by Tiffanie Drayton
Viking (2022); 304 pp.; $24.18 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Tiffanie Drayton is a journalist whose work has appeared in acclaimed national publications, a writer who has published two nonfiction young adult books, and a mother of two. Her New York Times essay, Black American Refugee: Escaping the Narcissism of the American Dream, went viral and inspired a compelling memoir of the same title.
Drayton’s timely narrative explores racism in America. The author draws on her life story, which helped shape her understanding of this issue. She immigrated as a child from Trinidad and Tobago to New Jersey and lived “The American Dream” with her siblings and single mother, a highly educated woman whose many jobs (nanny, bank teller, and nurse) took the family to different parts of the country. As a young person, Drayton lived in both Black and white America. This rare vantage point enabled her to draw connections between collective America and narcissistic personality disorder. Her fascinating comparison of these two seemingly unrelated subjects identifies some root causes of systemic racism in our country.
Despite the difficulty of the topic, readers will be drawn to Drayton’s relatable voice, through which she conveys a willingness to live by her own advice, treating others with humility and respect. Drayton writes from a place of compassion, hoping Americans can understand, move past, and heal from systemic racism.
Drayton moved back to Trinidad and Tobago in 2013. She enjoys the pace and personality of her homeland. She says, “There’s an ease that washes over me every time the plane lands in Trinidad. I know I’m home. All of the pressures of American life evaporate instantly. It reminds me of what true freedom feels like and what it means to exist in a place as a full citizen.”
Drayton is also passionate about the family court system and the implications in custody battles. November is Family Court Awareness Month, and she urges those unaware of the systemic issues that are placing children in harm’s way to educate themselves. She discusses these issues from a personal standpoint on Twitter. Despite her difficulties, Drayton hopes her children can experience a more empathetic America one day.
Profiles Editor, Holly Rizzuto Palker, interviewed Drayton via Zoom. This piece has been edited for content and clarity.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: Tell me about your New York Times essay. What inspired you to write it? How did you parlay that important piece into a memoir on racism?
Tiffanie Drayton: The George Floyd moment. It mirrored, in my opinion, the Trayvon Martin moment. In 2013. I had just graduated from college, and I was pissed the hell off. So I wrote a poem and sent it to a Salon editor. We turned it into an essay called Goodbye to My American Dream. Fast forward to 2020, and the George Floyd situation triggered those same feelings. I wrote a new version of the essay, but when I sent it, the editors all rejected it. I thought, how could nobody want this? It was such a popular piece years earlier. So I threw it up in a writers’ Facebook group, and a New York Times editor showed interest. At first, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to buy it, but it ended up on the cover of the print version of the Sunday opinion section. My mentor, Susan Shapiro, said, “Make sure you put in your bio that you’re writing a book.” I said, “But I’m not writing a book.” She said, “You are now.” I got an agent the next day. I submitted a book proposal in a few days, and I sold the book in a week or two.
HRP: That’s impressive. I’d be nervous about writing and submitting a proposal in a few days.
TD: It didn’t happen out of nowhere. I had been ghostwriting proposals professionally. It was the culmination of ten years’ worth of writing and experience. Anyone could do what I did if they were given the same exact circumstances. Whenever writers reach out to me for advice about how to break into the industry, I always try to give feedback and direction. Because if someone hadn’t done that for me, I wouldn’t be here right now, no matter how hard I worked.
HRP: You were an intuitive and self-aware young girl. Those qualities enabled you to examine your place in society. For example, you understood that your school administration’s support of your transitioning teacher was critical. You extrapolated that the same attitude, honoring one’s dignity, could be applied to women of color. You saw that you deserved a level of respect within society that you weren’t receiving. Where did this perspective originate?
TD: My mother. She is the type of person who gives you space to be who you are. With her, there were never any limits on my self-expression. She threw out suggestions, like learning tennis and French, but ultimately she afforded me space. That was compounded by my family’s transition in and out of different environments. The more you move between environments, the more you’re forced to question aspects of your identity. You become mindful of social dynamics between people. The number of times we moved in my early childhood informed me and allowed me to step back from my environment and view myself as both a part of it and outside of it. It gave me a vantage point where I saw things as an outsider.
HRP: When you lived in Florida and attended school in a prestigious community with an elite, high-caliber school system, you said you didn’t consider yourself Black. Can you elaborate?
TD: I simply never thought about race or how others perceived my race. As I got older and went to school in more diverse environments, I understood I was Black, but still didn’t quite begin to sit with the implications of what that meant. Or how it would impact my life. I was a firm believer in the myths I learned in history class. For a long time, I believed racism was a thing of the past, eradicated by MLK and the Civil Rights era. I believed all I had to do was work hard, and I would be as entitled to the same good “American life” as anyone else.
HRP: Back to your mother. I love this woman. She is similar to my mother, at least in the food realm. Yours is cooking curry crab, and mine is feeding me lasagna. It was touching when she ordered Domino’s Pizza because she felt guilty dragging you and your siblings away on weekends to a motel, so she could pick up extra nursing hours outside of where you lived. Yet she had no other choice because she needed to provide for you. What about your relationship with your mom as an adult?
