Julie Lythcott-Haims has had a uniquely American life. Her parents (her father was a nationally known doctor who served in the Carter administration and her mother was a British teacher) met while working in a medical facility in Ghana. Lythcott-Haims's childhood in the 1970s and '80s unfolded along the peripatetic course of her father's career, in small, mostly white towns in New York, Wisconsin, and Northern Virginia. Her dark skin and afro marked her as different from some of her peers, while her upper-middle class privilege set her apart from others.
Real American, a defiantly clear-eyed memoir written in short, lyrical chapters, is her reckoning with her mixed-race identity and the turbulent evolution of America's understanding of race over the last four decades.
"My parents weren't after white communities—they simply wanted to have the kind of house and plot of land and public schools their salaries made possible, which happened to be in white communities," Lythcott-Haims says. Though she remembers her early childhood transpiring without much conflict—she idolized her successful father, whom the whole family, even her mother, called "Daddy," and excelled in school—by her teenage years she began to feel the deep pain of racism. She recounts many episodes in which well-meaning white friends said things such as "I don't think of you as black. I think of you as normal."
"Normal," she came to understand, meant "white." Her parents, however, insisted that she think of herself, and her family, as black. This split identity—the product of her parents' circumstances, the radical politics of the 1970s, the conservatism of the 1980s, and Lythcott-Haims's own intelligence and sensitivity—caused her much suffering, but also gave her deep insight into the ways racism is woven through American lives. "There are two major challenges at the heart of my book: racism and belonging," Lythcott-Haims says. "As a child I was the freak show at the circus; people had never seen anyone like me before and they regarded me with either distrust or fascination. Today mixed kids are considered so normal that their faces show up in ads. I presume this makes them feel normal in ways I never did as a kid."
In the book, Lythcott-Haims traces her family history from the time of slavery through the Black Lives Matter movement. Her story has deep resonance in this moment when national politics plays out in many homes—her father, for instance, lost his federal job in the changeover from Carter's administration to Ronald Reagan's.
Real American is Lythcott-Haims's follow-up to her groundbreaking parenting guide, How to Raise an Adult (2015), which advocates the opposite of helicopter parenting, encouraging parents to help their children develop independence. Real American came about through Lythcott-Haims's decision to redirect her life toward writing. In her 40s she undertook an M.F.A. degree. "I wasn't going for memoir per se," she says. "I was just attempting to bring the race stuff up and out of me in whatever form best supported it and began to try to write an in-your-face, unflinching first-person narrative, as visceral as I could stand, and laid on the page however I damn wanted." The resulting book sits comfortably on a shelf beside works by, for instance, Claudia Rankine, whom Lythcott-Haims cites as an influence.
She's grateful that many kids today are growing up in a more tolerant world than she did: "When I was coming up, race was a topic you didn't talk about, like cancer," Lythcott-Haims says. "Today, I see my kids and my friends' kids exposed to a K–12 curriculum that's a whole lot more encompassing of the history and perspective of nonwhites and that teaches the importance of open discussion and tolerance about identity and difference." That said, Lythcott-Haims is painfully aware of how much must still be done. Real American is a profound contribution to that ongoing work.
This article has been corrected to reflect that Lythcott-Haims' mother is a teacher, not a nurse, as a previous version stated.