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Former NPR host Michele Norris discusses race in the U.S.

Michele Norris at TPR's headquarters.
Gideon Rogers
Michele Norris at TPR's headquarters.

Michele Norris will be in conversation Dr. Eric Castillo at the Carver Community Cultural Center on February 26 at 7:00 p.m. For more information, click here.

Former NPR host of "All Things Considered" Michele Norris has published a new book titled Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity. Norris is an opinion columnist for The Washington Post and creator of The Race Card Project. The project asks that people submit six words to describe their experience with race.

TPR’s Kayla Padilla had a conversation with Norris about her latest book. Below are a few highlights of the conversation that were edited for clarity.

PADILLA: Well, in the book, you share some of the things that white people wrote in. This includes things like “educated black strangers scare me still,” or “I'm the Blond on the bus.” This was written by a white woman who said that sometimes she feels uncomfortable when she's sitting next to people of color on the bus. And someone else wrote in “Afraid of Blacks" where she wasn't. And why is it important to include stories like this, even if they can feel a little jarring to read?

NORRIS: It was important to include submissions from white people because we received so many submissions from white people. And that was a surprise because I'm a woman of color, because it's called the Race Card Project, and because most conversations about race in America are centered around people of color and usually Black people, and usually in a way that problematizes us people of color. When I started this project, I didn't know that I would be embarking on a 14-year odyssey of listening to white Americans talk about race. But that's what happened. In the 14 years that we've been doing this, the majority of the stories in the majority of the years have come from white Americans. And so when I set out to do this book, I knew that we were going to have to include that and that we would want to include a lot of these stories because it reflected the inbox. But it also allowed us to do something that rarely happens in conversations about race: to include white Americans, because white Americans often have a bystander distant status in those conversations.

We also had an opportunity to include other people who are sitting on the sidelines in conversations because they're not included. People who are Latino, people who are Asian, people who are Indigenous, people who are in the military. So I thought it was important to include conversations like that because they reflect the inbox, but also they're good starting points for conversation. And it also reflected the honesty of the exercise. It spoke to the potency of the race card project of that simple ask. You know, over the weekend, I was doing the updates for the website, and there was a woman who sent in a six word story that we're going to post soon. And, it was about working. She went to work in a hospital as a young woman, and the community looked one way. It was primarily white. The community changed, the hospital clientele changed. And as she was ending her career, there were layoffs. But because she had such long service, they wanted to make sure that she could hold on so she could hit her number, you know, so she could retire with her pension or whatever the package was. But they had to move her.

So she went down to work and, she was a greeter at a hospital. If you've ever had to visit someone in the hospital, they’re the first person you see who takes your name, tells you where to go, gives you the wristband and everything. And she realized when she went downstairs to work in that space, she'd been insulated from that upstairs. But everybody who came in was a person of color, and she had to learn things about herself, because sometimes they would be confused, and she was trying to tell them certain things. She could see in their reaction that they were feeling like she didn't understand them because she was an older white lady and didn't care about their problems, or had a hard time pronouncing their names or understanding their language. She was introspective and she realized, yeah, some of that's probably true. You know, I'm not trying hard enough to hold on to that name that has three Q's in it or someone who speaks a different language than me or doesn't understand the hospital system, and it's my job to help them.

Am I being as helpful as I can because they don't look like me? Am I? Am I revealing my discomfort? And she was so honest in this, and it was, like, six paragraphs. She'd never told anybody about this before. You were never going to find a story like that in the history book. We're journalists, right? I'm proud of the work I've done as a journalist. I've never chronicled anything like that. But that little story is such a potent example of what's happening in all over America, all over America. And so I wanted to include lots of different stories that would make you feel lots of different things, because if I wrote a book about race and you didn't feel uncomfortable at some point, then I have not done a good job of capturing the American experience around race.

PADILLA: So for a lot of people sharing their six words on race, their minds went to their family. One person wrote in “My grandparents met in the KKK.” There were white people writing about their family history, the fact that their family owned slaves. How have you seen people's families inform what they write in as part of the race card project, whether it be something as severe as "my grandparents met in the KKK" to just smaller things?

NORRIS: Yeah, like “It's different shopping with mom.” Another thing that surprised me is, I didn't think of the grocery store as a racialized space. But so many of these encounters happen in retail spaces. But to your question about the family, there is an intimacy to these stories you are reading. This book is like eavesdropping, with permission.


NORRIS: And I liken it in the book to traveling around the neighborhoods I grew up in. I grew up in working class neighborhoods. I'm from Minnesota, my father's from Birmingham. I spent summers either in Minnesota and Birmingham, partly in Minnesota, partly in Birmingham in both places, and working class communities where people didn't have air conditioning. Nobody had air conditioning. That was a luxury that we just didn't have. So in the summer, what did you do? You threw the windows open and when the windows were open, you got to hear everybody live out loud. You understood things about people. Who got the latest Jackson Five record? You knew who was a big sports fan. You knew whose marriage was kind of rocky because they were arguing and you could hear it waving through the kitchen window.

This book is a little bit like that, like roaming through America's neighborhoods at a moment when the windows are wide open and you hear very intimate things. And so, again, as journalists, when we talk about race, we're usually talking about something that's happened in the public square and the public sphere somewhere. Politics. Something happened in sports. Someone said something. These stories are just closer to the ground. They’re kitchen table stories. They're stories about what happens in the lunchroom, at someone's job, on the playground. And often it's about family dynamics, about blended families, about generational differences.

It's, you know, one generation views something one way, another generation views something another way about immigration and the quest to become American. You know, one generation coming and saying, I want my kids to be American. I'm not going to teach them. I'm going to speak English only. We're not going to eat the food of our homeland, because I want them to have pizza and tater tots and all the things that the American kids are eating. And then the kids grow up and think, why don't I? Why don't I speak my language? Why don't I know how to cook this dish that I now pay all this money in a restaurant for? And so there are so many family stories in here that help you understand the fabric of America.

To listen to the full conversation, click the play button at the top of the page.

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