Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis offers up Michele Norris to share six words on race

Norris, an author and former NPR host, wows a large Westminster Town Hall Forum crowd

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Priscilla du Preez via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — For her talk last week at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, author and journalist Michele Norris gathered prominent Minnesotans — including the state’s lieutenant governor — to take turns sharing various people’s six words on race.

That’s the approach Norris herself took in her book published last month, “Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity.” Norris, a former NPR journalist who started The Race Card Project more than a decade ago, invites people to discuss race in just six words, on postcards and online submissions. To date, more than 500,000 people have accepted her invitation.

Here are some of the six-word submissions read in turn at the start of the Westminster Town Hall Forum, which can be seen here (Norris is introduced at the one-hour mark):

“Race is everything but it’s nothing.”

“Black wears me wherever I go.”

“I admit to unconscious racial bias.”

“But I voted for Barack Obama.”

“Colors run together — why can’t people?”

“What do you mean, ‘you people’?”

“To you, always the exotic other.”

“Minority obsession and majority guilt trip.”

“Just stop making everything about race.”

“Can’t pronounce my name? Try harder.”

“I’m not just Caucasian, I’m ‘Cau-Cajun.’”

“Native. No one knows I’m passing.”

“Would all my ancestors love me?”

“You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“Insane how racists try so hard.”

“Stop pretending your racism is patriotism.”

“Let the past be the past.”

“Mommy, why can’t we play together?”

“Being comfortable is my unearned luxury.”

“Our untold stories keep us separate.”

“Checked ‘cosmic’ in the race box.”

“Total non-issue when the aliens arrive.”

“Human DNA is 99% the same.”

“Race is forever, prejudice is not.”

“Not real. Still messes with us.”

“I didn’t think people would want to talk about race,” Norris told Tane Danger, who directs the Westminster Town Hall Forum. “I understand that race fatigue is real, but people are looking for a place to have their say. Six words work because it’s simple. It makes you think, what’s important to me?”

“The stories came from the people, and so we had to give them back to the people,” Norris said.

The book is a mix of six-word submissions and essays by Norris.

“What I would give to have this archive of a previous era in America!” Norris said. “I want this to outlive me.”

It’s been difficult, she said, to “be a sponge for people’s anxieties, triumphs and questions. You’ve got to make sure you sustain and nourish yourself so you can do the work. It feels like a gift to do the work and share it with you,” Norris said, gesturing to the large crowd gathered in the Westminster Presbyterian Church sanctuary.

Instead of writing about people like George Floyd, many contributors would write about their own sons, she said. One woman sent in, “I wish he was a girl,” following the killing of Tamir Rice, who was the same age as her son at the time. Years later, she explained to her son why she’d said that. “She was just so worried about him,” Norris said. “He explained to her how he lives his life. It was ‘the talk’ in reverse.”

The majority of submissions came from white people. “I never thought I’d be embarking on a 14-year odyssey listening to white Americans talk about race,” Norris said. “We don’t call white Americans enough and say, ‘What do you think about the roots of hatred?’ This is a reminder to me that we need to widen the aperture in these conversations. Many people who come and share their stories have said in other places they don’t have a chance to do this.”

It’s important, she said, for people to get used to “staying in spaces where there is rebuke, for staying at the table when things get rocky … As long as there are no ad hominem attacks, we’re going to stay at the table. Everybody has that relative in their family. People look for safe spaces. What I have learned is we have to look for brave spaces.”

During a question-and-answer session, Norris noted that most productive conversations about race occur around a table, on a soccer field or in a church basement or tavern — not, say, in newsrooms, which “have been imperfect for figuring out how to talk about race in a way that’s courageous and accurate and moves beyond pithy soundbites.”

More women than men have sent in their cards, she said. Younger people tend to talk about what they think, while older people talk about their lives, “what they’ve seen and experienced,” Norris said. “I feel very strongly we need to figure out how to teach young people to be bridge-builders, even when they despise one another. We live in a very divided moment where a lot of people are deeply invested in our divisions.”

Michele Norris

What can one do to be an ally? “It can be listening, making space for someone who doesn’t have a voice, being curious enough to understand a world outside your own,” Norris said. “I think that curiosity is a superpower.”

Norris said she used to believe that progress was inevitable. “I thought that we had moved to a new stage, and we’d always be moving forward, but I no longer believe that,” she said. “I now believe we will move forward only if people are willing to do the work.”

“You’re not going to lose weight if you watch someone on a treadmill. You’re not going to create a better America unless you roll up your sleeves and say what you want, say what you need, decide that it’s worth fighting for and worth working for.”

“Figure out what you can do,” Norris said moments before the crowd gave her a rousing standing ovation, “and use what you have to do what you can.”

View previous gatherings of the Westminster Town Hall Forum here.

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