Perspectives: Michele Norris on The Race Card Project

Exploring stories of race and identity at Capital One with Michele Norris' six-word essays

“Unsure of where I fit in.”

“I wasn’t taught; I will teach.”

“If found hung, not a suicide.”

“Black babies cost less to adopt.”

“Grandma sent $100 when we broke up.”

Some might say that you can't discuss race in a single sentence, but The Race Card Project proves that six words can pack a powerful punch. 

Race is a topic that many aren’t comfortable discussing, at least not openly. Yet, these conversations can unlock empathy, discovery, compassion and understanding. At Capital One, we recognize our country’s long and troubled history of racial inequality and injustice, and are taking a long-term approach to how we invest and engage to ensure a safe and equitable future for our associates and communities. Which is why our Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging team has committed to holding interactive sessions and talks between internal and external partners and our associates on the topics of identity and race. 

A recent session with Michele Norris, the Founding Director of The Race Card Project, sparked  incredibly moving dialogue. 

A Different Type of Conversation

The Race Card Project started by Norris in 2010 urges people to think deeply about race.

To inspire conversation, Norris printed 200 postcards and issued a call of action. “Think about the word race — BIG topic, allegedly toxic topic, a certainly complicated topic — and then try to distill your thoughts, your memories, your emotions, your experiences, your perspective (whatever it is) into one sentence that has six words.”

She waited for people to take the bait. To her surprise, about 30% of those initial cards came back, so she printed additional postcards before embarking on a 35-city book tour. Norris left cards behind for people to fill out, and they started to come in from all over the country. In time, cards started to come in on their own, as more people heard about the project through Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth.

“As a journalist, I wanted to share some of these stories. I thought the world would benefit from seeing people speak their truth, and saying things out loud that we don't normally hear people say out loud,” Norris explained. “We invited people to look at these cards on our website, then we created a form for people to submit cards digitally.”

That's exactly what people did. 

Ten years later, The Race Card Project is an archive of more than 500,000 personal narratives from people in all 50 states and more than 96 countries.

During the session at Capital One, associates created their own version of “six-word stories” sharing their thoughts and observations, and sparking many to share Norris’ work with their friends and family.

“You’re black, but not like them.”

“Humility – almost unbearable – gives rest, hope.”

“Too late, but not too little.”

Knowing Our History Shapes Our Future

“I started The Race Card Project after writing a memoir about my family's complex racial legacy,” Norris said. “At the time, race was an unapproachable subject; people didn't really want to talk about it.”

While exploring the hidden conversations on race unfolding throughout America, Norris discovered that there were painful secrets within her own family that had been willfully withheld. 

The idea behind The Race Card Project came after Norris wrote a book about the hidden narratives on race and her family’s history with racial injustice — painful secrets that had been willfully withheld that later shaped her. These revelations — from her father’s shooting by a Birmingham police officer to her maternal grandmother’s job as an itinerant Aunt Jemima in the Midwest — inspired a bracing journey into her family’s past, from her childhood home in Minneapolis to her ancestral roots in the Deep South.

Perhaps not talking about those secrets benefited Norris at a young age, in the sense that she didn't absorb their frustration and pain. But she explained that by not knowing these stories, she also didn't fully understand the source of strength that made her who she is today. Her research into her past helped propel the meaningful work she’s doing now. 

What’s Next for the Race Card Project?

Norris explained that The Race Card Project isn’t bound by the website. "It’s coming to life through conversations in schools, at the dinner table and in the workplace. Even if someone doesn’t share their personal story, they can listen and learn so much. In a small, but significant way, these six-word stories are contributing in vast ways to the discussion on race and equality,” she said.

“Working with companies and organizations also expands the conversation,” Norris said. “Unsurprisingly, we learn a lot from each group of people we talk with and it adds to the richness of the soil that is The Race Card Project. It's one of the reasons we loved working with Capital One.” Norris also explained upcoming plans for a new book, and a multi-dimensional platform where they hope to highlight some of the stories through video, audio, and animation.

Capital One was honored to host Michele Norris, albeit virtually. We know the fight for equality  will be a long and often difficult journey, and that our response tomorrow may need to look different than our response today. But, we’re committed to the safe, diverse, inclusive workplaces that have always been at the heart of who we are. And we recognize our responsibility to serve as a catalyst for societal change in our communities.

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