NPR host takes on race

By Stephanie Shenouda, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 19, 2013

Inspired by author Ernest Hemingway, who felt any story could be told in six words, National Public Radio host Michele Norris created the Race Card Project to get people talking about the subject of race and expressing their thoughts in a single, six-word sentence.

After Norris mentioned the project in her Martin Luther King Jr. convocation speech last year, the University asked Norris to bring the project to campus. As part of the theme semester, “Understanding Race,” University members continue to submit cards online to the University’s contribution to the project.

Norris said in an interview with the Daily that she was inspired to create a race-oriented project after examining the theme in her family history.

“I wrote a book in 2011, and it was about my family history and the secrets that the people who raised me kept,” Norris said. “I knew from then on I would be engaged in a conversation about race, but I thought combining my personal experiences with other people’s would be different.”

The race cards were initially intended to be a “vehicle” for getting people to talk, but they became the entire project when people from around the world began posting their stories without hesitation. She added that the insight she has gained from reading individuals’ responses has been one of the greatest learning opportunities — “better than any classroom or newsroom.”

“Michigan definitely has a place in history for all the things it’s pioneered, so there’s a very natural partnership between the University and the Race Card Project,” Norris said. “Since we began this year, responses have been pouring in, and they run the gamut.”

Along with their six-word statement, submissions can now include photos, longer essays and audio clips, allowing people to tell their stories and share their experiences in any way comfortable. Selected submissions appear on the project’s website.

Norris said she’s continually surprised by the level of honesty displayed by the submissions.

“Some of the posts will make you laugh, some will make you cry and some will make you want to spit, but all of them will make you think,” Norris said. “The history of racism is painful, and a lot of times, people don’t want to say anything and offend someone, or worse, be labeled as a racist, but ultimately we have to air things out in the open, and this is a means of doing that.”

Norris has worked with several other universities across the country with smaller events but said this partnership is by far the most formal. She believes that the concept of the theme semester is an important one, so long as it gets people in an open conversation about race.

“That’s what this project is all about — to get people to talk and understand one another,” Norris said. “It’s a portal to things you wouldn’t normally say aloud, a window and a mirror in a sense, allowing you to better understand others and yourself.”

Norris will be visiting Ann Arbor in March to meet with University President Mary Sue Coleman, and again in April for a series of lectures and dialogues with students about the concept of race and the race cards submitted.

Theme semester co-chair Martha Jones said the Race Card Project is a major aspect of the theme semester, which includes more than 100 events, 16 exhibitions and courses revolving around the concept of race on a global scale.

Jones was “pleasantly surprised” by the enthusiastic response of the community.

“I think it’s an opportunity for reflection and only having six words really helps narrow down what it is you want to say,” Jones said. “There was a post written entirely in French, and, reading it, I thought that was so indicative of Michigan, that someone would feel comfortable enough to write in their native tongue to express how they feel.”

Jones felt that because the University itself is such a global campus, the community was ready to take this big step toward having more open discussions about race.

Anthropology Prof. Bruce Mannheim, who used his six words to say, “Still a long way to go,” said he believes that while racism in our country has a lot to do with slavery, it’s not all historical at this point.

“A lot of people believe that because the institution of slavery is over, racism is an issue of the past,” Mannheim said. “A lot of everyday practices seem unaware of the implications of racism on an institutional level.”

Mannheim added that he’d like to see the University become even more of a “global campus,” especially in regard to increasing intellectual diversity.

“Race can be complex and messy, but that doesn’t mean that we can choose to ignore it,” Mannheim said.

Art & Design freshman Jillian Manning said her desire to experience diversity was one of the things that drew her toward the University in the first place, though she initially had concerns about inadvertently offending people she wasn’t accustomed to interacting with.

“The community here is very open about race, but there are still people here like me who are from small towns and might want to sweep it under the rug like it doesn’t matter,” Manning said. “As in almost everything in life, conversation is key, and we just have to keep working for that.”