What would you say about race?

Hundreds respond in Michele Norris’ “Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity.”

0

“Mom’s people owned slaves. Dad’s were.”
“Native American. Voiceless in race conversations.”
“Hispanic doctor is not an oxymoron.”
“No white woman cooks like that.”
“I can’t leave without my receipt.”
“White husband became Iranian September 11th.
“With kids, I’m dad. Alone, thug.”

These are just a handful of examples from Michele Norris’ stimulating new book “Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity,” which will set your brain afire. Norris had no idea the avalanche of different, thought-provoking, immensely intimate responses that would pour in when, in 2010, she first distributed 200 postcards that simply asked folks to send in their six-word answers to what race means to them. Each short one, selected from the more than 500,000 she has received to date, is poignant and speaks volumes.

“Great-grandparents were white illegal immigrants.”
“Black babies cost less to adopt.”
“Italians were also lynched down South.”
“I am Polish. Not a joke.” 

Norris, a seasonal Islander, began the Race Card Project because she wanted to chronicle the changes in the U.S., “but more than that, I wanted to somehow capture the subtler subterranean shifts … I wanted to hear the crackle and pop coming from society’s structural alterations,” she writes.

The submissions and accompanying stories paint a complex picture of what hundreds and hundreds of people think about race. Norris writes, “Taken together, this unique archive provides a window into America’s beating heart during a period bookended by the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and then punctuated by a global pandemic, a flash of protests after the police murder of George Floyd, the siege of the capitol on Jan. 6, and the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

“Stop seeing my son as a predator.”
“Gay, but at least I’m White.”
“Hate handed down like family heirlooms.”
“Never eat fried chicken in public.”

“Our Hidden Conversations” is a stunningly designed book, both physically and in terms of its content. Like an elegant scrapbook, Norris co-mingles thought-provoking essays, in-depth case studies of some respondents, a plethora of captivating submissions, images of the people who wrote them, and other relevant photographs that illustrate the text.

Sometimes, Norris includes people’s short accompanying explanations, which perhaps changes your initial interpretation. For instance, with “I wish I were something else,” you might think the writer was a person of color and wished they weren’t. But the explanation reads,: “It’s very hard to be proud of the skin you are when your ancestors were terrible people.”

The piercing submissions run the gamut of topics, but all hit their mark with precision. They come from people of all races, ages, beliefs, genders, sexual preferences, nationalities, and political standpoints — many stating hard truths not often heard aloud. Norris writes, “Although limited to just six words, the stories are often shocking in their candor. They reveal fear, disappointment, regret, and resentment. Some are kissed by grace or triumph. A surprising number arrive in the form of a question, which suggests that many people hunger not just for answers but for permission to speak their truths.”

Norris, who has been endlessly asked for a definition of racism, comes up with a bite-size version: “Racism is a shapeshifter. It is not the same thing today as it was yesterday, and it will not be the same tomorrow, or 10 years from now.” She goes on to encourage us to describe racism without using the word or any of its closely related cousins, like bias or prejudice. She praises the challenge, saying it is a brilliant concept when discussing a taboo subject like race or racism, because “so many get the heebie-jeebies when subjects come up, or reflexively slide into a here-we-go-again mentality. It’s the whole reason that the phrase ‘playing the race card’ gained currency, because it became an easy/lazy catchall to note that the conversation had drifted into a space of discomfiture or disdain.”

Norris discovered that not only were people not running away from talking about race, but many were desperate to discuss it through personal experience. This propelled her to create a website for the Race Card Project, where online submissions continue to pour in. Reading submission after submission and people’s stories sets your mind to thinking — What would my six words be?

“Ask WHO I am, not WHAT.”
“There’s more than what you see.”

Norris writes in her epilogue, “After 14 years of listening to Americans talk candidly about race, I’ve gone through a transformation myself. I no longer use the term common ground. It’s not because I’m a pessimist. It’s because I am a realist. Americans don’t agree on a lot of core principles, and that is not going to change anytime soon.” Instead, she talks about cultivating a generation of “bridge builders,” and goes on to say, “But to build, we must comprehend the distance that separates communities.”

Her very last sentence exemplifies the power of “Our Hidden Conversations” with Norris’ own six words on race today: “Still more work to be done.”

“Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity,” by Michele Norris. Simon and Schuster, 2024. 471 pages. $35. Available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. For more information, see theracecardproject.com/michele-norris/.