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Journalist Michele Norris reveals America's 'Hidden Conversations' about race

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. In 2010, a year into Barack Obama's presidency, people were declaring that we'd made so much progress that we were close to achieving a post-racial society. Award-winning journalist Michele Norris wanted to know if that was true. She wanted to explore how Americans really talk and think about race. So she came up with this idea she named The Race Card Project and placed postcards in airports and coffee shops that asked a simple question - race, your thoughts. Tell me your six words. Norris was sure that most of those who would respond would be people of color because those are the ones we often hear talk about race. But over the last 14 years, a vast number of the responses - over 500,000 - have been from white Americans in the U.S. and the world, people from all walks of life sharing their most honest, intimate and revealing thoughts about race. Norris has turned The Race Card Project into a new book titled "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity." Here's a snippet from the audiobook.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "OUR HIDDEN CONVERSATIONS: WHAT AMERICANS REALLY THINK ABOUT RACE AND IDENTITY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mom's racism took my love away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Dad said date your own race.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My grandfather would hate my children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: My dad's prejudices live in me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I hear my grandfather's hateful words.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Grandma, you can't say that anymore.

MOSLEY: That's an audio snippet from Michele Norris' new book, "Our Hidden Conversations." Michele Norris is an award-winning journalist and author. She's a columnist for the Washington Post opinion section, the host of the Audible original podcast "Your Mama's Kitchen" and a former co-host of NPR's All Things Considered. Norris won a Peabody Award in 2013 for The Race Card Project, and her first book, a memoir, is titled "The Grace Of Silence."

Michele Norris, Welcome to FRESH AIR.

MICHELE NORRIS: It is so good to be with you.

MOSLEY: It is so great to have you, Michele. You describe this project as an archive of the human experience, and it really is. I just can't say enough how it's both moving and educational and sobering and yet joyful and hopeful. And I was reading things that I know people don't share. I felt like I was actually inside of someone's home. I was listening to a conversation that maybe I had not been privy to before. And there's so much diversity of thought and geographical location and ethnicity and gender in this book. I'm just wondering, why do you think the majority of your responses, though, have been from white people?

NORRIS: You know, I get this question, and I'm just not sure I have the answer.

MOSLEY: Yeah?

NORRIS: I have - I've thought, you know, in the beginning, I thought because I work at NPR, and let's be honest, the majority of our listeners are white Americans, I thought, well, maybe that was part of it, but we've been at this for 14 years. And so, you know, I haven't been on the air consistently at NPR for a long time. A lot of people write to us from - and I don't think that they maybe, you know, come from the NPR universe. I think a big part of it was modeling.

MOSLEY: Say more. What do you mean?

NORRIS: Well, I think we have this presumption, this assumption, that white people aren't invited to the party when it comes to a conversation about race. So there's no room for them in this conversation. That most of our conversations about race are centered on people of color. And usually, if we're going to have a conversation about race, there's an expectation that it's going to be by or for or about Black people. And to the extent white people are involved, they're bystanders. They're watching over - you know, over our shoulders, saying this is a person of color. They're not expected to lead the conversation and maybe not even be in the conversation. And when we started, I think the website was key because we were gathering stories, but we were also presenting them. We were making them available so people could come to the website, they could submit their own story, but they could also see, oh, this is...

MOSLEY: Other people's stories.

NORRIS: ...What this person is saying. This is - yeah, this is what they're - oh, these are the rules of engagement. Oh, I have a - I have something to say, and it looks like I might actually be able to say it.

MOSLEY: Right.

NORRIS: And I...

MOSLEY: So many people shared with you that they feel left out of the conversation...

NORRIS: Yes. Yes.

MOSLEY: ...Especially those who identify as white, but then those who identify as Asian or Middle Eastern or Latino, that our conversations are just so binary in the United States, it's so black and white.

NORRIS: And there are a lot of people that we've heard from who feel like they have been sidelined, you know, as well. Even though they're seen as people of color, you know, some people feel like they've been sidelined and they're not people of color, but they're of a cohort that they feel some difference attached to them because they were in the military, because they're Jewish, because they are of a part of a religious minority, you know, of some kind. And they come to the project and they realize, OK, there's this big, diverse symphony of voices and I can be a part of that.

