Small Great Things by Jodi Piccoult is more than just another well-written court story. It’s a book carefully woven to leave questions in the reader’s mind. The basic plotline involves an African-American woman on trial after a white baby dies. The baby’s parents were leaders of the Pro-White Movement, which I didn’t even know still existed until this book. Reading this book sent me on an emotional roller coaster of disgust, anger, sadness, and elation mixed healthily with a lot of questions. Rather than spoiling the plot of the book, I’d like to take you through some of the questions in my mind.
Firstly I learned in this book that there is a Pro-White movement. The character claimed that Whites could become the majority. I’ll admit that at times I have questioned why there aren’t White History months or White Student Unions but never to the point that I would actually want those things established. I recognize that in this country and in most of the world, being born with Caucasion skin color puts you a little ahead in the game. I also recognize the injustice others may experience because of their skin color. I would rather appreciate my gifts rather than harbor resentment over a lack of White recognition.
But did you ever think our misfortune is directly related to your good fortune? Maybe the house your parents bought was on the market because the sellers didn’t want my mama in the neighborhood. Maybe the good grades that eventually led you to law school were possible because your mama didn’t have to work eighteen hours a day, and was there to read to you at night, or make sure you did your homework. How often do you remind yourself how lucky you are that you own your house, because you were able to build up equity through generations in a way families of color can’t? How often do you open your mouth at work and think how awesome it is that no one’s thinking you’re speaking for everyone with the same skin color you have? How hard is it for you to find a greeting card for your baby’s birthday with a picture of a child that has the same color skin as her? How many times have you seen a painting of Jesus that looks like you?” She stops, breathing heavily, her cheeks flushed. “Prejudice goes both ways, you know. There are people who suffer from it, and there are people who profit from it. Who died and made you Robin Hood? Who said I ever needed saving? Here you are on your high horse, telling me I screwed up this case that you worked so hard on; patting yourself on the back for being an advocate for a poor, struggling black woman like me…but you’re part of the reason I was down on the ground to begin with.” from Small Great Things
While knowing that my skin color gives me certain advantages is good, it still doesn’t answer what I do about those advantages. I wouldn’t ask for those to be taken away, and simply being thankful for the advantages doesn’t seem to solve the racial injustices. I don’t want to move to the point of feeling guilty for my position of birth, but I also don’t want to lord it over others. I also know that I can’t fix all of the problems by myself.
When it comes to social justice, the role of the white ally is not to be a savior or a fixer. Instead, the role of the ally is to find other white people and talk to make them see that many of the benefits they’ve enjoyed in life are direct results of the fact that someone else did not have the same benefits. From the author’s note.
Then I am moved to ask what I do about the direct racism in the world around me. While I don’t think I consciously treat anyone differently, blatant racism does occur. It would be easy to say that minorities are just making a big deal out of things that aren’t big deals, but I’ve never been followed in a store or told that I couldn’t achieve great things simply because of my race. I don’t know what that feels like, so maybe those seemingly little incidents are important because they add up in the life of a minority person. I also recognize that I can’t stop all of the racism in the world because I don’t cause it all. All I can do is watch my actions and thoughts very carefully to ensure that I don’t perpetuate the problem. In addition, I can teach my students and those around me to see people the way that God sees people. What God sees is a person’s heart, not their skin color. What matters to God is if they are following Him.
“Out of all the people who interacted with Davis Bauer at Mercy–West Haven Hospital during his short life, only one of them is sitting in this courtroom at the defense table: Ruth Jefferson. Only one person is being charged with a crime: Ruth Jefferson. I spent an entire trial skirting a very important question: Why? “Ruth is black,” I say flatly. From Small Great Things
Finally the court case in the book brought up the point of indirect racism. This happens when the question of race is ignored in a situation. I don’t think I intentionally treat anyone any differently simply because of the color of their skin, but I may unintentionally perpetuate the problem by ignoring that racism happens. I teach at a school with a very diverse racial population and a mostly homogeneous racial teaching staff. One of the questions on my application was “what do you think about race?” I think, as a 24-year-old, I answered something along the lines of saying that race didn’t matter to me because God loves everyone. While that is all good and well, ignoring racism in the world doesn’t help my students learn how to handle it whether they or someone else is being discriminated against.
I mean equity. Equality is treating everyone the same. But equity is taking differences into account, so everyone has a chance to succeed.” I look at her. “The first one sounds fair. The second one is fair. It’s equal to give a printed test to two kids. But if one’s blind and one’s sighted, that’s not true. You ought to give one a Braille test and one a printed test, which both cover the same material. From Small Great ThingsThis means I carefully choose the literature we read in order to bring up these questions of race and the general treatment of people. It means I don’t allow discriminatory talk of any kind to happen in my classroom. It also means that if a student accuses me of acting in a racist way, whether he is right or wrong about my intentions, I examine my actions to ensure that it wasn’t unintentional racism. It means that I teach my students to look for the similarities between us all as humans rather than seeing the differences while also celebrating the variety of cultures. Finally it means that I teach my students and those around me to love as God loves by demonstrating that love and humility in my actions.
While it may be a moot point now, I encourage others to read Piccoult’s Small Great Things. There is a little bit of language to represent the cultures in which the characters live, but overall wholesome thinking is applauded. The book provokes thought, creates complex plot, and develops characters at just the right pace. She really looks at the question of racism from every angle, and I haven’t really even begun to do this conversation justice. That’s what this book is: a conversation about race. So go read, then come back and converse with me.