Author and speaker Julie Lythcott-Haims joins the program to discuss the price of overparenting, and the consequences it has for young people when they arrive at college and in the workplace. Julie also reveals her thoughts about trigger warnings in universities, why parents need to shift out of a “rescue mentality,” and gives examples of ally behaviors that can help create positive change.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Julie’s diversity story, including being biracial and born overseas (13:00)
- The dangers of overparenting (21:00)
- Julie’s insights about trigger warnings for college students (28:00)
- Why it’s important to talk about painful moments in history (32:00)
- The challenge that many young people are facing as they go to college (35:00)
- The linguistic shift that parents need to make (36:00)
- Why parents need to shift out of a “rescue mentality” (37:00)
- Allyship behaviors that can help to create positive change (51:00)
- The historical challenge that we are all facing (57:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Julie, welcome to The Will To Change.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Jennifer, thank you for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: I was so pleased to make your acquaintance at a gathering, and I won’t divulge too much, but we found ourselves in a very beautiful place this past summer and made a soul connection when I heard you speak and I realized all the topics that you write on. And I hadn’t known about you and your work and I’ve been really delighted to read your books and listen to your incredibly successful TEDx talk on how to raise successful kids, which is one part of your work.
And then the other part of your work that I was captured by was your book, which is called Real Americans. So I promptly went out, bought it, read your story, and I was so, so connected to it because you spoke about so much of what we talk about in the diversity, equity and inclusion space in the workplace. But it was such a heartfelt memoir, it was so honest, and it said so many important things. So I really look forward to diving into that. And I know you’ve got another book in the works. So I’m really excited to introduce my audience to you, to your scholarships, your story, to your calls to action in particular, which are really powerful.
So I’m really pleased that you’re joining me today. We start The Will To Change with our diversity stories, And Real American is a memoir, and so what I’m hoping for you to be able to give us as a snapshot as quickly as you can of who are you, who were you raised by, how did you become and how do you identify, and what was the evolution of that process as you became such a voice, I think, for equity and for being seen and heard, and for surfacing stories like yours, which are so underrepresented and yet so important for all of us to see, hear, understand and know about.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Cool. I’m excited to be here. And we’ll apologize in advance, I do have a little bit of a cold, so hopefully your listeners-
JENNIFER BROWN: We’ll take it. You’ve been busy.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: … will cut me some slack. So yeah, I am 50, I’m going to be 52 any day now. I identify as black and African American. I was born to an African American father and a white British mother on the continent of Africa because my parents both happened to be working there. My mother came from England as a 22-year-old teacher, my father came from America as a 44-year-old diplomat and physician trying to help do important things in medicine in West Africa on behalf of the United States. And they met at a party and fell in love, got married and had me.
So I’ve been American from birth because my dad was, Britain didn’t recognize citizenship through the mother at the time if you were born outside of England, so I’m not British. And I never claimed the Nigerian citizenship that was available to me having been born on Nigerian soil. But American from the start, which I raise because at this day and age, who is and is not an American, what makes one a Real American is very much part of the political discourse. And I was not born in this country, but being born to an American anywhere on the planet makes you an American. And I’m not a naturalized citizen, it’s the only citizenship I’ve ever had.
I moved around a lot, moved to New York when I was 18 months, moved to Wisconsin when I was seven, moved to DC when I was nine. My father was a member of the Carter administration, moved back to Wisconsin when Reagan beat Carter. Came out to California for college at Stanford University, never looked back, fell in love with the Bay Area. In college, this was the late ’80s, the term biracial and multi-racial were becoming part of our national lexicon. And I really clung to those offerings as a way to explain why I was so different from every other black person I’d ever met and why I was clearly not white either.
And so biracial was the identity I clung to for probably a couple of decades. But ultimately, in my 40s, I did the work on what I was running away from. I never felt black enough and frankly wasn’t sure I wanted to be black because who would want to be black in a country where black people are constantly stereotyped negatively by the media and the national narrative? But I did the work to unpack what was going on in myself around my own internalized depression and self-loathing, and with the work of a really great coach was able to name that. And of course, as we know, when you can name a fear or you can name a shame. you begin to really dissolve its power over you. And that’s what happened.
And so I emerged in my 40s into being a self-loving black woman who describes herself as African American and biracial. Sometimes people want to just call me biracial and I say, “No, no, no. Biracial is an aspect of my blackness, but black is what I am despite having a white mother, despite having relatively light skin, despite having been raised in mostly white spaces, I am proudly an unabashedly black.”
