"Real American" Author Julie Lythcott-Haims Delivers Powerful, Personal MLK Day Speech

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of Real American and How to Raise an Adult, shared stories about growing up biracial in America, her struggles to overcome internalized racism, and her journey toward self-acceptance during a program at Groton School commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Ms. Lythcott-Haims grew up in a family that refuted stereotypes. Her African American father and grandfather were doctors. Of her mother, she said, “My immigrant parent is a white lady from England.” Highly educated parents and a middle-class upbringing, however, could not protect her from racism. 
The harsh lessons started early. “At age three or four, I began to sense that something might be wrong with people with dark skin,” she said. She would notice that people on the street would glance with disdain if she were walking down a street with her African American father, but looked more with pity if she walked with her mother.
She shared stories from her memoir, Real American, including one searing story about her placement in a gifted and talented program in fifth grade. Her mother could not convince her teacher that she was as deserving as a classmate who was put in the program. A meeting with the principal led to testing, on which Ms. Lythcott-Haims excelled. After she was admitted to the program, her teacher humiliatingly misled her class but telling students that all it took to get in was a parent who met with the principal. 

Years later, a peer’s father questioned why she was admitted to Stanford when his son wasn’t; both were excellent students, and she was student body president. At Stanford, she did not speak much in class until a professor encouraged her and gave her confidence. “The fear of being black and wrong silenced me,” she said.
Deeply internalizing all the doubt, she did not go for help when she struggled in her early days at Stanford. She wondered if the stereotypes others had of her might be true. When she finally went to see an advisor, she was encouraged to take classes that really interested her, including a class on civil rights that ultimately led her to law school. Even at Harvard Law, she was not yet true to herself; overcome by a desire to impress and prove her worth, she worked in corporate law when her heart was in public interest law.
After leaving law, she spent fourteen years as an administrator at Stanford Law School—as associate vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising—often helping to advise students how to overcome some of the barriers that she had encountered. Even in that role, she was still working on her sense of self: a career coach there helped her redirect sometimes overly emotional reactions, and Ms. Lythcott-Haims developed the acronym DDE for Don’t Dwell Excel. Confiding her self-doubt and self-loathing to this coach “loosened the knots of shame. Speaking it kneaded the pain out of me.”
Groton School devotes Martin Luther King Jr. Day to speakers, films, and workshops to inform, honor the work of Dr. King, and provoke meaningful conversation. In the afternoon, Ms. Lythcott-Haims met with faculty to discuss overprogrammed and micromanaged children—themes from her book, How to Raise an Adult. Second Formers visited local assisted living facilities, conversing with residents about some of the themes from the morning talk. Third Formers did activities inspired by the lessons learned at this year's Student Diversity Leadership Conference, and Fourth and Fifth Formers watched and discussed films (respectively, When They See Us and The Justice, a documentary directed by Peter Kunhardt ’71). Sixth Formers attended an alumni panel with Kevin M. Griffith ’80, Edward N. Davies ’89, Nii-Ama Akuete ’96, Nala Holmes ’08.
Student performances introduced the MLK Day program, starting with Groton’s Gospel Choir. A dance performance by Caroline Drapeau '21, Alex Karr '21, and Janice Zhai '21, entitled, “I Want More Out of Life Than This,” followed, as did "Where This Flower Blooms," a powerful original spoken word performance by Beatrice Agbi '21 and Edwina Polynice '21. After the keynote address, Groton’s step team performed. 

At the end of Ms. Lythcott-Haims’ post-talk Q&A, she encouraged students to dissolve stereotypes by noticing them, and by making a commitment to treat someone you might stereotype as you would a best friend—to “. . . interact with this human as a human, which is simply what we all want and deserve.
“Each one of us can put that type of practice in motion. Maybe we can't change America today. Maybe we can't stop the neo-Nazis and the white suupremacists today, but we can change our own behavior today. . . . If we could put down our hatred of one another for one day on this planet, we would shift our entire existence forward positively. . . .
“You think it might not change the world?" she added, "It's the only thing, really, that can."