MOSLEY: I want to give some examples of this and the layout of the book. It is unique because it is a compilation of your writing and photographs and postcards and written quotes and first-person stories, and then there is the audiobook. You know, I think those who are into audiobooks, there are hits and misses on that. Sometimes people are just relaying and reading the book, and then other times, it's a full production. And this is definitely a full production because you have real people sometimes reading their six words and others going deeper into their stories in their own words. I want to play an example of this from the audiobook. This comes from Michelle Welsh (ph), who lives in Maryland, and she's sharing something that she's grappling with as a parent. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "OUR HIDDEN CONVERSATIONS: WHAT AMERICANS REALLY THINK ABOUT RACE AND IDENTITY")

MICHELLE WELSH: I'm relieved my son looks white. Michelle Welsh. Severna Park, Md. I'm biracial - white and Pakistani. I look Pakistani. My husband is white. My son is a big, blond, fair-skinned, blue-eyed toddler. We live in an affluent, largely white town. I'm grateful he will never be asked his nationality, be the diversity hire or live with an identity crisis. Is that wrong to want life to be easier for your children, even if it seems like a step backward?

MOSLEY: That was a submission to The Race Card Project from Michelle Welsh in Maryland. Michele, this woman is asking a pretty profound question that involves her child knowing and understanding the realities of life or person of color and wanting the best for him. And you received quite a few of these from various races and nationalities, people grappling with how their identity is perceived based on their physical appearance. But as you mentioned earlier, also, these things being illuminated for them because of the interactions that they're seeing with their children or how they're seeing their children perceived in the world.

NORRIS: There's so many things that I appreciate about that particular six-word story. Her honesty, let's start there. I mean, you know, to put something like that out in the world that she's wrestling with, I appreciate that she asked it in the form of a question. You know, she's grappling with this. She's wrestling with this. One of the many, you know, lessons that this book has provided for me is that - and I guess I should have understood this based on my own experience as a parent - that your notions of race and racism and difference and belonging and identity alter in some way when you put - when you are - when you create life and then when you watch that child grow and you watch that child march through life and develop their own identity, and you watch how the world responds to your beloved - this beloved human being that you were raising. And there are a lot of cards that reflect that. Will my child look American enough? I wish he was a girl. I'm glad my son is white. So I'm overwhelmed by the honesty in these cards. And I think that it belies the original assumption in the creation of The Race Card Project. I created The Race Card Project because I thought no one wanted to talk about race. And yet a woman in suburban Maryland who probably doesn't have these kinds of conversations at work, maybe doesn't even have them at home - you know, don't know how often she has them in her community - felt emboldened to step up to a space like this and have that conversation, which, to me, suggests that there was a bigger appetite for this than I originally thought.

MOSLEY: You know, there's another throughline in this book of white people in particular. We've already talked about, like, the fear of talking about race, but there's also a throughline of folks who feel tired of talking about and hearing about race. And I want to play another clip from the audiobook. This one is from Douglas Thomas from Florida. He's talking about his thoughts about being a white man. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "OUR HIDDEN CONVERSATIONS: WHAT AMERICANS REALLY THINK ABOUT RACE AND IDENTITY")

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (Reading) White privilege. Enjoy it. Earned it. Douglas Thomas, Florida. I'm not apologizing for something I have no control over. Every major contribution to mankind was done by people of my race. Society owes white people a debt of gratitude, not scorn.

MOSLEY: That was an audio excerpt from Michele Norris' new book, "Our Hidden Conversations." OK, Michele, this one was really interesting to me because, for one, the honesty. This is how he really feels. And if we are truthful, what he's saying is embedded into the fabric of our society. But it also made me wonder how often you received messages where white people in particular felt they were being unfairly made to feel guilty for being white.

NORRIS: Well, you know, you see a number of them in the book, and that's because there are a fair number that are represented in the archive. We should say that that particular excerpt that you just heard from the audiobook was not read by Mr. Thomas. That was one of the cases where we had one of the voice actors read that 'cause he chose not - he submitted his card, but he chose not to read his in the book. So I just want to clarify that.

And, you know, and we've received some finger-wagging from people who say, why did you include those kinds of stories; do we really need to hear from people who think like that? And what we're trying to do in this project is understand racial dynamics in America. We're trying to hold a mirror up to America so the citizens of this wonderful country can see themselves and see how - understand the lived experience of race and understand all of the various perspectives that shape the way we live and shape how we interact with each other and wind up shaping policy.