JENNIFER BROWN: And tell me, so being in your role at Stanford and that time in your life, which I imagine coincided with this work, tell us about your role that you played and did it enable you to take that leap in personal growth and understanding about your identity and playing that role? Tell us a little bit about the role. And I’m so fascinated with the presence of students in your life and young people in your life, has really informed a lot of your work and probably accelerated a lot of it, I would imagine. And at the same time you were a very visible leader for whom I’m sure your authenticity and the way you talked about your identity was probably very scrutinized and given a lot of weight. So what was that time like and how did it push you along in your own evolution?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: It’s a really interesting question. I wasn’t able to articulate the alignment that you just articulated while I was there. So I was at Stanford… Well let me finish my thought. I wasn’t able to articulate it while I was there, but in hindsight, I can see that yes, being on a college campus, which is a very dynamic environment with new ideas, exploration, invitation to know oneself really is just part of the gestalt. It was a very fertile environment within which I could explore my own identity. I was a Stanford administrator. I’m originally a lawyer, I practiced corporate law for four years.
I became a Stanford administrator and Dean in 1998, first at our law school, then in our president’s office, and finally, the final 10 years, I was the Dean of freshmen on campus. And so yeah, I worked with undergraduates. My job was to care about them, to take an interest in their growth and development and to see them as clearly as possible with compassion and to take an interest in who they might become and help them discern their own voice. A lot of them arrived with the noise in their heads of other people’s expectations of what and who they should become. And I thought my job was to help them really learn to listen for their own voice and to summon the courage to honor what their own voice was telling them.
And of course it does require courage when your own voice is saying you want to be a poet and your parents are saying you want them to be a doctor. So it was joyful work. And I think being alongside 18 to 22 year olds who are in the process of a real exciting combusting of the self, becoming the next version of the self probably stimulated me to do a lot of introspection about my own identity and my own life path.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I can imagine. Boy, I’m sure a lot of us can relate to the difficulty of finding your own voice, and I’m so glad they had an advocate in you. And so you would go on then to write your first book, which is a bestseller on… indeed capturing, I think this voice, and also calling parents to action around the damage that happens with over parenting and helicopter parenting. And I think we’ll look back at this time probably in history and say, “How could we have done that as a generation of parents?” It was just so over controlled and designed and yet disempowering for young people at the same time.
And so I wonder, could you tell the audience about that book, the writing of it and the reaction to it. And I know that it continues to just be incredibly popular and a great read and still very timely actually, the topics continues to spool out around how much is too much guidance and control and how do we strike that balance trying to raise young people to be authentically themselves and at the same time cope in this world that is becoming more and more engineered to benefit the few.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Jennifer, you’re the first person who has said to me what you just did, which is that we’ll look back on this era, history will look back on this time and say, “How could we have parented that way?” Yeah, I love that. And from your mouth to God’s ears, is that the right phrase? I’ve been the author of How to Raise an Adult for four and a half years, close to five years. It came out in June of 2015, so four and a half years. And in the first year, I got a lot of pushback from audiences. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not that big of a problem. And yeah, yeah, yeah. You don’t understand. We’re just doing what we have to do to get our kids into the right college.”
I stopped getting that pushback in year two and really have not heard it since. And I chalk that up to the fact that more and more has been written besides my book, plenty of other people are writing about it, short form, long form. People see the evidence in their own schools, their own communities, their own families of a young person who has been over parented, and you can see the results. You have a young person with anxiety because they’ve been made to feel that every single aspect of their life has to be carefully controlled and managed. They’ve been made to feel afraid of the world because of their parents’ fears for them.
Parents aren’t letting their kids have their own emotions. Parents are so uncomfortable with kids hurt feelings that we swoop in to prevent them from having hurt feelings, which paradoxically makes the kids feel that their feelings are really dangerous. And kids are more likely to be depressed when they’ve been over parented because we imbue in them a learned helplessness, psychologists tell us, which is when we over help them in the act of doing everything, we’re depriving them of developing self-efficacy, which is a sense of competency.
