Michele Norris, OUR HIDDEN CONVERSATIONS: What Americans Really Think about Race and Identity

Michele Norris, OUR HIDDEN CONVERSATIONS: What Americans Really Think about Race and Identity

Peabody Award-winning journalist Michele Norris joins Zibby to discuss OUR HIDDEN CONVERSATIONS, a transformative, candid, and unsettling book on race and identity in America, unearthed through her decade-long work at The Race Card Project, which asks people to distill their thoughts on race in just six words. Michele describes her book’s unique, scrapbook-like feel (it has stories, essays, and photographs collected over three decades) and then explains how the six-word stories are just a starting point for important conversations on race. She also touches on her personal experiences with race and the impact of storytelling and ends with her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Michele. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity.

Michele Norris: Thank you, Zibby. Glad to be here. I love your podcast. I love the title of your podcast because it speaks to me as a mom who, many times, has struggled to find time to read books.

Zibby: Yes, I relate. Little did I know that I would introduce even more books to try to fit in by starting this podcast, but that’s okay. Totally fine. This book is so beautiful. For people listening, it is almost the size and shape of a coffee-table book with the most gorgeous combinations of photographs and visual elements and different color pages separating chapters and different color fonts. It’s almost like a photo album homage to all of The Race Card Project postcards and emails and everything that have come in to Michele. If you have not seen this book, just google it while you’re listening or something because the actual book itself is gorgeous and so impressive. Just wanted to throw that out there. Now Michele, tell us about the book.

Michele: Thank you for that. You have to see it to understand it. I went through the process of putting this book together with my editors. You want to do what? You want how many photos? You described it as an album, which is kind of perfect because I wanted it to feel like a scrapbook, like you were eavesdropping on other people’s lives. It’s a complication of stories that I’ve collected. I’m a longtime storyteller. I’ve been a journalist for more than three decades. I’m also a story collector. Journalists are always story collectors, but I actually collect individual stories. I created The Race Card Project when I wrote my first book because I wrote about my family’s very complex racial legacy. At the time, I thought no one wanted to talk about race. I was, frankly — I don’t want to say terrified. That might be too strong a word. I was anxious about going out into the world to talk about my story. I felt comfortable with that, but I wanted to have a dialogue with people because I thought America needed that in some way. We had just sent a Black family to the White House. I wanted to know how America was going to react to that. I felt like I had to pry open that conversation.

That’s where the postcards came in, this idea of collecting microbursts in the form of a story from someone. Your thoughts about race in six words; please send. I now talk about race and identity because one of the things that I learned is that if you talk about race, people think that that is a conversation about those people. When you talk about race in America, it is presumed to be a conversation about people of color and really specifically, usually about Black people. Really, usually about Black people. I now talk about race and identity because if you talk about identity, everybody has an identity. It’s a way in for people who are white, who are Latino because race doesn’t apply. It’s an ethnicity, not a race, necessarily. You can be Afro-Latino. You can be white and Latino. If you travel to Peru or lots of places in Central and South America, you meet a lot of people who are Asian and Latino. Race wasn’t the right word there. A lot of people feel like, identity, wait, that’s something I relate to. I am a bass fisherman. I am a baker. I am a University of Michigan fanatic sports fan. Whatever that is. I happen to be married to one of those.

Zibby: Just saying, you might be a University of Michigan fan. I don’t know.

Michele: That opens the door for a lot more people. That’s one of the bigger lessons for me, is that we need a new way to talk about race and to widen that door so more people feel like they can come in the room and get comfortable, or maybe come in the room and be uncomfortable, but at least get in the room.

Zibby: I love how it just started with an idea, these postcards with six words. You would just leave them out everywhere and hope that people would send them. First, you got five, ten, twelve card. Then next thing you know, you’re inundated with cards. Then you turn it into emails. I just love this image of you at Kinko’s picking up your first stack of cards and seeing what it becomes, not the least of which is this book. It’s amazing when you just follow instincts like that. You’re like, I don’t know, there’s something about this. I just got to try it. Then look what happens.

