felt inadequate. All of the other Stanford deans had doctorates, she joked, and she felt her law degree from Harvard just didn’t measure up. But it was no joke.
Through coaching, Lythcott-Haims learned that she was perceived as emotional and aggressive in the workplace – both stereotypes of black women. Her coach, Maryellen, helped her understand the trigger of those behaviors. Lythcott-Haims realized that racism had made her feel so unworthy that she was desperate to prove constantly that “they” were wrong. Maryellen helped her reorient her self-image. Finally, through coaching, she discovered that not only had she internalized racism, but that she could love herself regardless of other people’s prejudices.
Now, at age 51, Lythcott-Haims has traveled a long path to emerge from self-loathing to self-love. She said that in the latter portion of “Real American,” she deploys the second-person voice “you” to call out the implicit bias of whites.
Lythcott-Haims spoke eloquently and read powerful excerpts from “Real American.” She has made sure that her black life does matter, not only in society, but more importantly, to herself.
Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit losaltosrotary.org.