I mean, a lot of the things that we see in America, you know, we think that it just happened in some sort of anaerobic way, that this boardroom looks the way it does because it just sort of happened, or this neighborhood has this kind of racial composition because it just kind of happened. It often happened because of policies. It often happened because of decisions. That often happens because of attitudes that people have, assumptions people have. And so it is worthwhile understanding the root cause of some of this, the actuality of some of this. And so I decided that in order to really present the fullest possible picture of what race and identity look like in America, what the voice of this issue would sound like, I had to hear from as many people as possible, and I had to make sure that when people looked in that proverbial mirror, that they saw the full picture.

MOSLEY: Were there some that you grappled with that you thought, should we show the world how people really feel, if you're giving a true sense of the discourse in the United States and abroad?

NORRIS: Yeah. We do grapple with it. And when I say we, we have - I have a, you know, small but mighty team. I've worked with Melissa Bear since the very beginning, and we have a few other people that we have been working with, and we do talk about it. And I have sought counsel from, you know, other people and sought advice in some cases. But if it is - we're careful about language, although the N-word, you know, does - because it's sadly still used. There are other words that would be considered slurs that you'll find in the pages of the book. And there's, you know, a little bit of an advisory about that.

But again, it's that mirror, you know, and especially in a moment right now where we are very divided as a country and where people are invested in our divisions, and they are finding a willing audience for that. To pretend that that does not exist while you are examining the issues of race and identity in America would undermine the integrity of the project. So we don't include everything. If it is, absolutely - if it's - you know, the difference between scornful and hateful is - you know, there is a difference between scornful and hateful.

MOSLEY: Sure, sure.

NORRIS: There is a difference between umbrage and outright threats.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is award-winning journalist and author Michele Norris. She has a new book, "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to Michele Norris about her new book, "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity." Michele Norris is a columnist for The Washington Post and host of the Audible original podcast, "Your Mama's Kitchen." From 2002 to 2012, she was the co-host for NPR's All Things Considered. Her first book is a memoir titled "The Grace Of Silence."

I want to talk a little bit about lineage because you devote a whole chapter to it - what's kept secret, what's passed down, essentially how previous generations dealt with race and racism when the social order was so rigid.

MOSLEY: And I want to play a clip from Sara Nielsen in Austin, Texas, that sort of gets at this. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARA NIELSEN: (Reading) The birth certificate read Gerald Marx. Sara Nielsen, Austin, Texas. My grandfather passed away, and his birth certificate read Gerald Marx. We only ever knew him as Gerald Nielsen. Did my grandmother know? Who was Gerald Marx, and where was his family from? Are we Jewish? Was the story of his abandonment adoption true, or was he the Gerald Mars of record, listed as an orphan in Brooklyn the month he was born? Where is his half-sister, Beatrice/Beatrix/Beverly? Where is my family? Who was my beloved grandfather? What is my home?

MOSLEY: That was an audio excerpt from Michele Norris' new book, "Our Hidden Conversations." And, Michele, there's so much in that audio clip, so much history there, so much story within the story. But this woman found a birth certificate. And those last words really hit me because - I think you mentioned this - lots of people are grappling with lineage, people in the last decade especially, with these DNA ancestry tests, are really grappling with their own ideas of who they are and how they perceive others. Was that something that you had expected as you moved through this project?

NORRIS: I didn't even know what to expect when I did this, when I first put the basket on the table and said, you know, race, your thoughts, six words, please send. That is definitely one of the tendrils that we've seen in these stories, the way that people reinvent themselves and don't necessarily let people know. And that resonated with me because, you know, my first book was about things that I discovered in my family that, you know, no one had talked about, that...

MOSLEY: Which we're going to talk about.

NORRIS: Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

NORRIS: You know, were there, you know, secrets, and the way people put things in a top drawer, you know, and then slam it shut and never think about that again. DNA - there are several stories in the book that reference DNA, people making discoveries because of DNA, people making discoveries about who they are or who someone in their family is, thinking they're one thing, realizing they're something else, finding a birth certificate.