And so, rates of depression are higher in kids. And everybody sees this, we all know somebody who’s been impacted by this. So we can say in hindsight, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That poor kid, their parents were always on their back. Their parents never let them do anything on their own. Their parents were metaphorically tying their shoes way too long.” So that’s what over-parenting does. It appears to work in the short term. We achieve things for our kids, we seem to be getting an edge for them or making life smoother or easier for them. In the short term we are, but in the long-term we’re literally compromising their mental health and wellness and sending them out into the world without life skills or the kinds of basic skills that the workplace is going to demand, i.e., be self-directed, take the initiative, take an interest in how to be useful to the team, to the whole.
Instead, we have young people who need to be told specifically what to do and how to do it because that’s how childhood was arranged for them. And they need a lot of applause and approval for doing things. Rather than completing their project, they want applause and approval every step of the way because their childhood was full of this false praise of, “Perfect, great job,” at every term. So we’ve raised them to really be under-prepared to thrive in the workplace. So that’s that book. It’s a huge societal factor these days. We have a generation called millennials, many of whom were raised this way.
We have generation Z, goodness knows who they’re going to become. They look similar to millennials in a lot of ways, they look different in a lot of really meaningful ways. But the bottom line is, the 21st century is complex and is scary and unpredictable in so many ways. The rate of change, globalization, AI, robots, income inequality, and we parents delude ourselves if we think, “I will prepare my kids to succeed in that world by handling everything for them.” It’s just ludicrous. We may end up arriving our kid at a college because we did all the work for them, or arriving our kid at a workplace because we leveraged our network and wrote their resume and wrote their cover letter and prepped them right up to the point of the interview so they barely had to do any of that themselves.
But the kid can’t function on their own without the constant handholding if handholding is what got them to the very place we think of as success. And so what we need to do to prepare our kids to thrive out in this wild and crazy 21st century is double down on the things that have always mattered: Teach your kid a work ethic, teach your kid how to be and interact with other humans in a compassionate but empowered way so that they can make their way instead of relying on upon us to handle everything for them. We also have to allow them to have their own mistakes so that they learn. That’s the only way you learn is by screwing something up. “Oh, I better do it differently. Let me try it differently.”
And they also learn that they’ll be okay. They only learn to cope with setbacks by having some setbacks that they cope with. So these are the things that turn out to matter most. And when we over parent, we’re just completely overlooking those things.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I have to ask, I’m sure you have a point of view. The whole conversation about trigger warnings in the classroom, the point of view I hear from students and then I hear from professors, and I’m sure you were in the midst of all of that. Do you have a view, I know for me, having been a gen X kid, this was never a thing. I mean, even when I was uncomfortable hearing about things, reading about them, being assigned things, I didn’t ever feel I could say anything about that. Not even admit it to myself that I was uncomfortable. And so part of me really celebrates the need to keep us safe and give us just enough challenge in our lives as young people to understand what reality is, but to not be assaulted in a way by stories and literature in the Western Canon, to give an example.
As a young girl, I remember that being really traumatic and not really having a context for it and not feeling like there was any conversation about it. However, pendulums like to swing and I’m sure that resilience you’re talking about is developed through those situations of discomfort where you have to figure out, “Okay, this is making me uncomfortable. What do I do about it? Do I say something about it? Who do I say anything to about it? And how do I not sidestep discomfort that builds my resilience and complexity of life and of our world?” So I’m curious if you have a point of view on that dynamic that’s going on. I’ve read about it existing in the classrooms between students, teachers, administrators who get involved.
And this tension, I think between wanting to admit that much is so harmful, that we study that we’re asked to read and experience and discussions that we hear. How much of is it productive? How much isn’t productive? Did you ever have to take a position on that? And is there anything, because I think as people come into the workplace, it has an interesting ramification in terms of comfort in the workplace. And resilience in a workplace where you’re hearing microaggressions, where you’re seeing unconscious bias. How is this generation going to enact to protect their authenticity, which is good, and enact change and yet be resilient enough to suffer through and change a very biased system that’s not always going to be a comfortable one?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Beautiful question. The first thing I’ll tell you is, trigger warnings were not a big deal on college campuses when I was at Stanford. I left in 2012 and I think the concept of trigger warnings probably became a thing more 2013, 2014. I mean, it was there, but it wasn’t anywhere near as prevalent as it is now as a construct. And so I have heard, I still have plenty of friends and colleagues who work at Stanford, I know people on plenty of other campuses and I’ve really heard that it’s really exploded as an expectation. And I know so many professors who have taught for a couple, three decades using roughly the same syllabus are bewildered “Like, wait a minute.”
