When my son was 4, we were crossing the Dartmouth campus when we passed an African-American student. “Mommy,” Kyle asked, “Who is the tan man?” He said this loud enough for the young man to overhear. I turned 10 different shades of red, and fell all over myself trying to diffuse the awkwardness. I told my son that although people came in different shades, we’re all the same. I told him I was colorblind, and he should be too. I was sure this was the right response.
I was wrong.
But then, I was wrong about a lot when it came to race, and it took 48 years of my life to start to figure it out.
A few years before that encounter on the Dartmouth Green, I had tried to write about racism. I had been working in NYC and was deeply moved by a news story of a black undercover cop on the subway who was shot four times in the back by his white colleague. Whenever I’m troubled by a topic, I start a novel — it’s how I process difficult issues and hopefully get my readers to do the same. But this time, after I started writing, I struggled daily. I just couldn’t find manage to find authenticity, and eventually I shelved the manuscript. I wondered if maybe my difficulty was because I had no right to write about racism — after all, I am not African American. Then, I’d play devil’s advocate with myself: I’d written multiple books from the points of view of people I was not — Holocaust survivors, rape victims, school shooters, men. Why was it so hard for me to write from the point of view of someone black?
Because race is different. Racism is different. It’s hard to discuss without offending people. As a result, we often choose not to discuss it at all.
Mind you, I did not ask myself why my son had lived four years of his life in New Hampshire without interacting with people of color. I did not ask myself why I had never talked about race with him. I didn’t ask myself why I’d had black friends in college but no friends of color as an adult. I did not ask myself why, when my son posed that question at Dartmouth, my first instinct was to feel embarrassment.
For years as my children grew up, I lived in a mostly white community, telling myself I was a good person, an empathetic person, and I was not a racist. When Rodney King was beaten and later when Trayvon Martin was shot, I felt both outrage and helplessness. I wanted to speak out, but I was afraid I’d say the wrong thing, and so I stayed silent.
Then in 2012 I read a news snippet about a woman named Tonya Battle. She was an African-American nurse with a quarter of a century of neonatal experience. After one baby's father saw her attending to an infant, he asked to speak to her supervisor and requested that no black personnel treat his child. He also revealed a tattoo of a swastika — he was a white supremacist. The hospital’s response? A note on the baby’s file, stating no African-American nurses were to care for the infant. Battle sued the hospital for discrimination and settled out of court. But it got me wondering, What if? What if that black nurse had been the only person alone with the infant when something went grievously wrong? What if she had to choose between following her supervisor’s orders and saving the infant’s life? What if as a result of her actions, she wound up on trial, with a white public defender who — like me — would never consider herself a racist? What if the story was narrated by the black nurse, the skinhead father and the lawyer, and they all had to confront their beliefs about power, privilege and race? What if I could address multiple angles of racism through fiction, using the power of storytelling to get people close to an issue that is difficult to confront in real life?
Suddenly I knew that unlike my earlier attempt, I was going to finish this book. I wasn’t writing Small Great Things to explain to people of color what their lives were like — I had no right to do that, and I never will. I was writing to an audience of people who looked and acted like me. I was admitting that it’s easy to point at a skinhead and call him a racist. It’s harder to realize that you’re one too — not because of deliberate bias, but because of the unearned advantages of being born white.
I could not ask my readers to re-evaluate their own prejudice and privilege until I confronted my own, which is why this novel was the hardest book I’ve ever written. I began by thinking back to my childhood in suburbia. I didn’t have black friends, but surely that was because I could count on one hand the number of African Americans in my school of 2,400 ... Right? My parents were Jewish, upper-middle class, generous and kind and not prejudiced — yet I could distinctly remember watching the evening news as my parents offhandedly referred to an African American on the screen with the Yiddish word schwartz. At the time I thought it was simply descriptive — it literally means black — but now, I saw it clearly as a pejorative, a label that separated them from us.
