Jodi Picoult’s novel about racism is a case study on two levels. First there is the racism in the book: a deeply racist white couple refuse to let a black nurse take care of their newborn baby. The upshot of their refusal is a tragedy for all concerned. The white baby dies in hospital and the black nurse is held responsible. Then there is the racism in the writing. This is less obvious but it is there for the simple reason that Jodi Picoult is white, and a white person has racism programmed into them whether they like it or not. I realise that this a controversial remark, but as Picoult herself admits on her website http://www.jodipicoult.com:
“I enrolled in a social justice workshop called Undoing Racism, and left in tears every night, as I began to peel back the veneer of who I thought I was from who I truly am”.
Of course, the whole point of Picoult’s writing this book, was to try to wake people up to the fact that black people talk about racism every day while white people hardly ever mention it, unless to deny they are racist in the first place – something she became aware of first-hand while researching the subject. You have to applaud her for her courage and her dedication, and also for drawing attention to what continues to define the US as a nation, Fear of The Other. It took Picoult twenty years to find the courage to write Small, Great Things, a title based on the famous phrase used by iconic human rights champion Martin Luther King: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way”.
The small things, in the context of Picoult’s novel, are those acts that often pass unnoticed (by white people) through which racism is both perpetrated and dismantled.
But nevertheless Picoult does fall into her own trap while writing this book because she stereotypes black people throughout it. There is the struggling black single mother, the preacher, and the angry black victim. I’m not saying that there is not some truth in stereotypes, or they would not exist in the first place, but they lie at the foundation of racism and are dangerous. When we stereotype people on the grounds of their ethnicity, gender or nationality, we are condemning them to a future on the basis of a collective history they cannot change. We are reinforcing prejudice.
In a novel it can work well to use stereotypes; we naturally recognise them as real because they are ingrained in our unconscious minds. But if we are ever to realise Picoult’s dream, and our own, of a world where racism no longer exists, we first need to build a world where stereotypes are no longer used, or a world in which stereotypes are blown away. That would be progress. Electing a black president seemed like a step in the right direction, as far as the US was concerned, but with things as they are now, it looks as though the backlash could mean one step forward followed by two steps back. The big question I suppose, as far as Small, Great Things goes, is does Picoult end up in the same place at the end of the novel: two steps behind where she started out?
Obviously, spoilers are not an option. But I did not come way from the book thinking that the world was a better place because of it. The Obama factor has not come out on top here – not really. But that is not because the white lawyer Picoult has created does not try her damnedest, because she does. The characters are punchy and well defined; the plot keeps you reading and the book is great. It is more because the black characters cannot seem to escape the stereotype that has been assigned to them. It clothes them to the very last line of the book. It is what we all do, black and white alike: we work with the same historical perceptions and we cannot seem to throw them off. Despite the optimistic coating of the ending, the dream of equality regardless of colour remains just that: a dream.
Any Cop?: Racism exists as a product of our collective past, and will remain as a signpost on the roadside until we all rip it down once and for all. I’m not sure that Picoult achieves this in her book, which would in any case make it a miracle of literary prowess, but she certainly deserves the praise for trying.