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Journalist Michele Norris

NPR's Michele Norris Brings Frank Talk on Race to MLaw

By John Masson
April 23, 2013

National Public Radio's Michele Norris told a crowd assembled in South Hall recently that a funny thing happened around the time Barack Obama assumed the highest office in the land.

All of a sudden, she said, there was an uptick in the number of conversations about race that Norris, who is African American, heard in her own family.

"Suddenly the older people in my family were talking about race in a way I'd never heard before," she told a crowd assembled at Michigan Law last week. "For them, the thought of a man of color occupying the White House" was as unlikely as waking up one day and saying, " 'Hey, I'm traveling to the moon this Thursday.' "

Norris was in Ann Arbor supporting a special mission she's been working on around the country for a couple of years now: the Race Card Project. Working closely with Michigan's Understanding Race Theme Semester—which Michigan Law Prof. Martha Jones co-chairs—Norris chose Michigan as the first university to highlight in the project. She stopped by the Law School with the aim of having a dialog with students and others about their thoughts and feelings on race.

At the heart of the Race Card Project are individuals, who describe their ideas about race in exactly six words. Some examples from the Michigan site: "Soon we will be one race," "Race is always in my life," and "Feel guilty checking the Caucasian box."

Norris emphasized that conversations about race, especially in America, usually aren't altogether comfortable—including for herself and members of her family.

For example, it was during one of those Obama-inspired race conversations among her older relatives that Norris learned her very proper grandmother—the grandmother who always insisted everyone in the family enunciate every last letter of every last word, especially that final "g"—had helped support her family in the late 1940s and early 1950s by touring the Midwest as Aunt Jemima.

Aunt Jemima may have an updated look today, Norris reminded the crowd, but make no mistake: back then, Aunt Jemima was clearly styled to appear much like an enslaved woman. Advertising copywriters scripted her saying things like "Mm-m-m! Every bite is happifyin' light," or "Lawsy! Folks sho' cheer for fluffy, energizin' Aunt Jemima pancakes!"

But for Norris' grandmother, who was touring small towns all over the Midwest where many of the people had never met a black woman, that kind of dialog was a non-starter.

"My grandmother refused to speak in that slave patois," Norris said. Instead, she spoke carefully and tried to inform onlookers about the African-American experience. By doing so, Norris said, her grandmother was able to "lift her family up through her earnings, and lift her people up through her actions."

In keeping with the Law School event's billing, Norris made sure the gathering was an actual dialog. She had members of the audience read from a selection of Race Card entries cataloged on the Michigan site, and also offered an opportunity for participants to share their own thoughts.

One woman mentioned that white people don't seem to want to sit next to people of color on Ann Arbor buses. When Norris followed up by asking if others agreed, many white audience members said no—and many people of color said yes.

Another woman said she was glad to hear that, like her, other bi-racial people reject the idea of describing themselves as being half-this and half-that. She said her own father always emphasized that she wasn't half of anything—she was double.

That prompted Norris to share one of her favorite observations about other people's ideas about race.

"I always say this is both a window and a mirror," she said

One of the project's central goals is really pretty simple, Norris added.

"We want to find small pieces of history that are not in the history books," she said. "These are the coins in history's couch."

Check out the University of Michigan's Race Card Project page.

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