I have a friend, a music professor, who has been using the same syllabus for years and has some imagery from maybe the 1920s and a flyer for a musical event in the 1920s America. I’m making this up, but basically, he’s putting up an image of a flyer promoting something in a different era that felt pretty sexist. And he was pointing it out in part to demonstrate how much things have shifted, but students felt it was inappropriate for him to even show that in class. That it is unacceptable by today’s standards so therefore we couldn’t study the fact that it had happened in the past. And he was just tearing his hair out about, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. We got to be able to talk about where we’ve been in part to appreciate what it takes to change how far we’ve come.”
We’ve got to always be able to talk about history, we have to talk about slavery so as not to repeat it, so I really felt for him. At the same time, I could feel for students who’ve grown up without any imagery say depicting a female body in a very sexualized way in their lives, in their classroom, they were really offended. And so you really see the generational divide. I have some specific opinions about trigger warnings. So, like I said at the top of the podcast, I’m originally a lawyer and I really harken back to that as the location of the belief that I have here, which is I believe in our first amendment as offering us the opportunity to speak freely with hardly any restrictions.
We have a few exceptions articulated by the Supreme Court, but in the main we’re supposed to counter speech that we don’t like with our own speech and response, we’re supposed to debate it, we’re supposed to shout them down, whatever you want to say. We’re supposed to not prevent them from speaking, but we’re supposed to respond. And I really believe strongly that that’s a key component of a thriving democracy. That said, I’m also thrilled that whether it’s the civil rights movement or sexual harassment legislation or simply the ways in which people will say we’re politically correct, I would say we’re kinder and gentler in our language about not demonizing groups of people, not marginalizing groups of people with our language.
In America that in many ways has raised kids to be kinder than ever. Now, we have a lot of hate in our narrative right now, we have a lot of hate for individuals, but a whole swath of young people have been raised to respect and appreciate kids that are of different races, different ethnicities, different religions, different genders, different sexual orientations and even different socioeconomic classes. We’ve just managed to raise a whole lot of kids who actually believe that as cannon, which is wonderful.
And we shouldn’t be surprised then that those kids go off to college, which may be the first time they’re actually hearing things that confront their previously held belief that everybody is equal, everybody is valued. And all of a sudden, they’re hearing stories, they’re hearing speakers, they’re reading texts that are biased, that reflect bias and they’re completely floored by it, we’ve done that to them. We created the kinder, gentler, which was great, without preparing them for the real world application, or the real world realities and how they might apply themselves in that real world successfully.
So long-winded answer, I think trigger warnings to my mind are an appropriate way to give somebody a heads up. “Heads up, we’re going to be discussing a text that includes a sexual assault. Heads up, we’re going to be discussing a text that addresses violence towards Jews or black people or whatever it may be.” Heads up meaning, “Prepare your mind, prepare your heart, we know this may be hard for some of you.” I do not think trigger warnings should be used in a manner that is effectively the student putting their fingers in their ears and saying, “La, La, La, I’m not interested. I’m not listening.”
I think that is, again, antithetical to how we want to behave in a thriving democracy. We can’t be so afraid of information that we refuse to listen to it. So I think colleges are the perfect place in which to teach students to grapple with really difficult information, to provide the context for the information, to have conversations around it, and to help them sit with their discomfort and process it rather than to say, “This shall not be said on this campus.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. Oh, that was beautiful. And I’m not sure, I would imagine a lot of folks on our podcasts didn’t even know half of the things that you just shared in terms of the context, so I really appreciate it. And you presented a really balanced view. I’m curious, you said most of your speaking gigs, of which you do many, three fourths of them or two thirds of them are related to this topic and then a smaller amount of related to Real American, which we’re going to talk about in a moment, which is more of your personal memoir.
Have you evolved the way you talk about this? I’m sure giving a talk a lot, it evolves, I’m sure. And so at this point in giving this talk, is there one call to action that you find yourself communicating from the stage over and over again given the depth of your knowledge, given the amount of Q&A you’ve done, given the number of gigs you’ve done? I’m sure it’s evolved, but I’m always thinking to myself as a speaker if I have to crystallize this and I only have like a couple minutes on stage what is the thing I want to leave people with? Is there something like that from this?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah, absolutely. So typically, I do a keynote for parents and sometimes that’s also accompanied by an assembly for the high school students and, or a faculty workshop. And I love it when I’m at a school where I get to do all three because I really feel that I’m having the opportunity to be with the entire community and have greater confidence that when I leave the conversation will continue. What it all boils down to when I talk to parents is probably, our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job, which means raising our kids to be able to fend without us.
