There’s no way I can be racist, I’m an African American Woman! This is what I thought as I started reading my new favorite book. I imagine some think: I’m not racist because… I have a black friend, my cousin is hispanic, my coworker is an immigrant... Well, I hate to break it to you, but in one way or another you are racist. I believed this book would explain to others some hardships minorities go through on a daily basis. While I read, I thought I would be thinking a bunch of “uh huh’s” and “yep…everyday’s”. After I read this book I knew I was nowhere near immune to being biased or feeling privileged. This book had me wondering, am I racist?
I recently finished reading (listening to-thank you audible!) a book that had me riding a roller coaster of every emotion. The book, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult is explicitly about race and the discomfort that can go hand in hand with racial taboos. Personally, I kept trying to decide if I should write a book review because I know the topic of Small Great Things can be uncomfortable or offensive to some. However, isn’t the race taboo the reason we have issues about race? We don’t talk about what comes along with race and privilege because we may be scared of the consequences. If there is one very important lesson I learned from this book, it is that uncomfortable topics needs to be talked about.
First, below is the back of the book synopsis of Small Great Things:
“Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years experience. During her usual shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn only to be told a few minutes later she’s reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?
Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.”
When I first read the synopsis of this book I was in shock… it’s crazy right? As an African American woman I have been confronted with race issues my whole life. From elementary school when a little boy called me burnt in the oven to now as a mother when random strangers touch my kid’s hair and say they, love brown babies. My stories could go on and on. Most of the time I reason with myself that most people have good intentions, they just don’t know how to express them properly. Although I try to be understanding it is beyond difficult not letting all these negative encounters build up, and in some instances they have.
In the book, it is revealed that Ruth, lost her husband. He was killed in the line of duty as he was serving in the military. When it happened, her son was very young. Because of this tragedy, Ruth was forced to be a single mother to her son Edison. She worked long shifts to make sure she could afford to live in a nice neighborhood and to save for Edison’s future college endeavors.
I relate to Ruth’s tragedy because my father was killed in a car accident when my mom was pregnant with me. Sadly, I never meet my father. I was raised by an amazing single mother and her family, all who are white. We live in community that is about 98% white, okay, it’s more like 60% white, but it feels like 98%. I was pretty much raised white, but look black so it was always hard to fit in. Most people didn’t usually treat me different, especially my family, but I always felt different.
Ruth struggles feeling different every day. She lives in a mostly white neighborhood and is the only black labor and delivery nurse in that hospital area. Ruth is an amazing person who contributes to her community tremendously, yet she is still treated like an outsider. Ruth is faced with microaggressions everyday and left to fend for herself by her own “peers”.
In Small Great Things, Ruth’s Lawyer, Kennady McQarrie argues over and over that race is the big issue in her case, they could not discuss it. Ruth pushes and pushes for the lawyers to bring up race, but she gets denied repeatedly. Just like the book, as a society, we tend to avoid talking about race and privilege because it is a hard topic. Picoult states, “When I was researching this book, I asked white mothers how often they talked about racism with their children. Some said occasionally; some admitted they never discussed it. When asked the same question of black mothers, they all said, every day.”
As a person of color, race is something I HAVE to talk about every single day. I was not prepared for the day my three year old little girl asked if her skin was brown. I thought I had a few more years and yet I was faced with a race question now. What do I say to my sweet little girl? How do I teach her that her skin is beautiful? That my daughter is amazing just the way she is even when many people surrounding us look different?
All mothers are faced with millions of questions every day from their children. Children are naturally inquisitive. Most mother’s answer questions about where their eye or hair color came from. My kids, however ask why one grandma has brown skin while the other has white skin. Trying to explain racial differences to my children in ways that they will understand can be challenging. It is a privilege if you do not HAVE to talk about race daily, but in my house we do.
Small Great Things was written by a white author mainly for a white audience. I am not (fully) white, but I still walked away from this book in deep thought. There is no need to be afraid to talk about race! I should not be afraid to express my feelings if something someone says rubs me wrong. I face microaggressions every single day, most of the time they are “harmless,” but sometimes they are not. Helping people understand what is and is not appropriate to ask or tell me and my family is super important. I also think it is important to be open and to answer appropriate questions honestly. People asking genuine, kind questions when they don’t know the answer is key. When people know better, they do better.
This book has definitely helped me realize some of my privilege so now I can do better. I have privilege by growing up half-white and being able bodied. I am privilege to be a black, yet light skinned woman. My kids are able to live in an area where they are safe. I am blessed with lots of privilege many don’t, but I also lack some privileges others enjoy.
Jodi Picoult’s novel Small Great Things is incredible! I love Picoult for taking the time to do extensive research on the racial topics for her novel. She interviewed people from different situations and studied to give the most accurate information.
This book really opened my eyes to other perspectives, I hope it can do the same for you! Picoult eloquently states at the end of the book: “There is a fire raging and we have two choices: we can turn our backs, or we can try to fight it. Yes, talking about racism is hard to do and yes, we stumble over the words-but we who are white need to talk about race. Because, even more of us will overhear and-I hope-the conversation will spread.”
Let’s spread educated and real conversations about race so mentalities and our society can change for the better.
What are some privileges you enjoy that you may have been unaware of?
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