Michele: One of the guys who was at the UPS Store where I was collecting the cards, he now runs the joint. He’s now the manager of the store. I think he actually may own it. I think he may have purchased it from the previous owner. I still talk to him about it. He says, “I miss the cards.” Most of the stories now come in digitally. When the cards would come in, for the guys who worked at the UPS Store, there’s no sheath. There’s no covering. People were writing these amazing things on these postcards. For them, it was entertainment. They would, oh, she’s got a stack of cards today. I don’t think they usually read people’s mail at the UPS Store, but in this case, they were going into my box and pulling out the cards and actually having really interesting and yeasty conversations based on the six-word truths that were arriving in their box.

Zibby: Be careful what you put on a postcard, is basically the takeaway, because it will be read. I was thinking as I was reading, there must be thousands, hundreds — I don’t know if you’ve even counted how many of the postcards you represented in the book. Every page, there’s a pastiche of a bunch. Not every page, but scattered about. You’ve grouped them into thematic sections, feeling unsafe. What is your identity? How is your appearance? Are you pretty enough? All of that, which I found really interesting also because then you see how many people have similar cards that they are sending in and thinking. Right away, you’re like, all these people are thinking this. They’re less alone immediately. Then of course, I started reading and thinking, what would my six words be? I feel like everybody who reads this has to contribute to the project. Here’s what I came up with. I think mine would be, I’m an American Jew fighting anti-Semitism. What do you think? Does it count?

Michele: It counts as six. I don’t think there’s any hyphenation in there. There’s a contraction, which obviously works. It speaks to the moment. That speaks to the nature of talking about race and identity. It’s a journey that changes over time. That hill is a little steeper right now because of everything we’re experiencing geopolitically. It probably means something different for you now as a parent than it did because you’re fighting it on behalf of yourself and other people that are going out in the world with their own identities. What I find in many of these six-word stories, there’s a whole novel embedded in just those six words.

Zibby: Your six words will probably change.

Michele: Yes, they often do. Mine did. When I call people to do little oral histories, the six words is often the starting point for a story, a tale, a narrative that is deep and rich and complex. It just starts with the six words. If I were to ask you about your six words, I’m sure that we’d fill it in with stories. We’d find out what’s been said to you, what you’re fighting. Even if it’s somewhat abstract at the beginning, it usually gets very deep and very personal.

Zibby: I could see that. What are your six words today?

Michele: The one that I always come back to is, still more work to be done. In matters of race, we always think the work is over. We want to get to the finish line very quickly. That’s what post-racial was all about, the discomfort, the idea that, can we just be done with this? Can we just stop talking about it? It’s called The Race Card Project, in part, because I always hated that phrase. When people say someone is playing the race card, it’s a convenient or elegant or pithy way to say, please stop talking. I was trying to do just the opposite, to stoke conversation. When I started the project, the six words that first came to me were, fooled them all, not done yet. I grew up in Minnesota and spending summers in Alabama where my father was from. I had a significant speech impediment when I was very young. I’m a Brown girl who grew up in a largely white state in a largely white neighborhood and attended a school that was on the cusp of integration. A world behind a microphone was not imagined for someone like me for lots of reasons. On top of the fact that I was Brown, Black, African American, on top of that, having a speech impediment, no one would say, that’s the one that we think is going to become a communicator.

Zibby: I’m putting my money on her.

Michele: No one was making that bet. The “not done yet” part is, I’m not done. I’m in my sixties. I don’t hide that.

Zibby: You look really young, by the way. I don’t know what you’re doing, but let me know if there’s some secret.

Michele: Thank you. Attitude is most of it. I just refuse to act my age. It’s at a point where people can often start to look past you or sort of assume that you’re done, that you’re hanging things up. We always get these “40 Under 40” lists or “30 Under 30” or whatever. I’d like to see an above-sixty list of people who started doing really interesting things later in life. That’s often when you finally have time and bandwidth and wisdom and chutzpah and courage and the courage of your convictions and sometimes just plain courage because you’ve seen things. You’ve done things. That’s the “not done yet” part of it.