In other words, one day we’ll be dead and gone and it’s a parenting fail if our offspring are so dependent upon us that they whither and flounder in our absence. We’re supposed to delight in them building skills instead of fostering a dependency on us that will leave them weak and unprepared when we’re gone. I mean, that’s our biological imperative as mammals, like any other mammal parent, it really does come down to that. The other takeaway that I offer are the three things you can stop doing tomorrow if you see yourself in my over-parenting stories, you can stop saying we, when you mean your kid, “We’re on the soccer team. We have a midterm.”
No you don’t. No, you’re not. That’s your son, your daughter, your child. So notice that linguistic tick and fix it. Number two, stop arguing with all the authority figures in their lives, teachers, principals, heads of school, coaches, umpires, referees are burdened by the weight of parents constantly critiquing every decision they make. And it’s not about kowtowing to authority, it’s about teaching your kid to stand up for themselves with respect, to advocate for themselves with respect to an authority figure. And three, stop rescuing them constantly from bringing their forgotten stuff, homework, sporting equipment, bringing that to school to outright doing their homework for them.
We are in a rescue mentality. We’re in a, “I can handle it. I will make it happen. I will fix it,” mentality. Again, short term win, longterm loss. The kid never learns to do it for themselves. So those are probably the nuggets that I would summarize it all down to. The one thing that I will add is, my talk has evolved. In the beginning, I was trying to be analytical about it. I think I was trying to be very scholarly and analytical. My book has a ton of footnotes, it’s very well researched and I wanted to prove the point. And what I’ve learned over the years is, telling stories about my own over-parenting tendency, which turns out I’m very much complicit in the problem that I’m writing about.
Telling stories about myself is a way for me to make my audience laugh at me, but then we’re in the space of “We,” “Look what we’re doing to our kids. None of us wants to harm our kids, but let me tell you this crazy thing I just did.” It helps parents feel seen and heard instead of critiqued, and I find that’s the better way in to the problem. And then they’re much more willing to think about, “Okay, what are we going to do to turn this around?” So that’s my approach with parents. With kids, I try to instill the sense that you matter because you’re here, not because of your GPA. You are not a function of your GPA, you’re not more loved because your GPA is higher. You’re not less loved because your GPA is lower.
Many kids these days feel that all that matters to parents is academic or athletic or extracurricular progress and achievement. This goes back to the parent advice, which is love the kid you’ve got, not the kid you wished you had, often we’ll to make our kid into that amazing swimmer or that amazing math genius. Is that the kid’s aptitude and the kid’s dream or is that what we really wish our kid would be? So try to help kids understand their worth and value as a human is intrinsic to the fact of their existence rather than a function of their achievements.
And then I tell them a better checklist than the one they’re being given in life. My checklist to lead a successful, meaningful, happy life is, be kind, try hard, learn to think and do for yourself, widen your blinders about the colleges that are right for you. And when you get there, have the courage to study what you love, not what everyone tells you you have to study.
JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. Oh, so good. This is great. So back to your point about you’re complicit in the problems you write about, and using the ‘We’ from the stage. I so agree. I speak to a lot of white audiences about diversity, equity and inclusion. And I think actually this is a really great segue into Real American, that I am doing this work myself and I’m on this journey myself and there are mistakes I make as I’m trying to learn. And I find that that connects me to the audience immediately, that I’m real, that I’m accessible, that I don’t have it all figured out. And that I’m acknowledging the journey that we’re all on, particularly as white members of our society.
So I want to shift into your second book, Real American, the memoir, where you get super honest and transparent about your own story. And there’s so much in it from the examples of microaggressions that you have experienced yourself and our dynamics as a society and the pain of racism and this complicitness of some of us and the need for more allyship and accomplishing on the part of particularly people that look like me, but interesting as a biracial voice in that space as well as African American voice. It must be really interesting to do those talks, and I’m sure really vulnerable, really, I hope healing for you. Because I do know for me at least speaking has been incredibly healing and has been a way for me to connect the dots of my own life and what my role is in all this and how I can be a change maker.
