Eavesdropping on America's Conversation on Race

August 23, 2013
  • AACRAO Connect
  • Diversity and Inclusion

National Public Radio’s Michele Norris capped off this year's annual meeting with a poignant discussion of race in America. While looking into her own family history, Norris uncovered painful stories that had remained untold. For example, her father, who was African American, had dealt with fierce racism throughout his life but did not let it define him.  In fact, he'd been unjustly shot by police in February 1946, after returning from World War II, while entering a building--and for much of her life, Norris had never heard this story. Rather, her father--like many veterans--adhered to his belief in the “grace of silence.” And he still carried the U.S. Constitution with him.

Though Norris’ family members represent a wide range of political views, they were stirred and inspired when Obama became the first African American President of the U.S. His election prompted Norris' family to begin to share many stories that had previously gone untold. 

Norris appreciated the stoicism of so many in her father’s generation, but she was grateful for these powerful conversations that began over family meals. So she decided to help widen the conversation to include the rest of the country -- and her effort has taken on its own life on Twitter and other social media. 

While on book tour, Norris saw an opportunity to transform the way that people think and feel about discussions of race by starting with small, informal discussions. She would ask questions like, “Do black Americans make too much of race?” “Do white Americans underestimate the privileges they have received?” And “WHO is 'Joe six-pack'?" 

As a way to enter into this complicated conversation, Norris began to distribute blank cards to the audience and ask people to write just six words that come to mind when they think about race. Through this seemingly simple “Race Card Project,” the conversation has spread widely and dug deeply, throughout the country. The project encourages people to define their own histories and experiences and impressions regarding race issues in this country. It has begun a compelling – at times healing, at times inflammatory, and often surprising – conversation about race issues in the U.S. The site has become an archive of people’s attitudes at a particular point in history, a permission slip for people to share their thoughts and stories, and a tool to better understand ourselves and the students that we serve.

As Norris said: talking about race does not equal racism. We have different backgrounds to explore and celebrate—and we share our common humanity. As one of the six-word cards deftly proclaims, “underneath, we all taste like chicken.”

By: AACRAO Connect

AACRAO Connect