Zibby: I totally get that. I thought, when I started my podcast, that most authors would be quite young. It turns out most authors have had the time to experience things. Many first novelists, even, are in their fifties, sixties. Certainly, forties. I find that refreshing and encouraging.

Michele: I do too. I want to hear their stories. There’s this podcast that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is doing. You may have heard. I love the idea, the concept.

Zibby: I just saw that it was Podcast of the Year on Apple. I just noticed that. I have to start listening, obviously.

Michele: It’s really interesting. It’s a great idea. She sits down and talks to women of a certain age about their life because we don’t spend enough time listening to the wisdom that they have to offer. It’s delightful.

Zibby: Speaking of delightful podcasts, your own podcast is amazing. You have the most amazing guests. I love this whole notion that you want to know not just the food in your mom’s kitchen. This is about, what is it like? What was it like for you growing up? Of course, that is the embodiment of what — it’s a nice way of saying, tell me all about your family, but you don’t say that. You’re like, just tell me about this place. Even with the six words and the place, these are shortcuts into a way into something that is so important to people and comes out emotional, kind of a visceral reaction without having to go into long questions. It’s very smart, very targeted. I like it.

Michele: Thank you. It’s all about doors, portals, peering into windows. Whether it’s The Race Card Project or the work that I do at “Your Mama’s Kitchen” podcast, I’m always trying to make sure that lots of different people hear themselves and see themselves in the content that I create because that’s not often the case. At the same time, I’m trying to make sure that I introduce people to new worlds, that I’m pulling them inside different places. The simple question that begins every episode of “Your Mama’s Kitchen” — I don’t know where we’re going. I have done a lot of research and a lot of background, so I have an inkling, but I really don’t know. The theory of the case is that the kitchen is where we form a significant part of who we are. It’s where our identity is simmered, baked, whatever cooking metaphor you want to use. It happens in the kitchen because the kitchen is where we are nourished in lots of ways that go beyond what’s served on a plate.

It’s where we argue. It’s where we get advice. When our hearts are broken, where do you go for comfort? Sometimes you open the refrigerator door. Sometimes you just sit down at a table, and you just need to talk to somebody. It’s where we have devices that bring the world inside that room, with a radio or a television. It’s where people learn how to be American, trying to figure out, what do I feed my kids so they have the same thing that all the other kids eat? School lunches come up over and over again where we talk about, my lunch was smelly. My lunch didn’t look like everybody else’s lunch. Or where people are desperately trying to hold onto something they lost when they came to this place called America. The kitchen is the one place where they can hold onto who they were and what they were and what’s important to them through food and language and culture and music and traditions. I ask a simple question, and then we’re off to the races. That’s kind of fun to do, where you just don’t know what we’re actually going to talk about. Are we going to talk about someone’s parents? Are we going to talk about their immigration journey? Are we going to talk about the wars that they had with their siblings or birth order and how that has forever cemented their view of the world or how the world sees them?

These conversations wind up being — they’re all interesting. They’re all very intimate. They’re all with people that we know quite well. Michelle Obama, Conan O’Brien, Kerry Washington. In the second half of the season, Matthew McConaughey, Mark Cuban, Gayle King, Al Roker. We know these people. We’ve heard interviews with them. We’ve watched them. We’ve watched them evolve. Yet in every single case, they have shared something with us that they’ve never shared with anybody before because we’re approaching from a different vantage point and because the kitchen is a space where you just let your hair down. You have your cold cream on. You’ve still got your boxers on. It’s a metaphor that — once you start talking about the kitchen, you literally see people relax. Their shoulders kind of relax. They sit back. They go to a different cerebral space that just creates a really revealing and intimate conversation that is a great ride for me. I think for the listeners also, it’s been interesting and revealing for them. Then we top it off with a recipe, something that tastes like home to you.

Zibby: I love that. I had Matthew McConaughey on this podcast. I was like, I am going to be professional and just do this podcast, but oh, my gosh, his voice and everything.

Michele: He’s so much fun.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it’s amazing. He was singing and doing all this stuff.