So tell us about the writing of Real American, things like, was there a permission giving process you had to go through for yourself to say, “I’m going to write this and I’m going to be as honest as I’m going to be.” And then I’m curious the responses you’re getting, same questions. As you present it, has it evolved and maybe some responses you’re getting and what could we learn from the responses you’re getting to this book and your talk out in the world, like as flies on the wall, if you will.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Sure. This book was wrenched out of me like a mother who has to have a C-section at 28 weeks. It was not something I was planning to write. I was basically in an MFA. I left Stanford in 2012, I enrolled in an MFA in writing program to try to develop the confidence that I could write book. And I get some mentorship around doing that. I got my book deal halfway through my two-year MFA. My faculty asked me, this was the book deal for How to Raise an Adult, they said, “Do you want that to be your master’s thesis?” And I said, “Oh, no, no, no. This is a book I’m writing on the side. This is brave, it’s not edgy. I want my master’s thesis to be something that I wouldn’t have had the guts to write had I not come back to grad school in my 40s.
So they said, “Okay, great.” I said, “Yeah, meantime, I’m going to write this book. I’m going to slow down, I’m going to go part time.” And so I did that. I went from five classes a semester to one, wrote my book, published the book, began touring the book, and my faculty chair called me at the end of my… not the end, near the end of my book tour. And she said, “Julie, you need to graduate. You’re in your fourth year of a two-year program, so we need to get you up and out of here.” And I was like, “Hey, awesome. Thanks. Love y’all. But I’m in the middle of a book tour here, which is going well, which is awesome, and I don’t have time to write another book.” And she was like, “Yep, too bad. You need to do your thesis. It needs to be completed.”
And I was like, “What?” And I really felt that they were being cruel and mean, but then she said to me, “Julie, we would be remiss as your faculty and more importantly as your friends if we didn’t force you to have your second project ready.” And wow, I’ll never forget that. I get chills as I relay it to you. So basically, I was like, “Okay, so now what do I do?” Well, one of my other professors had always said from the beginning, when it comes time to do your thesis, take everything you’ve written for us that you feel good about, and just print it out and throw it down on the ground and look at it all and like figure out what you’ve got.
And so I came up with this idea that I was going to do… I’m a nonfiction writer and I figured, “Okay, I’m going to do this collage of edgy nonfiction issues that I like to write about.” I think of myself as transgressive of a lot of societal norms in a number of ways, and I had written about that. And so it was going to be this like transgressive mashup of issues. So I pulled that together, turned it in, in February of 2016 with the expectation that I would graduate in may, and my faculty committee was like, “This is bullshit. You can’t just throw everything together and call it a thesis.”
And I was like, “Well, but they’re making me, I really don’t have time.” They’re like, “Julie, if you’re going to be serious about this, you’ve got to focus on what you’re doing well, and what you’re writing well on is race. So cut out all this other crap, write about race, write more about race and you’ll have a thesis.” So from February to April, basically in eight weeks, I pulled this thesis together. That was the precursor to Real American.
And so you asked was it a permission giving process? It was like I had to, I was being forced to write, this was a logical subject. I even pushed back on my faculty and I said, “I don’t think I can write on race well because it’s all happening right now.” Black lives matter was unfolding. I have a black son, I was in anguish as a black mother, a black person, about what we were seeing documented on video and audio of the murder of our people and killers going unpunished. And so I said, “I don’t think I can write about this because I don’t have the proper analytical distance.” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, just keep going.”
So I was forced to write it and I’m glad I did. I sold it to my publisher that summer, summer of 2016 and it was cute because they were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll publish a little bit more on race, but we also want a sequel to How to Raise an Adult called How to be an Adult,” which is of course is what I’m working on right now. So back to Real American, it came out in October, 2017 and they took me on a nice book tour, which was great. And really from that day, October of 2017, through this day, more than two years later, no matter where I have gone with that book, no matter how small the venue because sometimes there are 20 people in the room, sometimes there are 6,000, it totally depends, no matter where I’ve gone, inevitably, in a book signing line, a person of color or two or five will linger toward the back of the line waiting until I’m almost done.
And then they come up to me and they grab my hand, no, they don’t grab my hand. They come up to me and they say, “Julie, I’m so glad to meet you or to have heard this reading.” Or, “I’ve read your book and I just want to let you know.” And then they stop talking because they’re trying to not cry. And so their eyes are full of tears that they’re trying to hold in. And I reach out and hold their hand and I just hold it and bop it back and forth, I’m doing it right now, but you can’t see, it’s a gentle bobbing of the hand up and down, and I look them in the eye and I say, “I wrote this book for all of us.”