There's, you know, the story of Arlene Lee, who's at the beginning of the book, who is a woman who lives in the Eastern Shore in Maryland, and her mother was white and Peruvian. And she discovers that - you know, her mom told her that her dad was absent, and she discovers her dad was not absent. He was a Black man in Peru. And that changes Arlene's, you know, sense of self. She's thinking, oh, does that mean I'm Black? OK, if I'm Black, what else does that mean? And I've been having a 14-year conversation with her, you know, at first during the presidency of Barack Obama, and then later during the presidency of Donald Trump, and then later, after the rioting of the Capitol and the presidency of Joe Biden. And her, you know, thoughts on this has been interesting all along.

But America is a place filled with people who often came from someplace else. And in the quest to become more American, in the quest to find acceptance, in the quest to find stability, sometimes they shaved a few things off their resume or their heritage. They sort of shape-shifted a little bit. And these are, you know, some of the stories from people who - they're trying to figure it out. You asked what I expected. I never expected I would get so many stories about passing because I thought passing was passe. I didn't think that, you know?

MOSLEY: That passing was of another time.

NORRIS: Yes, exactly.

MOSLEY: And so you received stories of people who are passing in current day.

NORRIS: Yes, or people who were raised by people who they discovered were passing, or people who are trying to figure out if they want to continue passing. I mean, there are several stories about passing. And as a person of color, as a Black woman, I'd - you know, we've read books about passing. We've, you know, seen "Imitation Of Life." We've had conversations in our families about this. I kind of thought that passing was something that applied, frankly, to Black people 'cause that was my experience. When we talked about passing, it was usually talking about someone who had passed over into whiteness...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...Or passed over maybe into being swarthy of some other kind - swarthy, a word that, you know, people often used. Not the word I would necessarily reach for, but that was often, you know, to describe someone who was...

MOSLEY: Sure.

NORRIS: ...You know, could be Greek, could be Italian, could be Puerto Rican.

MOSLEY: Right.

NORRIS: The stories of passing that have passed through the inbox come from all kinds of places, people who decide not to be Jewish, people who decide not to be Italian, people who decide not to be - to be a different kind of Latino because it just happens to be more acceptable where they happen to be in their business community. It's just easier to do business as someone who is of Mexican descent than of Guatemalan descent because that's just the reality where they happen to live.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Michele Norris. We're talking about her new book, "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today, we're talking to award-winning journalist and author Michele Norris about her new book, "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity." Michele is a columnist for The Washington Post and the host of the Audible Original podcast, "Your Mama's Kitchen." From 2002 to 2012, she was a co-host for NPR's All Things Considered. Before joining NPR, Norris spent almost 10 years as a reporter for ABC News, covering politics, policy and the dynamics of social change. And early in her career, she also worked as a staff writer for The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Her first book is a memoir titled "The Grace Of Silence."

You set out to write this book, you wanted to do it for such a long time. But then you started listening closely to your own family conversations, and you learned some secrets that they had purposely shielded from you, specifically an incident with your father and your grandmother's profession. Your...

NORRIS: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Grandmother was a traveling Aunt Jemima.

NORRIS: Yeah.

MOSLEY: She would do pancake mix demonstrations. And you didn't learn about this until much later in your life.

NORRIS: Well, this is my second attempt to write a book about race. The first time I was planning to, you know, Barack Obama had just been elected, and I was going to go out into the world and listen to people talk honestly about race 'cause we were talking about America becoming post-racial, and I thought, oh, I think something more interesting is happening out here. I think this is going to be a rather complex chapter in American life regarding race and identity. And so that was my intent. But then when I started to hear stories in my own family, I realized I wanted to write a different book because I had discovered secrets from both of my parents - my mother and my father.

My mother's mother, yes, worked as a traveling Aunt Jemima when pancake - when convenience cooking was relatively new and pancake mix was something novel. She was traveling the country, doing cooking demonstrations at county fairs and Rotarian breakfasts and things like this to try to convince people to buy Aunt Jemima pancake mix. And when she did this work, she had to dress up like Aunt Jemima - hoop skirt, head scarf. And she was supposed to speak in this sort of slave lingo. They gave her scripts, I discovered. I did a lot of research on these - there were a whole army of these traveling Aunt Jemimas that worked across the country. And they were - they - turned out, they were paid, you know, pretty well to do this work. But my family never talked about it. And when I did research, I discovered - I found newspaper clippings of when she was going into these small towns, found a recording of where she, you know...

