Kudos to Jodi Picoult for taking on America’s most entrenched injustice. and helping readers discover in themselves how he or she may perpetuate racial injustice. Small Great Things is sheer bravery by a white American writer.
This novel bravely goes where few white writers would venture without the risk of their white privilege bleeding through the narrative, or of committing cultural appropriation. Jodi tells us readers that is exactly why the original idea and partially written manuscript were put aside for more than a decade.
Before Picoult decides to take up the gauntlet, she joins a white privilege workshop to delve into her own prejudices, she gathers to herself men and women from the black community who speak the hard truth to her and help her understand her role in perpetuating injustice. She interviews reformed white supremacists. Picoult dives deep to show how racial injustice is sustained by a thousand small cuts a day, carried out by whites who are often clueless to their own complicity.
Small Great Things explores how racial privilege, even more than outright discrimination, pervades white consciousness. A person may think “I’m color blind,” or “race makes no difference to me”. However, Picoult’s book reminds us it is easy to think that when you are a beneficiary of the culture’s every advantage.
Yet, Picoult also shows how “minorities” can play into perpetuating the injustice by remaining silent to hold on to tenuous advantages they may have and that are working to help them accomplish goals like owning a home and sending their child to college. The main character, Ruth Jefferson, demonstrates how that works.
Picoult shows in the character of Kennedy, Ruth’s public defender when Ruth, a respected labor and delivery nurse, is accused of killing the baby of a white supremacist couple. Prior to their son’s death, they demanded that Ruth, an African-American, be forbidden to touch their child (Davis). Ruth is removed from the family’s service after Davis is born. She is mystified. As one of the most capable nurses, she can’t imagine why they do not want her to help care for their son. Then she observes the tattoos on the father’s arm and head, and she realizes he is a white supremacist. As the story advances, Baby Davis is discovered to have an inherited disorder that contributes to his death.
By following the developing relationship between Ruth and Kennedy, Picoult takes readers with her on the discovery of white privilege, peeling it back layer by layer until finally Kennedy is seeing it in herself. We also follow Ruth’s discovery that she has blinded herself to racial assumptions that arise regularly in her peers. Ruth’s determination to discuss the role of racial hatred in her case — a strategy strongly opposed by Kennedy — is a result of finally understanding her complicity in the persistence of racial discrimination by remaining silent.
The story of Turk Bauer and his wife Brittany, both white supremacists, brings to light the complexity of racial hatred. We learn the circumstances that led to Turk’s induction into the Aryan Nation. We go to events where racial hatred is cultivated, taught to youngsters, and how it is organized across the nation. Inside Turk’s head, we see how he is influenced by fear and anger in his particular life circumstances. We witness Turk’s the awful suffering from the loss of his child. We see his humanity even when his beliefs and actions are despicable to us. Jodi is showing that racial relationships in America are complex and nuanced.
Critics have reviewed the novel’s sometimes cardboard stereotypes and slow action, but really, Picoult took on a monumental task as she worked through her own racial biases and white privilege, inviting her fans to do the same within themselves. This is how hard it is. Picoult is a skilled writer. We can give her a little slack if at times the characters may lack realism or the plot slows here and there. She took on America’s deepest wound, most entrenched injustice, and one that is still festering in the hearts of us all. We must get at it in ourselves until we can live a free nation. Picoult offers us her experience as one way we might get there.
MORE RESOURCES FOR READERS:
Watch Frontline: Documenting Hate which aired on August 10. It is a documentary of the white supremacists at Charlottesville, VA uprising over confederate monuments. It was so much more, of course. This ProPublica investigation helps us learn about how a permissive environment ushered hate groups into the American mainstream.
Read Jon Meacham’s book “The Soul of America, the Battle for Our Better Angels”. In the Introduction, Meacham compares Strom Thurman’s Dixiecrats to Trump’s nationalist movement.
Extremism, racism, nativism, and isolationism, driven by fear of the unknown, tend to spike in periods of economic and social stress — a period like our own. Meacham, p. 4 of Introduction.