This is a difficult post to write.
It’s not difficult because I hated the book (I didn’t) or because I don’t know how to feel about it (I do… OOFT!). It’s a difficult post to write for the same reasons that Picoult says the book was difficult to write – because it involves facing some difficult truths, about myself and about the world, and because it’s about an uncomfortable topic I’m not sure I know how to navigate, if I even have the right to navigate it at all.
Before I dive in, then, let me first say that Small Great Things is a truly excellent book. It’s incredibly gripping – a real page-turner – and, like most everything Picoult writes, is thoroughly researched, brilliantly and skillfully written, and just generally a pretty great read. Picoult has long been one of my favourite all time authors, and when I put this book down I remembered why. I was crying in the hairdressers… thank you very much, Ms Picoult!
That said, then, this was not a easy book to read. I mean, in one sense it was – the pages just flew by – but as previously hinted, it was also very challenging. Small Great Things is about racism. Institutionalised, pervasive racism; ranging from obvious and shocking active racism, to (importantly) the more insidious, harder to challenge, passive racism. And this is why this post – and to Picoult, the book – is uncomfortable to write, because it means facing my own privilege, ignorance and cowardice. Yuh. Light weekend reading, mmk then!
I’ve mentioned in previous posts – mostly when I’m talking about feminism – that I’m aware of my own lack of confidence and knowledge around intersectionality. I know my own experiences as a woman, but I also know that there’s an awful lot I don’t know about being a person of colour… especially in the current political climate. I know how frustrated I get when people insist that sexism isn’t really a thing anymore, and that feminism is unnecessary in this day and age… so I can only try to imagine how frustrating it must be to be a person of colour and hear that we are now, apparently, living in a ‘post-racial world’. Because I know I’m not confident with this, though, I’m afraid. I’m scared to speak up, I’m scared to say something or ask a question that might be unintentionally offensive. I’m scared to show my ignorance, because I’m ashamed of it. I don’t feel like I have the right to speak, because these experiences aren’t mine to speak about… so I end up not really saying or doing anything, which – despite the best intentions – has the same end result of not using my privilege for good.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, on and off, because (obviously, I hope) this is not a desirable state of being. Being paralysed by self-consciousness of my own white privilege is quite clearly a despicable way to stay, if I don’t address it. A few of my colleagues and I were chatting about feminism and intersectionality at work one lunchtime (I love my workplace!), and when I clumsily and tentatively started to try and articulate this feeling, one of them piped up with something that really helped. “As a woman of colour,” she said “can I say something here?”. I forget exactly how she phrased it now, but the gist of what she said was that for her, the most important thing for white allies to do was to use their voices of privilege. As I said in my post about Maus, part of historic and systemic oppression (whether we’re talking sexism, racism, or war crimes) is the loss or silencing of a category of voices – so, according to my colleague, the best way for those who do have a voice to help is to signal boost the voices that aren’t being heard. I’m really grateful for the patience and grace of the woman who took the time to explain this to me, because that is how people learn.
The point of all this awkward confessing and serious anecdote-telling is that this is what Small Great Things is about. The basic story arch is about a Black nurse who is accused of killing a white supremacist’s newborn, and the legal battle that follows. Like many of Picoult’s stories, in Small Great Things she is an absolute genius at writing characters which force the reader to consider points of view that they never thought they would – in this case, we are forced to consider how a loving father and husband may also truly believe in the superiority of the Aryan race – but the blatant, nauseating racism isn’t actually the main focus of the narrative. Picoult – a white, middle class woman – is also aware of her own privilege, and just how my friend at work advised me, Picoult is not trying to appropriate anyone’s voice, but is instead speaking to the women like her about her own journey of learning, and signal-boosting the voices of the people she spoke to in the research for her book.
As Ruth, the Black protagonist, puts it:
“What Kennedy said to all those strangers, it’s been the narrative of my life, the outline inside of which I have lived. But I could have screamed it from the rooftops, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. For the jurors to hear it, really hear it, it had to be said by one of their own.”
So. Read the book. It’s brilliant, I swear… and as for me, I’ll finish this somewhat soul-baring post with an apology and a promise. I’m sorry for all the times I have fallen short of how I’d want to be. I’m sorry for the times I’ve let my fear and shame silence me when I should have spoken, and I’m sorry for the times I will undoubtedly fall short again. I promise to try, every day, to use my privilege for good, to notice when my skin colour and background has made life easier for me, and to notice when those around me may not have the same ease. I promise to try to signal boost the voices of others when I can, when they want or need me to, and to strive for equity (not just equality) however I am able. To try, in other words, to do small things in great ways.
Thank you, Jodi Picoult, for articulating so eloquently what I was not able to, and for saying things to me – one of your own – what I needed to hear in a way that I could really hear it.