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Michele Norris shows how brevity conveys powerful truths about Americans' identities

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The writer Michele Norris has spent many years encouraging uncomfortable conversations. Michele is a former NPR News host whose work included an acclaimed series on this program. Michele's here, and, Michele, you know what to do with a microphone. Tell people what the project was.

MICHELE NORRIS: (Laughter) Hello, Steve. The project is The Race Card Project. I asked people to share their thoughts on race and identity in just six words. And you'd be amazed at what people can pack into just six words.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

D'LEISHA DENT: My name is D'Leisha Dent. I am 17 years old. My six words are, segregation should not determine our future.

ALEX SUGIURA: My name is Alex Sugiura and my six words are, no, really, where are you from?

ELYSHA O'BRIEN: My name is Elysha O'Brien and my six words are, Mexican white girl doesn't speak Spanish.

MARC QUARLES: My name is Marc Quarles and my six words are, with kids, I'm dad - alone, thug.

INSKEEP: That last voice was a tall Black man who felt that people perceived him one way when he walked down the street with his family and another way when they saw him alone. Across a decade, Michele Norris collected thousands of these stories and put them in the book "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRACY HART: I'm Tracy Hart from Washington, D.C., and my six words are, yes, I'm tobacco-picking white trash.

INSKEEP: One of many white people who wrote to Michele Norris.

NORRIS: Almost every year, the vast majority of these years, the majority of the cards have come from white Americans or white people elsewhere in the world. And that was not - Steve, that was not what I expected. I'm an African American woman. I understand how our conversations about race are usually by, for and about people of color. They're usually led by people of color. They're usually focused on people of color. So when I put the basket on the table, I thought that most of the cards would come from people of color and probably mainly Black people. All kinds of people pulled up.

INSKEEP: When I read some of these six-word stories, some of them are a decade old now and yet they all feel like they're this year, last year - then he died in our alley; Black but I don't fear police.

NORRIS: There's a story from Kristen Moorhead. And her six words were, I wish he was a girl. And when she sent in that story, she sent in a picture of she and her son. They're sitting on a bus together and he's a pre-teen. So I've tracked them over time. And of course, she didn't wish that she had a little girl. She loves her son, right? But in the wake of all these police shootings, and particularly the night that she saw the grainy footage of Tamir Rice, who was shot in Ohio because police thought he had a gun - it was - turned out to be a toy. She was so hurt that evening and so frustrated. She didn't want her son to hear her crying. So she goes to the computer and she lets out almost like a silent scream by typing in those six words, I wish he was a girl.

And I talked to her years later, and now Che - when I talked to her, he was 18. He's now - and that was almost two years ago, so now he's off in college. He moves around the world. And he walks into the 7-Eleven near his high school, and he always is, like, saying hello and being super friendly, so no one sees him as a threat. And he's telling her how he handles himself, how he comports himself out in the world. And I'm watching her face just fall that this kid - this nerdy, really super-smart, classical music-playing kid can't fully be himself in the world because he's always worried about what someone else will think about him.

INSKEEP: Do these stories ever make you despair?

NORRIS: They hit my heart pretty hard. This has been an emotional journey for me, you know, to go into the inbox every day. People serve up all kinds of emotions. They serve up their fears and their anxieties, and their anger and their angst, and sometimes their triumph and sometimes their humor. Someone sent in, underneath, we all taste like chicken, you know, which was...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

NORRIS: You know, which was the laugh I needed at, you know, a moment. Total non-issue when the aliens arrive - I appreciate when people send things like that in.

INSKEEP: Have the conversations that you've taken in changed because of the politics of the country in the last several years, as things have grown darker and more divided?

NORRIS: Oh, absolutely. I liken this work of collecting these six-word stories to dendrochronology, the study of tree rings. If you cut down a tree, the tree rings will tell you a story. They will tell you a story about the surrounding environment. You will know what happened in...

INSKEEP: A year there was a hurricane or a drought.

NORRIS: Yes, exactly. You will know humans' impact on that because the chemicals that they introduced or the new foundation of a building that's too close to the tree and it affected the root system. The tree will tell a story and the tree never lies. In some way, this archive of human experience is a social tree ring. During a period of time that is bookended by the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, followed by a global pandemic, by economic tumult, by climate change, by the murder of George Floyd, by the conflict in Gaza right now - I mean, all of these things are reflected in some way.

They're writing about their kids, they're writing about their commute, they're writing about what it's like to go to a church that feels like it's more divided right now. They're writing about - gosh - I used to live in a community that looked one way and now it doesn't. They write about how the lunchroom is smelly, because new immigration patterns have meant that people are bringing new things in their lunchbox. I mean, literally - and so you see things and it can almost be in some ways a bellwether. So in the lead up to the election in 2016, about four or five years ahead of that, we started to see the word invisible more and more in the inbox. And we always saw the word invisible, but it was usually attached to women of color saying they felt invisible, a lot of Asian people saying that they felt invisible.

Suddenly we were seeing more white people, and particularly white men, saying that they felt invisible in their own country, that they were living in a country that they didn't understand, that they were living in a country that felt like it looked past them. And that was interesting because that was sort of the beginning for me of understanding something that was happening out in the world that I could see through numbers and statistics and demographic change. But it's very different when you're actually hearing someone talk about the job that they felt that they didn't get...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...Or the community that they feel like they don't understand anymore, or a change that feels scary or is creating a kind of vertigo for them.

INSKEEP: Our friend Michele Norris is the author of "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity." Thanks for coming back. Bye.

NORRIS: It's been great to be with you, Steve. Miss you.

INSKEEP: Miss you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWDIVE'S "PRAYER REMEMBERED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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