If You Come Softly

by Jacqueline Woodson

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What is the theme of chapter 17 in If You Come Softly?

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In If You Come Softly, chapter 17 addresses multiple themes about race. Miah's dad’s thoughts link to ideas that Whiteness is a "default identity" and represents the "absence of race." As his dad says, "They don't know they're white." Miah's ideas might connect to more optimistic notions of allyship. Some White people do understand that they’re White, and they are willing to try to use that recognition to "change the world.”

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If You Come Softly is a heartbreaking book about teen love and systemic racism. Before we get to themes of chapter 17, maybe it'd be helpful to review the novel.

Our two main characters are Ellie and Jeremiah (or Miah). Ellie is White and lives on Central Park West. She has a doorman. Miah is Black and lives in Brooklyn. He does not have a doorman. The two meet at "white-bright" Percy and develop strong feelings for each other. Only Miah's mom really supports the relationship. Miah's dad does not like that his son is going out with a White girl.

That brings us to chapter 17. We're in a car on the Long Island Expressway with Miah and his dad. His dad tells him,

The thing about white people, they don't know they're white. They know what everybody else is, but they don't know they're white.

In this chapter, Miah's dad addresses themes of race, not just in the context of Ellie and Miah but in a way that brings in society at large. What Miah's dad is saying connects to ongoing ideas about how race functions in society. In the New York Times, writer Laila Lalami calls Whiteness a "default identity" or as "the absence of race."

We could say that what Miah's dad is trying to tell Miah is that Whiteness is a privilege, not because it is something but because it isn't something. Miah's dad brings up the example of Black churches getting bombed. White people don't generally have to worry about their churches getting bombed, but Black people do.

With White people, privilege is founded on a negative, an "absence." By not having to see themselves as a race, White people acquire an array of advantages and protections.

Miah, though, wonders if there might be one White person out there saying, "I'm white so what am I gonna do with this—how am I going to use it to change the world?"

Miah's idea connects more with the theme of White allyship. You might have seen signs at protests that read something like, "White silence equals violence." So maybe more people are coming around to Miah's idea? It's something to think about. Though chapter 17 is quite short, it sure does bring up a lot of crucial ideas and themes about race.

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