I Had My Doubts About 'Small Great Things,' But I Commend Jodi Picoult for Writing About Race

When I picked up this book, my first thought was, "Is this white woman going to understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country?"
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Lisa Bensley
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When I picked up this book, my first thought was, "Is this white woman going to understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country?"

Jodi Picoult is going to take some heat for her new book, Small Great Things. There are going to be plenty of black folks who think, What does she know about our struggle? She may very well lose some white readers as well — the ones who love to tell themselves that they don't have a racist bone in their bodies but haven't come face to face with their own racist thoughts, the ones who think we live in a post-racial society. And those are exactly the ones who need to read it.

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I've been a long-time fan of Picoult’s writing, but I'll admit that when I heard about the topic of the book — an African-American nurse faced with the consequences of a medical incident involving the infant child of white supremacists — I was worried. As a woman of color, I had the same concerns as I have whenever I read a book or what a movie about race. Do I need to get the tissues ready? Is it going to make me mad? Will I be able to stomach the imagery of my people — people who look like my mother, my brothers, my cousins, my friends — being beaten and oppressed? When I picked up this book, though, my first thought was, Is this white woman going to understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country? (followed by, I hope she doesn't make a fool of herself).

I've got to hand it to Picoult, though — she outdid herself with this story. To make it work, she had to research so many areas. In addition to nursing, she had to research the lives of white supremacists, which I'm sure was not easy to stomach. It was probably a shock to her to see how these practices are still going on in 2016. She had to study our justice system and how minorities are unfairly targeted in this country every day. Most importantly, she had to wrap her brain around what it means to be black in America today. That’s an impossible task if you’re not black. 

I give her kudos, not because she would ever be able to know the real experience of her character’s life, a black nurse living in an affluent, primarily white neighborhood in Connecticut; she can never walk a mile in that woman’s shoes. But she tried. She didn't just say, “I'm not racist, I have black friends.” She didn't say “Oh, I don't even see color.” Through her story, she admitted that she is fully aware of her white privilege and that is why she wrote the book in the first place. To open people’s eyes.

The fact that so many people will read this book — and a lot of them will be white — means they will be forced to look at themselves, and it means Picoult’s eyes are open and she is an ally. She is aware that, no, she cannot really relate to the struggle of a black woman, but she won’t just sit idly by and do nothing while injustices are being committed every day. She can do what she does best: she can tell a story that will resonate with people. In order to tell a story that she’s not entirely qualified to tell, she did her homework. She talked to people to try and understand what they went through, fully knowing that she’ll never completely understand their struggle. She read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander to try and understand how minorities are treated in our justice system. She read Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a powerful letter from a father to his son, to try and grasp what it’s like to worry every time your child walks out the door that they will be arrested or worse, simply for the color of their skin. 

While Picoult’s book is a work of fiction, her words will ring true to many. Yes, it will be hard to read. You’ll hear the N-word coming from the mouth of a white supremacist. You will be appalled at what the main character goes through in court. You might not like everything you read in the book, but you should read it, because it’s what happens day in and day out to minorities. 

And after you’re done reading fiction about these struggles, consider reading the factual accounts of what goes on in this country every day. You may never truly understand it if you’ve never been through it, but it’s important to make an attempt. And I appreciate that Picoult made this valiant attempt to open the eyes, minds, and hearts of people.