I both laugh and cringe at the delightful song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the brilliant Broadway musical Avenue Q, in which Sesame Street-style puppets sing about making rent, having adult relations, and surviving existential angst in riotous, bawdy joy:
But over on a different end of the racial conversation spectrum, I just finished a powerful book, Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. I really like Picoult’s narrative style- it’s simple, clean, and full of rich metaphor. Her characters struggle with things that all of us encounter in the span of living a normal life: loss, faith, suicide, dreams. Those you encounter in her books are complex, full of contradiction and beauty.
Her books always affect me. This one almost physically hurt.
It’s about race. Right here, right now, in these United States.
There is no way to live in our contemporary society and be oblivious to racial tension. Every week it seems there is another shooting or violent attack. And most of us white people don’t want to be racist- we’re horrified by the very idea! But maybe…just maybe, this book posits…we are.
Small Great Things puts us into the lives and thoughts of a Black nurse (the capital B is Picoult’s device), a white supremacist, and a white Liberal lawyer. A baby dies, a law suit is filed. And everything that each of these three people thinks they know about how the races relate to each other is challenged.
The character I most identified with, not surprisingly, is the white Liberal lawyer, Kennedy: she’s toiling away in the Public Defender’s office, spending her days working so that all defendants have a shot at justice. She knows about the inequity of sentencing for Blacks, it’s part of why she became a Public Defender- she is on a mission to balance the scales. Her desire comes from what seems like a good and noble place: an acknowledgement that the system is flawed and her position is privileged. And yet…she takes her privilege for granted. She is made to realize that she sees Ruth, and other Blacks, as victims. And that makes them Other. Less than. In need of rescue rather than true equity. Kennedy reminds me of what it was to teach in a public school in Texas, where so many different ethnicities pile into buses, cafeterias, and classrooms with no choice but to figure it out.
I really struggled to read the sections from the White Supremacist’s point of view. These pages were so filled with anger and vitriol, described in language that I could barely stomach, that I told my husband I didn’t know if I could stay with the book, even though I have such admiration for the author. But I read reviews that indicated that others had struggled with this character and his world view, but that the journey was worth it. And it was.
I remember one time, back in my mid twenties, living in Abilene, Texas, and telling my husband that “I never held a slave. And none of the Blacks living now ever were slaves. So why are they still angry? Why can’t they just move on?” I cringe now that I was ever so callous. I have learned about systemic and historical oppression, and what it does to a people.
The book’s main protagonist, Ruth, is a Yale educated labor and delivery nurse who is raising her son alone- not because she was an always single mother, but because her husband, a soldier, died in Afghanistan. Her experiences on a day of shopping, being tailed by TJ Maxx sales clerks, being the only customer required to show ID at the cash register, then standing at the exit while security checks her receipt against the contents of her shopping bag while the white shoppers all exit unimpeded, rang true to me. Not because I have experienced those indignities, but because when I was working retail as a high school and college student, that was exactly what we were told to do. The shoplifting training videos all featured Blacks as the perps. When African Americans wandered into the men’s clothing store where I worked, my manager would send me over with instructions to follow them.
How many times might I have said “Ya know, if those Black people would just lay down and be still, the cops wouldn’t have to shoot them?” before I understood that might not be so simple? That when your people used to wear chains and be sold, that subservience can be a tough pill to swallow? And that sometimes, you can say “Sir” and still be shot.
How many times have I, without realizing it, clutched my purse a little tighter when a Black man passed me on the street?
Growing up, my mom taught me that I shouldn’t associate with people of other ethnicities- it was okay to be polite to them at school, but that was it. When I made a new friend when we moved to a neighborhood in a Dallas suburb, she was worried that they were Italian (their last name was Peters for heaven’s sake) and Catholic. I had to plead with her that religious topics never came up, and that when I worked up my courage to ask what the family’s religion was, discovered they were Baptist, which was okay. When my neighbor, Mrs. Hogeda, invited me in one day and showed me how she was making flour tortillas, I had to lie to my mom about where I had been because her disdain for Mexican Americans was so strong. When I developed a crush on one, I thought the roof would collapse on the house because of her fury. Shopping at the five and dime among Spanish speakers was an opportunity for her to mutter about people needing to go back where they belonged.
I have even heard a family member recently use the word “wetback.”
And a completely different family member, whose rep I want to protect, shared the wisdom that the Blacks are happier if they stay in their own neighborhoods, schools, and churches. That particular conversation occurred when I was a young college woman endeavoring to figure out how race fit into my world view. And though I voiced respectful opposition to the idea that benevolent segregation was American or godly or right, I still found myself, for all practical purposes, living in an all white world.
Once, as a younger adult, I asked myself the question: Would I want to be black? And the answer was, without hesitation, no. Not because I believed Black people are inferior, but because I knew that to be white in America was, and continues to be, a position of privilege. I have never been tailed in a retail store. I have never been denied service in a business establishment. I have never had to worry, when pulled over for a traffic stop, that I would be shot or arrested if I wasn’t appropriately deferential.
This week, a jury handed down an innocent verdict in the Philando Castile shooting. It’s one of way too many killings of Blacks by panicked police. The phrase my daughter pulled out of Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show commentary was, “Clearly, black people never forget their training.” The training that, for all intents and purposes, keeps the “Massah” relationship alive and well in the United States:
We tell ourselves that the race issue is complicated. But is it? Is it really? Or have we made it so because we are afraid to truly own what is happening in our country?
In the Oprah Magazine’s May issue, Oprah and her staff confronted the issue of race in America. With photographs meant to compel thought, such as white women giving Asian women pedicures or a Black child looking at a shelf of white dolls at a toy store, the magazine challenged us to think about the subtle daily discrimination that we take for granted. Topics like Southern shame (I’m guilty), refugees, and ethnic traditions are laid bare. In one of the articles, entitled “A Force For Good” by criminologist David Kennedy, the author quotes the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Terrence Cunningham, who said that “police had often been ‘the face of oppression,’ and needed to ‘acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.'”
Look, I am not targeting the police in this blog post. I get that they are under pressure and work in difficult situations. But Philando Castile should not have been shot. That jury reached the wrong verdict. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland should be alive. And we white Americans have got to start being honest: we clutch our bags tighter, we sometimes cross to the other side of the street or make jokes or judgements. We do. And yes, I know it goes both ways. But whites have power in this country, by virtue of being white. And we need to admit it. I need to admit it. Picoult says, in her afterword, “Most of us think the word racism is synonymous with the word prejudice. But racism is more than just discrimination based on skin color. It’s also about who has institutional power. Just as racism creates disadvantages for people of color that make success harder to achieve, it also gives advantages to white people that make success easier to achieve. It’s hard to see those advantages, much less own up to them.”
Back to Small Great Things: I loved the book. The storytelling was taut, the points of view were thoroughly researched and rang true and clear. The characters were raw and vulnerable, and nearly all learned and grew from the journey. My heart was fully invested as I read, breathless as the trial drew to a close. The stakes were huge in this book: career, college, reputation. The stakes in our real life America are even greater: Peace and Life itself. I hope we all can embrace change and growth. I am ready to embrace the philosophy preached by martin Luther King, Jr: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” May my small life affect change. Hallelujah and amen.