Super chill book review: Real American: A Memoir (Julie Lythcott-Haims)

When I was at Stanford, there was a beloved dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising named Julie Lythcott-Haims, affectionately known as “Dean Julie.” I didn’t really interact with her personally—I mostly just remember her leading us all in a chant of “oh-ten!” to show our enthusiasm for being part of the great class of 2010—but we’re Facebook friends, and I always appreciate her posts on all sorts of things.

It must have been through Facebook that I knew that, maybe a couple of years after I graduated, Dean Julie left her position at Stanford, went and got an MFA, and made a go for it as a writer. 

Her first book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, published in 2016, seems to have been quite successful. The book struck me as a good idea, but I guess it didn’t really fit with my personal interests enough to read it, you know, since I’m not a parent and all. Maybe I’ll read it someday, if it becomes more relevant to my interests :p. 

I just recently got around to reading (former) Dean Julie’s second book, Real American: A Memoir, published in 2017. It’s fantastic. 

I think that when you know an author personally (or sort of know them, or have some connection with them), it can be hard to tell—am I just into this book because I feel connected with the author and so I’m interested in their life and thoughts? Or would I want to read this even if I had no context for who this person is? 

With Real American, I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. But I’m also curious to hear your thoughts, if you read it and didn’t know the author as “Dean Julie” from Stanford back in the day.

Real American is Julie’s memoir of growing up biracial in America, with a Black father and a white mother, raised largely in mostly-white suburbs. 

As usual, a few random thoughts:

1. I think this book brought home for me just how recently race relations in the U.S. have changed dramatically. (Which is not at all to say that in some ways they haven’t really changed at all, or that they don’t need to change, like, a ton more.) 

Julie is about twenty years older than me. When her Black father and white mother married, as Julie writes, “miscegenation” (also known as interracial marriage) was still illegal in 17 states. So I guess it makes sense—but was also mind-blowing to me, because I hadn’t thought about it—that, as she writes, the terms “biracial” and “multiracial” were just starting to become a thing when she was in college. 

I’m glad we now have this language to describe (lots and lots of) people’s experiences. And I’m also chewing on the fact that these words didn’t exist until maybe the late 1980s.

2. I feel like one of the key themes of this book is the idea of belonging. Or the lack thereof. Or how one might find a sense of belonging, and how long that sometimes takes. 

It reminded me of Brené Brown’s work, where she says that true belonging is different from fitting in. Real belonging is kind of the opposite of giving in to pressure to conform. We might associate these two things, but really, belonging requires being loved and accepted for who we actually are, not for an image of ourselves that we’re trying to present because we feel like we have to. (I think this was in Braving the Wilderness. And/or Daring Greatly.)

I appreciated Julie’s vulnerability about her own journey toward finding a sense of belonging. It strikes me as both universal enough to be relatable—don’t we all struggle with things like belonging and vulnerability? That’s why Brené Brown makes the big bucks—and yet also very specific to Julie’s biracial experience. I felt like I could relate, in some ways, while also recognizing that being racialized as nonwhite in the U.S. adds a whole additional layer of complexity to everything, as does being biracial or multiracial.

3. I liked Julie’s reflections on her experience of a college class called The American Dream, taught by John Manley:

“Manley’s class was a mirror that showed me things about myself I hadn’t seen before. I’d known race and racism and America’s preference for whites and whiteness erected a wall between me and whites demarcating white as normal and me as other. But the wall between me and Blacks was there too, though harder to put my hands on or see. Manley’s class forced me to see that the higher socioeconomic class that comes with professional success—the access to the good schools, the access to homes in white towns that can come with such status—

if one so chooses—

is a form of passing out of otherness out of darkness into lightness into whiteness.

I did not choose it. No one asked. But there’s no question these choices lifted me. And if asked, I’d have said yes lift me with these opportunities. Just maybe not this far.

As loathsome as it was to learn that the engine of the American Dream itself—capitalism—was the invisible hand guiding me away from a people, a community, a tradition, at least now I understood the source of much of my dislocation and unbelonging. That being upper middle class had given me more in common with upper-middle-class whites than with middle-class or working-class or poor Blacks. I graduated from college knowing I was not some freak of nature but an easily predicted data point in our macroeconomic system” (p. 116).

All of this is so complicated—the interplay between money, and race, and where people live, and who we live near, and professional success, and education, and color, and capitalism. I appreciate Julie’s thoughtful and honest reflections on these intersections and how she experienced them as a young person. 

4. Speaking of feeling disconnected with Blackness and Black community, Julie writes about how she went to one event at Ujamaa—Stanford’s African / African American focus dorm—and then pretty much stayed away for the rest of her time as a student at Stanford. 

I lived in Ujamaa, sophomore year. I remember being very aware that Ujamaa was not just a dorm made up of about half Black students and half non-Black students, but also, as Julie writes, a hub of Black community on campus. 

People used to joke about living in “C” wing. The dorm only had an “A” wing and a “B” wing, so “C” wing people were those who were there all the time even though they lived elsewhere.

When I lived in Ujamaa, it kind of felt like I got to know, or at least recognize, most of the Black students on campus. (That’s probably not actually true, it’s just how it felt.) I hadn’t really thought about Black students (including multiracial students) like Julie who didn’t feel like Ujamaa was a comfortable home for them, and who intentionally stayed far away.

I felt sad (in a totally sympathetic way) to hear that that was her experience, and also a little oblivious for not thinking about it, and also just intrigued to hear a different perspective on Ujamaa. 

5. It was interesting to hear about some of the changes Julie advocated for while she was dean—for example, trying to make sure the books assigned as summer reading for incoming freshmen were as accessible as possible to as many students as possible, recognizing that some students had access to much more rigorous high school academic programs than others. I feel like Julie’s presence in the meetings of Stanford-y higher-ups likely had a huge positive impact on my Stanford experience, and the experiences of many others too, in so many ways, and I only know a tiny bit of it.

I was interested in Julie’s story from the perspective of what it looks like to push for change, and how people respond to that, and how to navigate the pushback and retaliation that you tend to get for it.


All in all, lots of great writing here, lots of interesting stories and reflections, and lots to think about that I haven’t even scratched the surface of. Holler if you read Real American, and tell me what you think!

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