Racial Tension: A Review of Small Great Things


I just finished reading Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. I read this book right before I began to read the play A Raisin in the Sun with my students. While my views and reflections come from the perspective of a white privileged female, I approach this unit with my students with fresh eyes and a new perspective. Before I get too deep with my thoughts, let me give a brief synopsis of each of these texts.

Small Great Things is a novel written and researched by Jodi Picoult. The protagonist is Ruth Jefferson, a middle-aged African American female birthing nurse who is the victim of racial discrimination in her work-place due to a white supremacist family. Later events lead up to the death of this family’s newborn son, and Ruth is the one to blame. Through Picoult’s words, we are able to see the perspective of many characters in the novel; we are able to see into the mind of Ruth, the defense attorney, and the white supremacist.

I struggled with this book initially because I hated reading from the viewpoint of a white supremacist. The amount of hate he expressed was sickening, and I didn’t even want to peer into his mind. Additionally, what upset me more was that the comments that he made were the same comments I have heard by others and cast aside as nothing.

Reading from Ruth’s, the African American nurse, perspective was eye-opening and made me appreciate this book on a deeper level. Ruth talked about being followed around in a grocery store, about the assumptions people would make about her trustworthiness, the lack of job promotion, and the general disregard for her well-being.

I made the move to change churches about a year ago. This was a big decision and weighed heavily on me. I wasn’t just leaving a church, I was taking the risk of not going at all in hopes that I would find one that actually supported the same values as me. I stayed out of the church scene for several months until a friend told me of a new place to try. I was skeptical and resistant but managed to get myself up in time to drive there.  The church was in a bar of all the places. This made me laugh and reminded me of how counter-cultural Jesus was for His time.

Needless to say, it wasn’t the lights or décor that captivated me. What did captivate me, however, was how the pastor spoke about racial discrimination and tension. She talked about a conversation with an African American woman where the woman said she just wanted her physical presence to be noticed and valued. My pastor really hung on these words and mentioned that she made a point to try to do this for women of color.

Bouncing back to Picoult’s novel, the defense attorney is a white female who claims to not see color. Something the book talks about is the overcompensating that takes place and that those people do see color. Ruth challenges Kennedy, her attorney, in this sense, and Kennedy ultimately places herself in situations deliberately where she is the only white woman and quickly realizes the advantage she is given because of someone’s disadvantage, unintentional on her part, and how it feels to walk in someone else’s shoes.

I think about my pastor’s sermon as well as this book in the context of my own life. It’s sad to me that people still exist who are willing to discriminate against someone for anything, especially race. It’s sad to me that those same people will use the Bible as evidence for their racism. We see this all over the world in various regions. Sri Lanka is a prime example.

Picoult seemed to grab onto this misconception and really pull it into the light. Whether people are willing to admit it or not, racism is still not resolved in our country. We see this everywhere with bitterness and lack of empathy. The idea that stuck with me most from this novel is that, as long as one person is benefitting from another’s suppression, racial tension will remain.



Featured Image by Mario Gogh
In-Text Image by Davide Ragusa

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