By Linda Schlossberg
Like many white Americans, I read To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high and loved it. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is told from the point of view of young Scout, whose father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, defends a black man falsely accused of rape. Scout’s innocent and appealing voice is an accessible vehicle for discussing race relations, and the novel has become a staple of school curricula. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus in the 1962 film. The novel’s previously unpublished and controversial sequel, Go Set A Watchman, hit bestseller lists a few years ago. And Aaron Sorkin’s highly-anticipated Broadway adaptation, produced by Scott Rudin and starring Jeff Daniels, is certain to sell out. It’s no wonder that Mockingbird, published almost sixty years ago, emerged the winner of PBS’s The Great American Read television series, where viewers could vote, American Idol style, for their favorite novel.
But there’s a reason Mockingbird is assigned to thirteen-year-olds. The moral message of the novel is a simplistic one: Racism is bad. Very, very bad. Also, bad people are racists. Good people, the reader is assured, are not racists.
The novel tells us very clearly which side we’re on. As readers, we are aligned with Scout and by extension Atticus, who embodies rational, educated “racial tolerance,” in sharp contrast to the novel’s depiction of an angry, ignorant, racist mob. Everything in the reading experience of the novel—our easy alliance with Scout, our comfortable sense of right and wrong—confirms a white reader’s sense of herself as open-minded, tolerant, woke. “If I lived in 1930s Alabama, I would never do that,” the white reader thinks. “I am one of the good white people.”
The results of the The Great American Read series is certain to put Mockingbird back on bestseller lists across the nation, where it will sit in uneasy proximity to sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. White Fragility—currently holding the #5 spot on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list—is not directed at the angry, ignorant mob. It is directed instead at white, educated PBS-watching liberals.
DiAngelo (herself white) argues that progressive white Americans, confident in their stated ideals of racial tolerance and equality, can’t bear to acknowledge the material, social, and emotional benefits they derive from living in a culture based on systemic racism. To protect themselves from that painful truth, they expend enormous energy performing their tolerance. As she writes, “I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir,’ or already ‘gets it.’ White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.” People of color are left to negotiate and dance around the fragile egos of progressive whites, who must always be protected from the divisive charge of racism and of protecting racial inequality.
Which brings us back to Mockingbird. White people are brought up to see their lives reflected in dominant cultural narratives and to see their stories of internal struggle and moral awakening—like the journey undergone by Scout—as universal and timeless. To suggest otherwise—to point out that racism is a daily lived reality for many people and not just part of a lesson plan—is to suggest that white people’s experiences are not universal, but specific. Worse, it implies that in loving a novel like Mockingbird, the reader herself is racist—an unbearable accusation. The book, like so many stories of white heroism, must be defended at all costs.
Somehow, being named “racist” has, for white people, become less tolerable, more of an affront, than the practice of racism itself.
A culture is made up of the stories it tells itself about itself. The selection of Mockingbird as “America’s best-loved novel” reminds us that as a nation we have a long way to go in telling the story of American racism and American whiteness.
About the Author
Linda Schlossberg serves as Assistant Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Harvard University, where she teaches courses in literature and creative writing. She is the author of the novel Life in Miniature and the co-editor of Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including McSweeney’s, Conduit, and Post Road. Schlossberg was the recipient of the 2016 Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Writer's Center and is currently completing a feminist dystopian novel.