TD: That’s what I was trying to get people to understand about the journey of motherhood. It’s all the same no matter the culture. My mom was raised Catholic. I always had an issue with Christianity because of the religion’s history with slavery. In my late teens and early twenties, I saw her commitment to religion as betraying Black folks. But I made peace with it recently when she got a cancer diagnosis. She leaned on her beliefs, and they empowered her during this hard time. I realized that a big part of my maturity was learning to give her the space and the grace to be who she was, just as she gave to me. Now I’m coming to this idea that I don’t have to judge people. I don’t have to agree with them or disagree with them. I don’t have to feel any way about them. I just have to give them grace while still being able to step away and stand true to my own beliefs.
HRP: It’s difficult to have political conversations in our country. If we’re not careful, it could drive wedges into our relationships. Another concept I’ll take away from your book is to allow people grace. Thank you.
TD: You can always use something to drive wedges between people. When I encounter someone I don’t ideologically see eye to eye with, I focus on that person’s humanity. There’s something about affording humanity to someone you would otherwise dehumanize.
HRP: You compare the relationship between the USA and people of color, to one of a narcissistic abuser and their victim. How does this relationship perpetuate systemic racism?
TD: Narcissism is a pathology found at the core and foundation of a personality. Its symptoms are a sense of grandeur, preoccupation with self, jealousy, controlling behavior, a lack of empathy, and so on. When you understand narcissism, you learn that narcissists don’t change.
The cycle perpetuates because the country isn’t at the point where the conversation is, What’s the next step to eradicate racism? Instead the conversation is, Should we even be talking about racism? If America remains stuck in a place where we can’t discuss racism, something that we know exists because it’s been quantified with statistics and studies to prove the reality, we can’t move forward.
HRP: You use the metaphor of narcissism to explore the particularities of American racism. How are these distinct from the racism we observe in other places?
TD: I use metaphors about narcissism to explain the difference between American racism and the type of prejudice you see in other developed nations. Not every controlling, jealous, or “unempathetic” person is a narcissist. America’s racism is pathological in the same way that narcissists are because it’s the foundation of the nation’s identity. American history was built on racism. European colonists ran the natives off the land, committed mass genocide, and then shipped over enslaved Africans who were used as free labor for massive profits. To maintain chattel slavery (a system that allowed people to be owned as legal property), the concept of “white” and “Black” was birthed and used to decide who was worthy of full humanity and citizenship. When new waves of immigration brought more nationalities to the country, they were told to accept that system and assimilate into that ideology. Now a caste system of Black versus white attempts to fill the strange void where a diverse melting pot of cultures should have been. For a country to be founded on genocide, enslavement, and forced assimilation leaves a lot of unaddressed loss in its wake. It also creates an inability for our nation to properly develop a healthy core sense of identity, similar to what happens in narcissism. I would imagine it’ll take years before the American people fully grasp the implications of what I’ve written. Most people view themselves outside of racism. They say, “I’m not racist.” But everyone is in it. No matter what you do, you’re in it.
HRP: In your mentor, Susan Shapiro’s, book, The Forgiveness Tour, she says that for proper healing, an offender needs to take responsibility and provide reparations to the person they’ve wronged. How does this translate?
TD: The failure of this nation is that we can’t have a sense of collective pride if we don’t take responsibility for the wrongs we’ve committed. Many people don’t see that, for the country to move forward, there has to be accountability. What if Germany never apologized for the Holocaust or gave restitution? Nobody would take Germany seriously.
HRP: In your memoir, you say it’s unlikely that the American government will ever publicly take responsibility for systemic racism, let alone implement social and economic policies to ensure that racism is eradicated. You also say you’ll never lose hope. What would be an excellent first step toward seeing your dream fulfilled?
TD: The first thing that comes to mind is the checkbook. Because without resources, it’s impossible to address the magnitude of what centuries of oppression and dehumanization have done to people of color in this country. It begins there.
HRP: Are people waking up at all?
TD: I got a call from a white woman when Roe v. Wade was overturned. She couldn’t believe it. But I could, because if you can dehumanize and treat anyone poorly, you can do it to everyone.
HRP: Do you still buy into the American Dream at all?
TD: Come on, let’s be real.
HRP: What’s next for you?
TD: The next book I’m writing is a critique of capitalism, but it’s untitled. In it, I work hard to dispel this myth of the “American Dream”—exposing the realities of what it takes to get ahead in America. I use memoir to give people a glimpse into what it means to exist within a capitalist system. People always want to see the result and say, “Wow, you worked really hard.” No. First, I almost died, and someone had to throw me a life raft to get here, and then the life raft almost got eaten by a shark.
HRP: Pretend I’m a school board administrator, and you have my ear. What would be your one suggestion so I can educate our children?
TD: Answer their questions. That would take us far because young people are asking the right questions. They’re the reason we have hope and that America stands a chance. We cannot continue to allow society to turn a blind eye to the realities unfolding. While I always try to end things with a sense of hope, I also try to end with a sense of urgency. Stop turning away, and face the monster.