Michele: Listeners are going to love this. Yes, he’s just like, life is a party, and I am a host. We talked to him with his wife Camila, who is just special. He married well. She is just fantastic and open-hearted and funny. It’s easy to see how you could be upstaged constantly with someone who has that kind of great big personality. Even in her quiet way, there’s a gravitational pull that pulls you in her direction. She’s a woman of gravitas and depth and outer and inner beauty. Really fun couple.

Zibby: She was also on the podcast. Then when I listened to Greenlights — did you listen to the audiobook of that, by any chance?

Michele: Yes, yes.

Zibby: When he was talking about her and how he just totally fell for her — she was not at all interested at first. He was just like, that’s the one. That was her. That was one of the best sections of the book.

Michele: That was a really good book.

Zibby: It was.

Michele: It was a really good book. It’s going to be under the tree for several people for me. I think it’s a great dude book. It’s small. It is a conversation starter. He’s very vulnerable in that book. Through his vulnerability and his journaling and the way he presents things — I should say, that book — I told him this when I talked to him — was a big inspiration for the design in my book because I didn’t want to write a book that was a traditional start-to-finish. I wanted it to feel like a scrapbook. I wanted it to feel like you were listening to someone think out loud. There was definitely curation, but in terms of the design, I definitely wanted to break form. Greenlights does that.

Zibby: It’s true. It does. You brought yourself in a lot. Whenever an author, even in a nonfiction piece or something as expository or as deeply analytical about post-racial relations in the United States in this particular time, hearing things from you, even what happened with your dad that you found out later, the family secrets that were unveiled for you, you’re immediately connected to you as the writer, not just as an aggregator of all of that information.

Michele: I write personally. I write about how we keep — we’re African American. We live in a neighborhood that’s integrated. We are one of a small number of families of color in our neighborhood. I keep a picture of our family at the front door.

Zibby: That section, oh, my gosh.

Michele: If the police ever come to our house, I want them to know that we live in the house that we occupy. That actually happened. My son was up late at night, and the police came. “You live here, son?” His hair looked some kind of way. He was up late at night watching tennis. He’s in sweatpants. They were about to interrogate him. He pointed to the picture at the door and said, “Yeah, that’s us.” It’s a smiling, happy picture of an African American family leaning into each other on vacation. I feel like I have to do that. I was trying to tell a personal story. As strong as whatever writing I did for this, and I do feel it’s some of the best writing I’ve done, I am completely upstaged. I’m honest about that. I’m completely upstaged by the stories that individual people tell. I was trying to present something but also get out of the way so that people could peer into other people’s lives. There are stories in here that — again, it starts with six words. You discover that a mom gave up four kids because it was really hard for her to raise interracial children, as heartbreaking as that is, and then moves on and has another family. The second family doesn’t know about the first family until a phone call comes, and everything starts to unravel. That’s a whole six-part miniseries. The woman at the center of that story passed away recently. I also felt good that I could help her children from both families tell that story, find each other before she left us.

Zibby: Wow, that’s very meaningful. I do think, though, that that particular story of the frame and the picture that you have and the security guard banging on the door and when they asked your son, “How long have you lived here?” and he couldn’t quite think — who can ever remember how long you’ve lived in a certain house? That was evidence against him, almost. The terror in reading that, oh, my gosh. Then even some of the other little clips that you have from other people, like the mom who was like, “Just stay on the phone with me,” when her son was being pulled over — he’s like, “Mom, this has happened to me eight million times. I don’t need to stay on the phone with you.” She’s like, “No, no, no.” Just the fear, going back to us both as moms, all the moments in here where you feel so — it just makes you feel over and over again, fear, concern, just all of it wrapped up.

Michele: The one that got me was — it’s in that chapter also. It’s Kristen Moorhead and her son Che. She had given him the so-called talk, how to comport yourself when you’re out in the world. Don’t reach for anything. Keep your hands where you can see them. Then her six words were, I wish he was a girl.

Zibby: Yes, that was another good one.

