In contrast to the overt, purposeful racism as espoused by Turk Bauer and the white supremacists he works with, Small Great Things also explores how racism functions in society among white people who don't believe themselves to be racist. Kennedy brightly quips in her first meeting with Ruth that she "doesn't see race" and that "the human race is what matters," statements that make Ruth—a black woman who experiences prejudice every day at the hands of well-meaning but unwittingly racist white people—feel as though Kennedy is woefully ignorant, naïve, and sees herself as a white savior. In particular, Small Great Things pays close attention to how this brand of racism is baked into everyday life, normalized, and is subsequently made invisible to people like Kennedy.
The novel first shows how institutional racism functions by following Ruth through several normal shifts at the hospital. When accompanied by a white nursing student who's ten years younger than Ruth, a patient speaks to the nursing student as though she's the one in charge; a white woman in the cafeteria grabs her purse to hold it closer when Ruth approaches to help her at the coffee station; and Ruth's coworkers brush off Marie's sticky note that no African-American staff are to care for Davis as a valid request on the part of Davis's parents, likening it to a patient's request for a female doctor. For the white employees at the hospital, all of these occurrences can be explained away as simple misunderstandings with no malice behind them. They're able to do this because they don't believe they're racist and therefore, don't understand the very real negative effects that these actions have on Ruth, even if those effects are unintended. For Ruth, these experiences make her question her own sanity and whether or not she's seeing racism where there is none. Like her coworkers, Ruth wants to think the best of people, but she finds it hard to do so when white people like the old woman inadvertently show Ruth that they think she's more likely to steal than a white person, or when Corinne and Marie (and therefore the hospital system as a whole) end up siding with a white supremacist despite insisting they're not racist.
Kennedy is one of the novel's worst offenders when it comes to this entrenched and, in the eyes of white people, invisible racism, which makes it much harder for her to connect with Ruth and effectively represent her in the courtroom. Recognizing that she has little choice in a lawyer, Ruth takes it upon herself to expose Kennedy to things that make her see that, even though she doesn't think of herself as racist, she still has no idea what it's like to move through the world as a black person. When the two women go shopping together, Kennedy soon becomes annoyed at the clerk who keeps checking up on her and Ruth. It takes her several minutes to realize that the clerk is afraid that Ruth is going to shoplift. She also notices that, when they leave the store with a group of other shoppers, Ruth—the only black person in the group—is also the only person to have her bag checked. While these are considered “microaggressions” on a daily level, they also reflect the fact that black people are more likely to be arrested and serve longer sentences than white people for the same offense.
The night before the last day of trial, Kennedy takes these exercises a step further by walking around a low-income and predominately black neighborhood. Kennedy notices that the residents on the street seem afraid of her and refuse to speak to her, while she also recognizes that, because she's the only white person on the streets, she feels alone and as though she's in danger. While Kennedy understands the limits of this exercise (it’s only one day, not a lifetime), it does increase her capacity to empathize with Ruth—and in doing so, suggests that one of the most effective ways to tackle one's inherent biases is to experience situations that place one in a minority role.
With this knowledge in place, Kennedy approaches the jury on the final day of court with a real-life analogy to help them visualize this kind of racism: Davis was born on a Thursday, which meant that a state-mandated blood test identifying the genetic problem that likely contributed to his death wasn't run until well after his death on Saturday. Had Davis been born on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, next-day or two-day lab results could've prevented his death—in other words, he was at an unfair advantage, simply because he was born late in the week. While this analogy is a powerful motivator for a majority of the jury and eleven of the twelve jurors find Ruth innocent, juror number 12—a white teacher who teaches in an integrated classroom and therefore believes she's not racist—is the only one who refuses to agree to acquit Ruth of the crimes brought against her by the state.
Juror number 12's unwillingness to be swayed by Kennedy's analogy, while also insisting she's not racist, reminds the reader that not everyone is ready or willing to accept the existence of institutional racism as fact—and further, that those people have an outsize amount of power in society to continue to promote a racist system of doing things. In other words, while Turk may have been able to reform his own personally racist beliefs through empathy and love, institutional racism requires everyone to think critically about how power systems empower some people, while hurting others. In this way, Kennedy's shift to becoming aware of institutional racism acts as a powerful example of what's possible when a white person recognizes that people of color are at an unfair advantage, not just in the courts but in every aspect of their lives. With this, the novel acts as a wakeup call to white readers to think critically about the systems around them and, most importantly, to listen to people like Ruth when they say that things aren't fair.
Institutional Racism ThemeTracker
Institutional Racism Quotes in Small Great Things
As Christina held my hand and Ms. Mina held Mama's, there was a moment—one heartbeat, one breath—where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman, helping another.
I enrolled Edison in preschool there, so that he started at the same time as all the other kids, and no one could see him as an outsider. He was one of them, from the start. When he wanted to have his friends over for a sleepover, no parent could say it was too dangerous an area for their kid to visit. It was, after all, their neighborhood, too.
I think about Ruth walking down the street in East End and wonder how many other residents questioned what she was doing there, even if they never said it to her face. How incredibly easy it is to hide behind white skin, I think, looking at these probable supremacists. The benefit of the doubt is in your favor. You're not suspicious.
In fact, the easiest way to lose a case that has a racially motivated incident at its core is to actually call it what it is. Instead, you find something else for the jury to hang their hat on. Some shred of evidence that can clear your client of blame, and allow those twelve men and women to go home still pretending that the world we live in is an equal one.
Suddenly I realize that Kennedy's refusal to mention race in court may not be ignorant. It's the very opposite. It's because she is aware of exactly what I have to do in order to get what I deserve.
I might as well be blind and lost, and Kennedy McQuarrie is the only one with a map.
"The fact that I'm Black was never an issue in my relationship with my colleagues."
"Not until they needed a scapegoat. What I am trying to say, Ruth—may I call you that?—is that we will stand with you. Your Black brothers and sisters will go to bat for you. They will risk their jobs for you. They will march on your behalf and they will create a roar that cannot be ignored."
"You are not an imposter," Sam Hallowell told me. "You are not here because of luck, or because you happened to be in the right place at the right moment, or because someone like me had connections. You are there because you are you, and that is a remarkable accomplishment in itself."
"You say you don't see color...but that's all you see. You're so hyperaware of it, and of trying to look like you aren't prejudiced, you can't even understand that when you say race doesn't matter all I hear is you dismissing what I've felt, what I've lived, what it's like to be put down because of the color of my skin."
She looks at me, and we both laugh, and in that instant we are merely two women, standing over a lasagne, telling the truth. In that instant, with our flaws and confessions trailing like a slip from a dress, we have more in common than we have differences.
I've always thought of her as an uptight piece of work. But now I'm wondering: when she goes shopping, is she, like Ruth, asked to show her receipts before exiting the store? Does she mutely hand them over? Or does she ever snap and say she is the one who puts shoplifters on trial?
She falters, then gathers up the weeds of her thoughts and offers me the saddest, truest bouquet. "I didn't know."
"Why would you?" I reply—not angry, not hurt, just stating a fact. "You'll never have to."
"You think you're a respected member of a community—the hospital where you work, the town where you live. I had a wonderful job. I had colleagues who were friends. I lived in a home I was proud of. But it was just an optical illusion. I was never a member of any of those communities. I was tolerated, but not welcomed. I was, and will always be, different from them."
What Kennedy said to all those strangers, it's been the narrative of my life, the outline inside of which I have lived. But I could have screamed it from the rooftops, and it wouldn't have done any good. For the jurors to hear it, really hear it, it had to be said by one of their own.