And that has been the most joyful thing about having written this book. I was once this lonely black and biracial kid who was being raised in white spaces, who did not have any peers who could just provide a shoulder to cry on when somebody wrote the N word on my locker when I was 17, at my all white high school. On my 17th birthday, someone wrote the N word on my locker, it was on a birthday sign someone had made for me. Someone had come along and defaced it. I managed to clean it up and cover it over, and nobody ever knew until I wrote about it in my MFA program.
I kept that shit inside of me from age 17 to age 44, and it hunkered down inside of me and metastasized and contributed to the self-loathing that I would feel for a couple of decades, outwardly performing the part of a successful black person who would never be called the N word again, all of that performance heaped on or covering over this self-loathing that I was feeling, just internalized oppression. So that has just been so amazing to know that… I tell people, if I could go back and tell the little black girl inside of me, if I could go back in time and tell her reassuringly like, “One day you’ll have black friends and you’ll be in community with black people and other people of color and you won’t feel alone,” that little black girl would have cried, just at the incredulity of that notion.
And so that’s been the joy, being in community with people who have painful stories about race. And often, sometimes it’s somebody who’s not black or of color, but who is queer, who will say, “You know what, I have so much in common with you because I too have been marginalized. I had to hide and I’ve been cruelly treated and whatnot.” And so the solidarity that I’ve been able to experience with complete strangers has just been such a joy and such a blessing.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I can imagine. I think anytime we’re so vulnerable to all of that, it connects us to people and they feel open to sharing with us, and as a speaker, I agree there is no better feeling than making that connection. And you’re right, it’s often a complete stranger, but just knowing that you enabled them to feel seen and heard for a minute out of their day, it could shift everything for them. And then it just tells you, “You got to keep going and you have to keep giving this talk.” I wonder again, what is that… There’s so many things I’d want to know and our time is short, but I’d love advice for all of us to be more inclusive on a day to day basis.
Reading your book and hearing the kinds of things we put out there as well, I’m always thinking about, “How do I generate empathy?” And then that leads to action, some kind of action, and then it just be, as we call, a paper allyship. I don’t want it to be performative support, I want it to be real. So where do you leave folks in that audience with some concrete take away?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: There’s all the work that we can do at a macro level, we can lobby for better policies in America, we can work hard to elect the leaders we know reflect values of inclusion and respect for all humans. We can work at our school boards and we can work in our workplaces around policy development. But what all of us I think must do at the level of our own individual self, is identify the stereotypes that have been taught to us and actively work at dissipating them from our minds, disappearing them from our hearts. Jennifer Eberhardt’s, beautiful book, Biased, she’s a Stanford psychology professor who wrote this book about implicit bias based on her research.
And she makes the case that, “Hey, this bias is in all of us. You grow up in this country, you’ve been taught from the young that people are better if they’re lighter skin and they’re worse if they’re darker skin.” That’s just an implicit part of the media, the narrative. That’s in all of us. Whatever race you are, you get that message. And so this isn’t something we have to be ashamed of, our biases. The fact that we have them, we shouldn’t be ashamed of. We’ve been taught them before we were ever able to be conscious about our learning.
And biases around race of course, extends to biases around everything: class, sexual orientation, gender, religion, ethnicity, everything. So we all have stereotypes. And so what I tell my audiences is, “Look, every single one of us in this room wants to be treated with respect and wants to walk through the world with dignity. Every one of us wants that. None of us wants to be mistreated, none of us wants to be assumed to be a bad guy or dumb or unworthy, we all want to be treated with respect and to be offered dignity and kindness. We all want that. You want it, I want it.
“So when you’re sitting down with somebody, a coworker, a student, a stranger, you’re just meeting, and you immediately notice something about their appearance that triggers a stereotype for you, if you can notice that,” and this is really about developing a mindfulness practice, begin to notice the thoughts that come up in your mind when you see a person, ‘Oh, they’re wearing a turban, they must be Sikh,’ and maybe that triggers something for you. Or, ‘Oh, they’re wearing hijab, she’s Muslim, or, ‘Oh, this is a black man that I’m sitting in front of.’ ‘Oh, this person looks really shabby, they must be poor and uneducated.’ Notice the stereotype and then say to yourself like, ‘Oh wow, I’m about to stereotype this person, aren’t I?’ You’re having this loving dialogue with yourself.”