Michele: Of course, she loves her son and is so glad that the creator gave her this child, that she has been tasked with raising this boy who is not a man. She doesn’t really wish he was a girl, but she wrote those six words after reading about yet another police killing, the killing of Tamir Rice. She watched the video of the police shooting a child who was, at that time, the same age as her son. Brown skin, African American kid in a park winds up getting shot. She wanted to scream and cry, but he was in the next room. He would hear, so she goes to the computer and writes to me, writes to The Race Card Project. Isn’t that wild?

Zibby: Yes.

Michele: And sends in those six words. When I talked to her years later — this is how stories evolve. This is the benefit of collecting stories and being able to go back and talk to people again and again and again, how their stories evolve. At this point, Che is knocking on manhood, big shoulders, square jaw. His voice is still kind of squeaky, but it’s changing. He still is kind of a goofy kid, but you can see that that’s going to go away pretty soon. He explains to her — he’s now giving her the talk. “So Mom, this is what it’s like for me. This is how I handle it. I know you asked me to do this.” What didn’t make it in the book is they talked about how they go shopping and how his mom was always trying to — he wanted to buy Timberlands. He wanted to buy baggy pants. He wanted to buy a big, puffy jacket.

She was always presenting him with options. He knew what was going on. I prefer that you look like this so you don’t capture attention. He wants to look like every other kid, including Seth and Julio. Every kid at his school dresses like this, not just the Black kids, because that’s the style. He’s giving her the talk. At the end, she is just a puddle because she doesn’t know what to feel. It worked. I gave him the talk. He knows how to handle himself, but why did I have to do this? Why do I have to send a young man into the world who feels like he has to be jolly all the time to inoculate other people’s fears? What part of his manhood, what part of his personhood, what part of his personality will never really evolve because he has to live in a cage? I helped him do that. He’ll survive because of it, hopefully.

To watch all that — that’s the stuff that we know happens. Usually, as a journalist, I know it’s happening, but I don’t get to see it. In this case, when people send those six words, it’s often an invitation for you to have those conversations. The surprising thing for me and the beneficial thing for me as a storyteller, story collector, as a journalist is that the majority of the stories came from white Americans. That stunned me because it’s called The Race Card Project. I’m an African American woman. I thought most of the stories would be from people of color and more specifically, probably from Black Americans. That didn’t happen. We get a lot of stories from people of color, Black Americans, people of all races, but the majority of the stories for most of the fourteen years that we’ve been doing this have come from white Americans. Most conversations about race are not that inclusive in that way, and so it has been an opportunity for me to have very candid, often uncomfortable, highly unvarnished conversations about all kinds of things that I normally would not get a chance to do. I would not normally have a chance to have these kinds of conversations. I wanted to write a book about it because I wanted to allow other people to do that too.

Zibby: Back to “Your Mama’s Kitchen” for just a second. You are a mom. How would your kids describe — do you have more than one kid? I don’t know.

Michele: I have three.

Zibby: Three kids. I have four kids. How would your kids describe, if they were asked, what was their mama’s kitchen like?

Michele: We actually talk about that now because I do this podcast. They are avid listeners. I think they would say the kitchen is a fairly organized space. I would say the same thing about my own mom’s kitchen. I think they would say the kitchen was a space where the family had a lot of fun. Our kitchen, it is the place that we gather. It’s where we as a family spend a lot of time. Much more time in the kitchen than the living room. Much more time in the kitchen than the den. I gave up and let them put a TV in the kitchen, even though some kind of sports is always on, but I went ahead. We also play music in the kitchen all the time. I asked my daughter this question recently when we were together at Thanksgiving. She remembered the way I used to cook on Sundays because I would cook for the whole week. As a journalist, I was on deadline. I hosted a show for ten years, most of their childhood, where I was on the air until six o’clock.

Zibby: Not just a show. I just hosted a show, whatever. All Things Considered. Anyway, go ahead.

