Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Race Card Project creates new type of conversation

She asked for just six words.

Michele Norris, the NPR host, was starting a book tour for her memoir, which explored racial secrets. Sensing a change in the atmosphere after the election of the first black president, and searching for a new way to engage and listen, Norris printed 200 postcards asking people to express their thoughts on race in six words.

The first cards that trickled into her mailbox were from Norris' friends and acquaintances. Then they started coming from strangers, from people who had not heard Norris speak, from other continents. The tour stopped; the cards did not:

"You know my race. NOT ME!"

"Chinese or American? Does it matter."

"Oh, she's just another white girl."

"Waiting for race not to matter."

Such declarations brought the Race Card Project to life.

"I thought I knew a lot about race," says Norris, 51, an award-winning black journalist. "I realized how little I know through this project."

Two years later, the cards have become almost a parallel career for Norris, best known for her work on NPR's All Things Considered. She and an assistant have catalogued over 12,000 submissions on theracecardproject.com. People now send them via Facebook and Twitter or type them directly into the website, leading to vibrant online discussions.

Many cannot resist accompanying their Race Cards with explanations, stories and personal experiences. Norris, in turn, feels compelled to contact them, listen to their stories, and archive this new conversation about race.

Part of Norris' inspiration came from a series of NPR interviews on race during Barack Obama's ascent. His re-election has re-energized Norris' multiracial community of six-word poets:

"Black babies cost less to adopt."

"Never a Nazi, just a German."

"Money on counter, not in hand."

"You are dirt, so I scrubbed."

Eric Liu, an author and educator, heard about the Race Card Project from a friend. He called it "brilliantly powerful" due to the brevity: "It forces this profundity that you wouldn't get if you let people go on for two hours."

For Norris, the project helps fulfill her goal of making it easier for people to talk about race. As a professional interviewer, she often sees racial questions lead people into "the pretzel twist" — arms folded, legs crossed, shoulders hunched. But with the Race Card Project, people express things unlikely to be spoken into an NPR microphone:

"Marry white to dilute the black."

"I married a black man anyway."

"When did your family come here?"

"Disagree with blacks? Automatic racist. Pathetic!!!"

Norris knows about reticence from her own family. In her memoir, The Grace of Silence, Norris describes a secret her doting father never told her: He was shot in 1946 by a white police officer in his native Birmingham, Ala. Her mother hid something, too: Norris' beloved grandmother traveled from town to town in the 1940s and '50s dressed as Aunt Jemima to sell pancake mix, a custom that many now consider a degrading mammy stereotype. By confronting her family's secrets, Norris has inspired others to reveal their own. "These six words are just the beginning of fascinating stories," she said. "It's the most interesting and rewarding work I've ever done as a journalist."

What are her six words?

When the project began, her words were personal, born of her experience as a black Minnesota girl with a slight speech impediment who was advised against pursuing a four-year college degree. "Fooled them all, not done yet" used to fit well.

But now, after what the nation has experienced these past few years, and the gratitude she feels toward thousands of people who shared their stories with her, Norris is reminded of a quote from the legendary dancer Alvin Ailey: "The dance comes from the people and must always be given back to the people."

So today, her six words are:

"Still more work to be done."

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