MOSLEY: How did you find...

NORRIS: ...Actually was interviewed.

MOSLEY: ...Out about it? Did someone just mention it to you and then you went on to...

NORRIS: So...

MOSLEY: ...Research it?

NORRIS: ...In both of these cases, when I learned about my father's incident in Birmingham, Ala., and my Grandma Ione's work as an itinerant Aunt Jemima, in both cases, it was aging uncles. It was my Uncle Jimmy on my mom's side and my Uncle Joe on my dad's side. And just, you know, as you - as people get older, they enter a space of disinhibition. They just, you know, say what's on their mind. And my Uncle Jimmy had started talking about this in part because he wanted to know more about it. He was doing some research on her and started to talk about it. My mother and other family members, you know, it's a complicated thing when Aunt Jemima is a member of your family. And she was doing this work in the late '40s and the early '50s, and her work as an Aunt Jemima was starting to rub up against the aspirations of Black Americans in America. They...

MOSLEY: To shed themselves of this.

NORRIS: Exactly. Exactly. And so - but I - what I found out is that when Grandma was going into these towns and during this work or they gave her the script, she was like, I'm not doing that. And she, in these interviews, would talk about when she would go into these towns that she would not use the slave patois. There was this whole - the catchphrase for Aunt Jemima was lawsie, lawsie. L-A-W-S-E. lawsie, lawsie, I sure do make some good pancakes. I'm not even sure I got that right, but that was what was written on the page. And she was supposed to, you know, come in and - my grandma is from Minnesota, so first of all, that's not her accent. And Aunt - you have to remember that. If you grew up with Aunt Jemima today, Aunt Jemima on the pancake mix before she was removed in - you know, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, they decided to just take her off the package altogether. But she spent the last 20 years as a fairly cosmopolitan-looking woman on the pancake box. She had a, you know, a wet set hairdo. She had a nice little Peter Pan collar and a little pearls around...

MOSLEY: Yeah. They tried...

NORRIS: ...Her neck.

MOSLEY: ...To update her and take her out of that.

NORRIS: She got a total upgrade. And before that, Aunt Jemima looked like, you know, looked like a slave woman. And that's the woman that my grandmother portrayed. But when she went into towns, she used her English. I mean, my grandmother was very proud of - she had won awards for diction. She had, you know, won oratory contests when she was a kid. She was always fussing at us about making sure that we - the G was attached to the end of the word when we were talking about something, we were talking about something talking, not talkin (ph), you know, she said, this is what you are going to need to do in life.

So that was the woman I remembered, and that was the woman I discovered when I did a little bit of research about her and realized that when she would go into these towns, she decided to be subversive, that she was going to be an ambassador. And she said that she would use good English and that she would sing gospel songs because she wanted people to know she was a woman of God, and that that would be a hook for them and a point of respect and that she would focus on children. Because if a young person could see a woman of God who spoke clearly and spoke in a way that was clearly educated, that that might live inside them, and that might change the expectations that were fed to them in an America were, let's face it, white people were often told that Black people are less than.

MOSLEY: What did it mean for you to find that and read it? Because they purposely kept it from you and those of your generation in the family because they didn't want you to carry that knowledge. They wanted you to move into the world without what might be considered baggage. But what I'm hearing from you as you talk about it, it's almost a sense of pride in knowing that she held her dignity in spite of that during a time period where we understand that was what many had to do to survive.

NORRIS: It meant the world to me because, you know, my grandmother, she was awesome. She created a senior center that is still in existence in Minneapolis, Minn. She was a community leader. She passed that on to her kids. As she stepped onto the stage that was available to her at her time, and she used her platform well. And I understand why people did not want to talk about her. I understand all of the complications, and I don't judge anybody. I harbor no ill will, you know, that people didn't want to talk about this, but I'm glad I discovered it. And...

MOSLEY: Well, something profound that you said, I mean, because also I mentioned your father. Your father was shot in the leg by white police officers in Birmingham, Ala., shortly after he had returned from his military service in World War II. And you didn't learn about that until much later. But something profound you said is that while they instilled a sense of pride and excellence in you, their silence about their dark experiences also had just as big of an impact on you.