Michele: My husband was in politics. Whatever was going on in the world, it often meant a late night for him. He was getting home late. I cooked on Sunday for the week to make sure that they have a home-cooked meal, even if their sitter was the one who got it going. Cooking is preparation. All three of them are now very good cooks. They’re pretty organized cooks. They’re experimental with their cooking because I also was experimental, which meant sometimes things didn’t — there were some failures too. I liked trying different things with them. I asked my youngest son this also. They remembered the table being a place where we worked things out. We’ve always had a big kitchen table. We had to replace it after COVID. It was sad. We said goodbye to it. During COVID, one of my children is a germaphobe, and that child sprayed so much Lysol on the table that the varnish was starting to peel off the table. We had to just start over again with a new table. They remember the table as a place where we play cards, where we have debates, where we actually talk things out. It’s kind of like our Camp David. If we needed to work something out, okay, let’s go to the kitchen table. Let’s sit down. Let’s talk about this. It was a space where a lot of their friends would do that too. Because I cooked for the week, people knew that there was hot food at the Norris-Johnson household. Can Clay stay for dinner tonight? I was always happy to do that because I knew other parents — the juggle is real. If I could help out in some way — when I was on campaigns, they would return the favor and do that. The theory of the case that I explore every week, that we are formed in important ways — as Conan O’Brien said, to the degree that he is clay, the kitchen is the kiln. That’s where it’s all baked. Our kitchen was and still is very much the kiln for our family.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. Last question. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Michele: Write often. Write in lots of places. Writing is not easy for me even though I love it. It’s not easy for me. I realized, for me — this is advice for other people, but I’ll give you the context of why I’m giving this advice. One of the reasons writing was hard for me is because I felt that it had to happen in an appointed place and a certain time. Maybe I had watched too many Nancy Meyers movies where I wanted the desk that Diane Keaton had in Something’s Gotta Give. I wanted a desk with a quilled pen. It had to have the music and sunlight.

Zibby: The ocean?

Michele: Ocean, that’s asking too much. . That it had to be writerly. I even have this book, Where Writers Write. I don’t know that that book is real because I think that most people — Toni Morrison wrote — this was an epiphany for me when I interviewed her. She wrote longhand on the train on a yellow legal pad. That’s amazing to me that she could write on a legal pad. This is before cut and paste and reorganize. The advice I would have is write when you can and where you can and on the train and in your head in the shower. Write it down. Just write. Write often. Let it sort of ooze out of you. Then edit and realize that you can put it together. Much of the portions of the book in Our Hidden Conversations that I wrote, I realized a big chunk of that book was written in my phone where I was just talking into my phone in the notes section and then later, translating it. That would be one piece of advice.

The other would be to listen. So much of what we do in communication, the emphasis and the value is placed on what we say, what we say with our voices, what we say now on platforms, on Twitter and TikTok, or whatever it’s called, Twitter now. X, formerly known as Twitter, and TikTok and Facebook and all these other places. I don’t think we value — this is a radio/audio girl here. Advice from an audio girl. Listen. Listening is a skill. Figure out how to take the earbuds out, and just listen to the world. When you really are tuned into that frequency, your writing will reflect that, both your expository, explanatory writing, your ability to capture a sense of place because you’re listening to the crunch of leaves under foot, the way that cars don’t sound the way they used to — all these electric cars are suddenly — you just start to notice things, and the way that people talk and the way that they communicate. To figure out how to be an active listener and then catalog that in some way so that when you are writing, what oozes out of you captures your voice, your unique voice, but also is able to embrace the sounds of the world, the actual world, not the world that’s served to us through shows like this, through entertainment, but the world. To be of the world and in the world. Take the earphones out. Be where you are.

Zibby: I love it. Michele, this was so enjoyable. I love it. You’re such a great writer and journalist and audio girl. This was really an honor and a pleasure. Thank you.

Michele: Thank you. I have loved talking to you. I look forward to actually visiting your physical space.

Zibby: Come on over.

Michele: If you invited me in your home, I would ooh and aah over that bookshelf in the background.

Zibby: Next time you’re in New York, come on over.

Michele: Definitely, I’m going to try to visit the bookstore. I love what you do. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Michele Norris, OUR HIDDEN CONVERSATIONS: What Americans Really Think about Race and Identity

OUR HIDDEN CONVERSATIONS: What Americans Really Think about Race and Identity by Michele Norris

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens