In Search of Better Stories

A Review of Small Great Things & Reflections on Racism

     A friend of my wife said everyone should read this book, so my wife cracked it open and couldn’t put it down. That meant I would be next, and the same thing happened to me. 

     It’s a book about racism loosely based on a true story written by a master storyteller. The details of the story can be found elsewhere, but suffice it to say that you will be sent on an emotional roller coaster intended to help white people see a little better into black people’s worlds where active racism has not yet been extinguished, and passive racism still exists in great abundance. 

     After reading it, I wanted to see if my eldest daughter, who is black, has experienced any active or passive racism in her eighteen years of life on this globe. So I asked her

“Have you ever felt belittled, discriminated against, or in any way humiliated because of the colour of your skin?”

Her answer came quickly.

“No, never.” 

     But then her mind went back to a time when she was fourteen:

     The race chaos in the States spills over into Canada. Black Lives Matter takes over the Georgia Viaduct, snarling traffic coming in and out of downtown Vancouver. My daughter is walking home from her usual haunt: the Vancouver public library. Her backpack is full of books and worlds waiting for her brilliant mind to unlock. She approaches the barricade, which is manned mostly by white twenty-somethings supportive of the movement.  

“I live just down there,” 

She says, hopeful. 

“Sorry, this road is closed. We are not allowing any car or foot traffic.”

“But I live just over there, and I need to get home. It’s getting dark. I support what you are doing,”

“Sorry, no exceptions.” 

     My 14-year-old daughter is forced off the viaduct and has to walk a longer, more dangerous route home at dusk. The Asian police officer offers a sympathetic smile as my daughter is turned away. 

    My black daughter’s only memory of racism is when well-meaning white people manning a Black Lives Matter barricade prevented her from getting home safely.

Life is irony. 

    But I’m thrilled that my daughter has, by and large, been spared the indignity of racism. Is she lucky? Is it the multi-cultural-uber-accepting Vancouver ethos that has prevented hurt? Is it just that she doesn’t notice a slight when it happens? Is it that most people intuitively understand that my daughter is a force of nature not to be trifled with? 

     I don’t know, but I am delighted that Ciara is happy, free, and unlimited in her potential. May it always be so. 

     One other incident of racially tinged drama pops up in my mind as I write.  Twenty years ago, we were in the foster care system in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

     Quimby lived with us for about a year. We loved her with all our hearts and fully expected to adopt her. We didn’t care that her skin was jet black and her hair was as curly as it got. She was a baby who needed love and care, and we were happy to give it to her. As is often the case in foster care, the planned adoption fell through, but what sticks in our minds is the way in which we lost Quimby to her biological relatives. 

      We were told that they were going to visit Quimby for an hour. However, when we arrived, a lawyer and a social worker met us.  They apologized profusely for the poor communication and told us that we had to give our dear Quimby up immediately. We were devastated. Our minds were swimming in despair and grief as we tried to process this sudden news. We were about to lose our baby.

At that very moment, Quimby’s relatives walked in. 

“What deez white people doing touching our black baby? Git dose white clothes off a her.” 

     They immediately snatched Quimby out of our arms and stripped her, throwing our “white person” clothes on the floor, talking, muttering, and swearing against us like we were the worst thing that could have ever happened to Quimby. Their animosity wasn’t because they disapproved of our parenting skills or questioned our commitment to care. Our unforgivable fault lay in the colour of our skin. 

     My wife collapsed, overcome with sorrow. I picked her up. She remembers one parting blow as I carried her out of the room:  

“Damn, Dat white woman got a black ass.” 

   We never saw Quimby again. 

    I don’t recall any other time in my life when something like this happened, which is a good thing. These sorts of racial aggressions shouldn’t happen. They are terrible experiences. Which is why a book like Small Great Things is so important. It was written for a white audience to help us become more aware of not just the overt racial discrimination but the covert stuff, too. Jodi Picoult uses a jaw-dropping story of white supremacy and gross injustice that reinforces our hatred of blatant racism but also pushes into our consciousness a greater awareness of the small daily judgements we make based on race without even realizing it. 




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