NORRIS: And that relates to the work that I'm doing at The Race Card Project. Just because someone is not saying something, just because something is unarticulated doesn't mean that there's now a force field around whatever it is that is not said. You know, silence carries weight also. And even though my parents never talked about this, it definitely had an impact on our house in some way, and it had an impact on the way they moved forward in life. My dad, it actually had an impact on him. You know, I can see now the scar that he had, you know, the way that he, you know, put his leg down. I see that that was all part of a wound that he received when he was trying to enter a building where you could learn as much about the Constitution so he could pass a poll test.

MOSLEY: Wow. So your entire childhood, you saw him move that way, but you didn't know why?

NORRIS: Yeah, and it was so slight, it was ever so slight. You would barely, barely notice it. And he did have a scar on his leg. But he never talked about it. He never even told, you know, my mom about this. And I am not alone in that. I know that because of the personal stories that people have shared with me, I know that certainly because of the archive, that sometimes people just choose to move forward. And in order to move forward, they just can't wallow. They just can't, you know, - they can't stay in a place of pain, so they figure out how to move forward and let something go.

And I know that that is true for people who have faced certain kinds of oppression, that in order to rise above that and in order to make sure that their children rise above that, that they choose not to maybe talk about the source of their pain. And that's why I use the word grace in the title of the book because I think that is an incredibly graceful act, to decide...

MOSLEY: Your memoir, "The Grace Of Silence."

NORRIS: Yes, yes.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

NORRIS: To decide not to weigh your kids down with your disappointments, but rather to create a path forward for them that would allow them to soar because they're not weighed down. Now, I come down on a slightly different place on this now that I know this. I believe that - I think that there's, you know, another way of thinking about that, because I am so glad that I know these things now. I wish that I had a chance to talk to my dad about this. I wish I had a chance to interview my grandmother about this. I wish I had more of a chance to talk to other family members about the things that they experienced.

MOSLEY: You found out all of this after they had passed away, yeah.

NORRIS: Yeah, yeah, so I wish I could. But I do know that what I learned is part of my familial treasure. It is part of my story.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is award-winning journalist and author Michele Norris. She has a new book, "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS SUPER SEVEN SONG, "CALLE DIECISEIS")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to Michele Norris about her new book, "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity." Michele Norris is a columnist for The Washington Post and host of the Audible original podcast "Your Mama's Kitchen." From 2002 to 2012, she was the co-host for NPR's All Things Considered. Her first book is a memoir titled "The Grace Of Silence."

When you started this project in particular, your six words were fool them all, not done yet, because for one, you grew up with a speech impediment. And there's so much there. I just actually want to sit with that for a moment, because through these communities, you were able to see how you could exist and moved within them. But then you also had this personal experience about your speech. Can you say more about that, about your speech impediment?

NORRIS: I just - I had a strange, when I was a kid - I mean, it doesn't go away. You conquer it, you don't vanquish it, I guess. My brain works a little bit faster than my mouth sometimes. And it was actually - made it pretty - kind of weirdly emotional thinking about this, but made it hard to host sometimes because I have to - I just have to be very careful about my speaking. I have to slow myself down because my brain will get ahead of where my mouth wants to go, and I'll drop words. Or I'll be processing two different things at two different times because brain is working faster than the mouth is working. And so I have to kind of slow down.

If you would see me reading, I would often mark up text. I'd follow with my hands. I'd have to - my fix file was probably a little - well, no, it wasn't probably, it was actually deeper than, you know, the other hosts. We have this thing - as you know, as a host, you can go across the hall and fix something. And by the time people hear you in the second or third feeds in the Midwest or the West Coast, you are perfect because all of your stumbles are bladed away. And I was really fortunate in that I was surrounded by people who made sure that I got what I need and really believed in me and really pushed me. And, you know, they called me Mickey at home. Oh, that's just Mickey. She'll figure it out, you know?

MOSLEY: That's your nickname, yeah?

