NPR's Michele Norris to bring 'race card' to Coe

Norris will give lecture at Coe College on Feb. 12

Published: February 11 2014 | 8:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:29 am in

More complex than black and white.

That sentiment, about race, is one of many takeaways from Michele Norris' conversation with The Gazette in advance of her 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12 lecture at Coe College, but it also wouldn’t be out of place as a submission to The Race Card Project, a compilation of six-word stories about ethnicity which Norris created in 2010 and continues to curate.

A host and special correspondent at NPR, Norris will speak about the project during her Coe lecture. Tickets are $15 for the public and $10 for students age 18 and under as well as adults age 55 and older.

“I’m going to talk about the inbox and, in short, how the inbox is always interesting,” Norris said of her lecture’s subject matter. “It is everything you perhaps think you know about race. … I think you will still find that there’s a lot that you don’t know and I’ll talk a lot about the how the project has evolved and how you spend a lot of time listening to people, even people you don’t agree with.”

Norris said the project has 38,000 contributions and almost as many still waiting to be archived, a fact Norris said leaves her feeling like Lucille Ball in the candy factory.

“We’re trying to do a very careful job of archiving everything so that we can go back and find thematic issues,” Norris said before referencing the classic “I Love Lucy” episode. “These submissions come in so fast that I really have to scramble to keep up with them.”

Many of the stories, available online, include essays delving into personal narratives of discrimination, hope and so much more. Norris then does additional reporting on some of the submissions for NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Norris said her goal is to continue collecting stories, sharing some on the radio, in the hopes that the project will help people in the future better understand this era.

People’s willingness to be forthcoming, particularly on a global stage, is one of the many surprises the project has brought Norris.

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about race and a lot of people do and they’re looking for a safe space to do it,” she said.

Brie Swenson Arnold, assistant professor of history at Coe, was on the committee responsible for inviting Norris to Coe as part of the college’s Marquis Lecture Series. Getting the journalist and author of “The Grace of Silence,” a 2010 memoir sharing her family’s experiences with racial discrimination, to speak at Coe was a “pet project” for Arnold who called the book “lovely.”

“She has a lot of great things going on that are relevant to things going on our campus,” said Arnold, whose academic focus is early American history, of Norris. “We have such a long history of race and a complicated history of race in the United States. That history is not passed and certainly informs our present. That’s something we talk about a lot in our classrooms and she’s one of the leading commentators on race.”

Arnold praised The Race Card Project for its approach and anticipated that Norris’ lecture would resonate with area residents.

“The way that project uses personal stories to get people to grapple with race and our present is very compelling,” Arnold said. “Folks will really come away thinking about things that are important to think about.”

The more Norris shared about The Race Card Project, the more apparent it became that there isn't one race card. Rather, America's deck consists of every resident's individual race card.

While the dialogue about race often includes what Norris termed “explosive events” – the election of the first black U.S. president, the murder of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin and the outcry over Coca-Cola’s commercial featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in many different languages – one lesson she’s gleaned from The Race Card Project is that those instances may be bigger in scope than in impact.

“The experience of race, as I’ve learned in this project, is often much smaller, much more intimate,” Norris said. “If you spend time in The Race Card Project, you will see all of the things I just mentioned but often people are talking about little moments, something someone says to you at the grocery store.”

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