“If I cannot do great things, let me do small things in a great way.” That statement is one of Dr. King’s best known quotes; it is also where Jodi Picoult got the title for her book, which in my opinion is a modern day Native Son. Told from the perspective of a black nurse unfairly accused of the murder of a newborn, a white supremacist who is the father of said newborn, and a white public defender who “doesn’t see color,” this book charges head on at a topic that has been brushed over far too much: racism.
Ruth Jefferson, a black nurse who has been working at the same hospital for 20 years, finds herself caring for a baby who had been born the night before to a white supremacist couple. Shaken by the black nurse touching their newborn, the couple demands that she not be allowed to touch their son. Two days later, Ruth finds herself being left in charge of the baby during an emergency situation. Noticing that the baby has stopped breathing, Ruth is faced with a choice; risk her job to try and save the baby or follow the orders she had been given by her superior. In the chain of events that follow, Ruth finds herself at the end of a murder charge and represented by a white public defender named Kennedy. Kennedy tells Ruth time and time again that race has no place in the courtroom, despite the fact this case would not exist if Ruth had been white. Told from three strikingly different perspectives, Small Great Things encourages us all to see the world around for what is truly is: biased.
The book raises the question, what if everyone who had been born on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday were given more opportunities than those born later in the week. They were given better access to jobs and education among many other privileges. It seems silly; you can’t control the day of the week you’re born on. But when you replace “Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday” with “white” and “later in the week” with “black,” it suddenly doesn’t seem so silly. Now some of you may thinking I have no place to be talking about racism because I am a white person, and you’re not wrong. I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated simply because I have darker skin. I don’t know what it’s like to have people stare when I walk into a restaurant because of my skin color. I don’t know what’s it’s like to watch people pull their belongings closer to them or to have people inch away from me because I am not a white person. I don’t know how it feels to be a person of color. But I do know how it feels to see my black friends be genuinely afraid of the police. I know how it feels to see my Latino friends worry about the safety of themselves and their families. I know how it feels to worry when my black friend is walking home alone at night. I know how it feels when the police drive by extra slow when they see me, a white girl, walking at night with my friends, who happen to be black guys, but never bother to slow down when those friends are white. It makes me feel angry. It makes feel afraid. It makes me feel ashamed.
Now you can claim that you aren’t a racist, but you don’t have to be a white supremacist to be a racist. You are being racist when you are surprised that the person in charge is a black man. You are being racist when you become hyper aware of your behavior around people of color, because god forbid they view you as prejudice. You are being racist when you complain about there being more scholarship opportunities for people of color, never minding the fact that they system has worked in your favor your whole life. You are being racist when you ignore the problem that is so clearly in front of you. Just because you don’t realize it, doesn’t mean it’s not hurting people of color. You can keep denying it, but that doesn’t make it go away. All it does is add to the problem. Racism is very much alive in the United States, and it’s time we stopped pretending it isn’t. It’s time to stop seeing the world in black and white, and start seeing it in color.
We all have biases, and we all make judgements about people, whether we know them or not. The key is to stop pretending they don’t exist and start owning them. That is the only way they will ever change. Change starts with an individual; it may seem small. How can one person make a difference? But small things turn in to great things.
This book is must read for people of all race, gender, religion: everyone. It’s a captivating story that forces you to learn more about the world you live in as well as about yourself. As the book mentions, we all shave ourselves down to fit into the puzzle, but no one ever bothers to just change the puzzle all together. It’s not someone else’s job to fix the world we live in; it’s ours.