Journalist Michele Norris didn’t have high expectations when she started the Race Card Project in 2010. She had just published a memoir about her family’s complex racial legacy. “At that time, I thought no one wanted to talk about race,” she said. “They’d say that is too tense, it’s too hard, and it wasn’t February.”
She started the Race Card Project with 200 postcards—printed at Kinko’s on her way to taking her kids to soccer practice—inviting whoever picked them up to share their thoughts on race, in exactly six words. She dropped them at a variety of venues while on a book tour.
More than 500,000 personal narratives later, the Washington Post columnist and former National Public Radio host has compiled stories collected through the project into a book, Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity (Simon & Schuster), released this month. Norris discussed the project and book in conversation with American Library Association (ALA) President Emily Drabinski at the opening session of ALA’s 2024 LibLearnX conference in Baltimore on January 20.
Norris says the number of people who have shared their stories, now mainly but not exclusively through the project’s website, indicates that there is a demand to discuss race. Despite the record number of efforts to ban books that are written by Black authors or feature Black narratives, she said that polls and library and bookstore traffic suggest that it’s only a minority of Americans who want those stories excluded.
“This project has been a taproot into an America that is not always available to me, even as a very curious journalist,” Norris said. The project has also sparked valuable conversations. She shared a submission that read “Vote for Obama—looks like me.” It came from a white doctor in Iowa, quoting his adopted daughter. “He struggled with it, because he wanted to hold on to a notion of colorblindness, but he also realized that his daughter was saying, ‘I live in Iowa, I don’t see a whole lot of people who look like me,’” Norris said.
She hopes these conversations can reduce the divisions that create awkward Thanksgiving dinners and can impede the functioning of companies and institutions. “I think Michelle Obama is right when she says it’s hard to hate up-close,” she said.
Norris also shared her own six words, careful to note that people are allowed to submit to the project multiple times. Initially, her words were “Fool them all, not done yet,” reflecting on how unlikely a radio career seemed when she was growing up as a working class, African American girl with a speech impediment.
The six words she usually cites now, however, are “Still more work to be done.”