The Gravity of White Privilege: Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly

This post contains spoilers for If You Come Softly that cover the book’s climactic moments. If you don’t want the story ruined for you, bookmark this page and come back once you’ve finished the book. Happy reading.


Jacqueline Woodson’s 1998 YA novel If You Come Softly is slim but cutting and every bit as relevant today as it was twenty-plus years ago. A contemporary retelling of Romeo & Juliet set against the backdrop of late-’90s race relations in New York City, If You Come Softly is engaging and insightful, pushing its readers to consider the roles that privilege and prejudice play in their lives.

The story, which follows a tragically brief prep-school romance between Ellie, who is white, and Jeremiah (who goes by Miah), who is black, takes a fateful turn when Miah, running through a park, is killed by a police officer who mistakes the high school boy for a wanted man. It’s a twist that could have been ripped from today’s headlines and it’s brilliantly told by Woodson who funnels the reader down such an irreversible path that your heart will sink several pages before the fatal shot is fired, knowing what must be lurking in the lines to come.

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Miah’s death asks the reader to consider many aspects of social life but, as a white American male living in 2019, the ones that I keep coming back to revolve around the pervasive, unseen advantages that people who look like me are granted, at the cost of those who don’t. And so, after finishing If You Come Softly, I spent a fair amount of time reading my way down the rabbit hole that is the internet’s perception of white privilege. This article in particular struck me as being a necessary read both for the comprehensive text of author Cory Collins and also for the reactionary, defensive vitriol of a number of its comments, some of which suggest that white privilege simply doesn’t exist.

It’s rare that I’d recommend anyone intentionally read internet comments but in this case, I certainly do. Among the deniers of white privilege, you’ll find not the tirades of virulent racists but the complaints of those aggrieved by the suggestion that they’ve benefited from any systemic benefit due to their race. These protests are grounded in their author’s assertions that they don’t feel favored by society. But you don’t need to feel gravity to be pulled down by it.

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Keeping to the scope of If You Come Softly, it need only be stated that Miah’s death, so painfully realistic, relies upon his race and his status as non-white for its believability. A black child gunned down in error is a potent storytelling device because it is a truthful one.

Hundreds of years of oppression and bigotry have been woven into the fabric of our society so that the color of our skin or the style of our hair can be life or death matters. I and the people who look like me have no reason to fear running through a park but, as Woodson so presciently tells us, Miah—whose dark skin and locks did not adhere to America’s default standards of whiteness—did.

The assumption of safety, and those who are denied it, is perhaps the most repugnant embodiment of white privilege. And yet Woodson’s story ends in hope, even if it is a cold hope. The novel is narrated by Ellie who finds no sanctuary from her grief, but through her telling she opens a conversation that may give it to others. It is an invaluable gift.

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