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NPR's Michele Norris on race, dialogue and walking on eggshells

Photo courtesy of The Race Card Project

“I’m afraid to say something wrong. ”

“I hate hearing “the neighborhood changed. ””

“I’m so tired of this subject. ”

These "six word essays" are about race. They were written on the backs of three different postcards, by three different people, from three different parts of the country. They represent the thousands of responses NPR’s Michele Norris has gotten in response to her request: Race, your thoughts, six words, please send.

Norris calls her effort The Race Card Project and thinks of it as a forum where people can express things that they think about race in America, but don’t necessarily say out loud. "Nobody wants to be called a racist," Norris says, "so we tend to walk around on eggshells."

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s violent deathand the subsequent outpouring of sadness and rage, much of it centered on race, Norris says that the moment is ripe for honest, probing discussions.

“I did this initially because I thought that [race] was a difficult subject, and that people would have a hard time cozying up to a conversation.  I miscalculated there.  It turns out that people are actually quite eager to have this conversation.  They’re looking for a safe space, or a productive space, or an easy space to do that… I think it’s easier for people to do [The Race Card Project] because they can dip a baby toe in with just six words.  They can do this without having to look someone else in the eye.  They can see what other people have said and maybe are emboldened by that and learn a little bit about someone else’s experience. ”

Norris is collecting people’s thoughts on race from all over the world, and making them available on the project’s website.  Some of what she’s collected is uncomfortable, some even disturbing. But Norris says that almost all of the responses have value as conversation starters.

“The goal is to encourage people to stay at the table, even if they hear something unsavory," Norris says."Fear that’s put on the table is fear we can deal with, as opposed to fear that’s held secretly in people’s hearts. ”


Michele Norris was a guest on today’s St. Louis on the Air.  You can hear the entire conversation in the show’s archives.  You can also listen back to our2010 conversation with Ms. Norris about her book "The Grace of Silence." And, meet Michele Norris next week at St. Louis Public Radio’s annual dinner!  Find out how.