And then you say to yourself, “I’m not going to stereotype them, I’m going to pretend that they’re my best friend or my favorite nephew or niece, I’m just going to interact with them as if they are somebody I cherish.” And then what happens is the stereotype starts to just dissolve away, not forever, but in that moment. And the more we practice this, the more we will get really good at not letting the stereotypes even come up, when we get really enlightened at this effort. But in a moment, certainly, it goes away, and then you find yourself chitchatting with this person where you’re making eye contact and you’re smiling and you’re taking an authentic interest in what they have to say.
You remove the stereotype, therefore, you can see the person in front of you, literally and metaphorically. And that’s the work that I implore every single one of us to try to practice in every interaction with our fellow human beings. It is the way we will reclaim our humanity and our society from the clutches of hatred. And each one of us has the power to be transformative in this effort because it starts with each one of us.
In terms of active allyship, allyship requires bravery and guts. Allyship, to quote Ibram X Kendi, to quote, Beverly Daniel Tatum. Abram’s book is How To Be an Antiracist, Beverly Daniel Tatum is Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Just released for its 20th anniversary, I think. To be anti-racist is to walk in the opposite direction of a moving sidewalk. Racism and white privilege and male privilege and all other kinds of privilege, they carry us along, they’re how society is and moves forward. If you want to combat it, you have to actively turn around and run in the other direction to get off that moving sidewalk that is otherwise, if you have the privilege conveying you forward. And so another way to think about it is the bravery that’s required when you see something terrible happening, you have to be brave and step up and say, “That’s not okay with me.” You don’t have to make it about the person who’s being targeted, you don’t have to say, “Black people don’t like it when you say that.” You could say, “I don’t like it when you say that.” It actually is probably more powerfully heard by the person you’re trying to speak up against if you, the white person is saying it and owning it as your own belief as opposed to you’re trying to protect those people of color over there.
When you hear a joke, when you hear a microaggression, for you to say, “Hey, what did you mean by that? I’m not sure I’m okay with that.” I’m not suggesting it’s easy, Jennifer, allyship takes bravery and guts. And unfortunately, our present moment is, I think, teaching us that bravery and guts are entirely what’s required if the neo-Nazis and white supremacists are going to march without hoods in khakis with tiki torches in a college town called Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2018, we’ve got to step up and march ourselves and be visible.
That’s what our present moment requires. Just like you said at the top of the hour, we’re going to look back on this time and say, “Helicopter parenting. How could we have done that?” Make no mistake, historians are going to look back, 100 years from now, they’re going to look back on this time in American history and talk about how pivotal it was about whether we stood up to the army of hate or whether we were dominated by it. Unfortunately, we are the humans, the universe has chosen to live in this time and it is on us to be the change we want to see in the world.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’d like to say, and we’ll just wrap up with this, but the M.L.K. Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I’ve been saying, “We all have to bend it, it’s not going to bend.”
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah. It doesn’t just don’t bend on its own. Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. And those of us who haven’t been knowing that we need to lean into bending it, I think to me, it’s who’s bending it and who have we looked to historically to bend it and how is that not enough? And it is not enough. So yeah, I think you’re right, we’re going to look back and say, “We were making limited progress because only a few of us were bending it the most.” And I think if we can get a lot of hands on that arc, I think that many hands make lighter work. And that is really my wish, so that some of us aren’t working so hard to carry that water, and others of us really put our shoulders to the wheel and we can all make sure that arc continues to bend.
Julie, this has been wonderful-
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I’ve got to say one more thing.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I’ve got to say one more thing, I know we’re out of time, but just as you’re quoting M.L.K. Jr., I want to quote Margaret Mead who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
JENNIFER BROWN: What a wonderful way to close. Thank you so much, Julie. In the show notes, I will recap your wonderful books, your talks, etc, so rest assured, we will talk about that. But thank you for your voice in the world and for enabling so many to feel seen and heard even for a moment, what you’re doing really matters. Thank you.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Thank you, Jennifer. I appreciate being on your show and really appreciate the work that you’re doing, and so glad we connected on that beautiful Lake up in the South Lake Tahoe, California.
JENNIFER BROWN: Me too. Thank you.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Take care.
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