NORRIS: Yeah. Went to a Catholic school with nuns who were like you, you know, every day you must do something hard, and for you, this is that thing that you have to figure out. You know, and so they would push me. I'd have to speak in front of the class a little bit more than everybody else. I was in public school, pulled out to attend special classes, speech classes. And then when I transferred to, my parents were worried that I would be on a separate track and that I wouldn't be mainstreamed again. So they pulled me out and I went to Catholic schools where my older sisters had already been attending. And then when I got there, their view was, you can do hard things; you know, God is on your side, and kind of forced me to do hard things to figure out how to, you know, read the verse in front of the class, to stand up and speak a little bit more. And so through a combination of speech therapy and just having people who really believed in me and being surrounded by words and books and the spoken word and having a family, I think another thing that was really important to me - and maybe this is, you know, why, in my other project, I focus so much on the family dinner table and what happens in the kitchen.

MOSLEY: From "Your Mama's Kitchen"...

NORRIS: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Right? - your podcast where...

NORRIS: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...You talk about meals and conversations over food. Yeah.

NORRIS: Well, we were expected to have conversations over food. Like, we would come home, and my dad - my mom and dad divorced at some point. But when we were all together before that happened - and then even I lived with my dad in high school, so that continued. Even when I was in high school, he would ask about the day. And he'd ask, what did you learn today? And you had to have an answer. This was not a household where you could - you know, where you could come into the house and just not participate in a conversation. It was not - and it was interesting because in the South, my experience with my Southern relatives were the kids didn't talk a lot of times. It was - you know, you talked when you when you were asked a question. Otherwise, it was grown folks' conversation. You just stayed quiet. In our household, my dad wanted to hear from us. And, again, that was an example of having to conquer whatever reticence you had about participating in an open conversation. You just kind of had to, you know, get in there and figure it out. And I think that that's one of the things that helped me overcome that also.

NORRIS: I want to play one more clip from the audiobook of Frank Norris from Knoxville, Tenn., about a lesson he learned from his friend that gets to this idea of listening. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "OUR HIDDEN CONVERSATIONS: WHAT AMERICANS REALLY THINK ABOUT RACE AND IDENTITY")

FRANK NORRIS: If you were Black, you'd know. I'm Frank Norris. I'm from Knoxville, Tenn. I've got a good friend. He's a fishing buddy. He's Black, and I'm white. One day we were driving through town on the interstate. I was driving 65, and my friend, Victor, said, Frank, the speed limit on this section of the highway is 55. I was completely surprised. I told him, I've lived here all my life, and I didn't know that. He said, if you were Black, you'd know.

MOSLEY: That was an audio excerpt from Michele Norris' new book, "Our Hidden Conversations." And, Michele, what struck me the most, aside from the life in his voice, which I love, is that Frank is sharing what he's learned about these common experiences that some people have and others don't. And what Frank is saying here is that he listened to his friend. He didn't discount his friend. I know it's so simple, and it sounds so kumbaya, but at a time when we're dealing with people not being able to hear each other, I just thought that was such a profound letter to you.

NORRIS: And I love - you know, it's what Bryan Stevenson talks about with the importance of proximity. Because he had that fishing buddy, that's why he had that epiphany - because he was able to see life through another person's eyes. And I really appreciate Frank sharing the story with us. When we invited people to send in their stories, Frank struggled a little bit with the technology, and he found a neighbor. I mean, this is how much he wanted to tell his story. He actually found a neighbor who set him up, and they and they actually sent us a videotape of this. So not only do we have Frank's audio, but we have this really lovely video because he found someone in his community who does some sort of AV work and was able to set him up. But he just was so, you know, glad that he had a chance to - you know, having had that epiphany, he wanted to share it. He wanted to tell his story. He wanted to have his say.

And it makes me think about their friendship, you know, his life outside the four corners of that story. This is in Tennessee, right? The history of Tennessee, the idea that these two men are fishing buddies - you know, there was a time in America within my lifetime where they probably couldn't have a friendship like that easily without facing some sort of judgment or whether it was even legal for them to, you know, travel together or eat in the same restaurant or hang out together as buddies. The fact that he called him his buddy...

MOSLEY: Right. Right.

NORRIS: ...You know, not just his friend...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

NORRIS: You know, so, yeah, thank you for noticing that one. That was one that has definitely a lot of life in it.

MOSLEY: Michele Norris, thank you so much for this book and this conversation.

NORRIS: It's been so good to be with you. Thank you.

MOSLEY: Michele Norris is the author of the book "Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race And Identity." After the break, John Powers reviews a biography of acclaimed doctor and writer Frantz Fanon. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADAMES GNATTALI'S "ZANZANDO EM COPACABANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.