I reflected on my relationship with race as I grew older. The first black friends I made went to Princeton with me. There was one girl, Lisa, a poet in my creative writing class, whose writing I loved. We’d walk back to campus after our workshops. I learned about her upbringing in suburban Chicago, which sounded a lot like my own. I talked to her about boys, about our professors, about writing — but never about race. Had you asked me at the time, I would have said this surely meant I was not a racist. After all, the connections I had to Lisa (and other black students on campus) were rooted in our similarities and our shared experience — not our differences. Years later when Michelle Obama became First Lady, I was asked if I knew her in college, since we overlapped at Princeton. I had never met her on campus, but in retrospect, I remembered that the black kids hung out together socially. And I thought about Lisa — a black girl who I grabbed lunch with after class, but never thought to invite to see a movie on a weekend or join me when I went to a party. A girl I no longer keep in touch with. I had been the first to praise myself for not seeing color when I was at college. How open-minded I was! How racially progressive! But was that true? Or had I just been ignorant? Had I ever bothered to ask Lisa what it felt like to be in her shoes? To be the only black person in a seminar? To feel the professor’s eyes light on you whenever a writer of color was mentioned? No — because I never had to.
I started reading books and articles by social-justice educators and activists: Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Melissa Harris-Perry, Debby Irving, Peggy McIntosh, Shelly Tochluk. I met with women of color who graciously overlooked my ignorance and shared with me the stories of their lives — from their fears for their children to the microagressions they faced daily. A young black mother recounted her panic after police shot yet another unarmed black youth. She showed me pictures of her beautiful baby, and asked how she could possibly keep him safe forever. A poised, brilliant college graduate told me how whenever she rode the subway, she carried a Vassar water bottle, which she would prop on her knee as if it to say, “It’s safe to sit beside me.” A woman of color my age asked me how often I talked about racism with my kids at the dinner table. “Occasionally,” I replied, which — to be honest — was an overestimation. I asked her how often she talked about racism at the dinner table. “Every night,” she said. It is no surprise that the voice of the protagonist in my novel was woven directly from the words and stories these women generously offered to me; or that I turned to them to vet that voice for its authenticity before publication.
My future son-in-law, Kevin, asked one day if I’d like to accompany him to a workshop he was taking as part of his Ph.D. studies at Boston College. It was called "Undoing Racism," and it was run by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. As a white person, I was in the minority. I went into the workshop feeling slightly defensive, but left the first night in tears, ashamed of my own blissful ignorance. I had watched a student break down as she talked about using eyeliner on her Asian-American features, and her own internalized oppression about them. I had listened to an African-American woman express with raw eloquence how exhausting it was to put on a mask every day to be the person others expect her to be; to play by the rules of a game she did not create. I think that was the moment that I realized how deep my privilege ran. I may not have created the game she was talking about, but I bought into it. Because without even trying, I already knew the outcome: I’d win, every time.
Here is the grievous mistake I had made for the majority of my life: I assumed that racism is synonymous with bias. Yet you could take every white supremacist and ship him off to Mars and you’d still have racism in the world. That’s because racism is systemic and institutional, but it is both perpetuated and dismantled in individual acts. Racism is the white lady standing in line at the bus stop who moves her purse to the opposite side when a black man comes to wait beside her. It’s the fact that if you’re black and convicted of a crime, justice may not be so just: although African Americans are not even 13% of the U.S. population they are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses; black drug defendants are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white defendants. It’s the realization that although people of color can likely name three shampoos that white people use, the reverse is rarely true.
It’s easy to see the headwinds of racism — the obstacles that make it harder for people of color to achieve success. It’s more challenging to see the tailwinds of racism — the ways that being white makes it easier to achieve success. We like to believe that we succeed because we worked hard, or because we were smart. It’s harder to wrap our heads around the idea that the reason we might have a job or have gained admission to a college is a direct result of the fact that a person of color was never given that opportunity. Admitting that racism has played a part in our success means admitting that the American dream isn’t quite so accessible to all. No wonder we actively avoid discussing racism — it requires us to completely restructure the fictional narrative we’ve created of our lives. But then again, unlike people of color, we don’t have to talk about race. For us, it’s not omnipresent and it’s not a matter of life or death. We avoid the topic because we can. Ignorance is a privilege too.
If you’re like me, and you wake up to this unpleasant realization one day, you’ll probably also want to know how to fix it.
Well, stop right there. One of the many things I have learned is that the role of the white ally isn’t to be a savior or a fixer. It’s to find other white people, and make them understand that many of the benefits they’ve enjoyed in life are a direct result of the fact that someone else did not have those same benefits. Once I started to see my privilege more clearly, I realized my role was to open the eyes of people who look like me. For 47 years of my life, I did not discuss race. Now I talk about it all the time. Yes, it is often awkward and uncomfortable. But you know, comfort isn’t an entitlement In fact, many people of color feel uncomfortable every day. In other words, if starting this dialogue makes you uneasy, it means you’re doing something right.
Picoult's most recent novel is Small Great Things.