Six Little Words

Acclaimed journalist Michele Norris’s latest book explores the big questions posed by short personal stories.

Eli Turner

It started with 200 postcards. Fourteen years ago, when journalist Michele Norris invited readers to jot down their thoughts about race on postcards and mail them back to her, she wasn’t sure if anyone would do it. Now, with over 500,000 responses, a website, a Peabody Award, and a new book, Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Identity (Simon & Schuster, 2024), Norris’s work continues. Her book dives deep into people’s private thoughts and lives, evoking feelings, questions, history, experiences, and hard truths.

Norris is no stranger to conversations about race and identity; she is a columnist for the Washington Post opinion section and previously covered politics, policy, and the dynamics of social change for ABC News before co-hosting NPR’s All Things Considered from 2002 to 2012. Norris and her husband, Broderick Johnson, split their time between their home in Washington, D.C., and on the Island. The prolific writer talked with Martha’s Vineyard Magazine about the Island’s role in The Race Card Project, why she started a podcast, and what makes her want to jump in her car and drive from D.C. up to the Vineyard. An edited transcript follows. 

Martha’s Vineyard Magazine: Let’s start with The Race Card Project, which you created more than a decade ago and which asks people to describe their identity in six words. You’ve since received more than 500,000 stories. What inspired the project? 

Michele Norris: I created the project fourteen years ago when I wrote my first book, The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir (Vintage, 2011), which explored my family’s complex racial legacy. I was planning to write a book about what Americans think about race. Then my own family started sharing stories, so I ended up writing a family memoir instead. I learned my father had been shot by a police officer in Birmingham when he returned from military service. Like so many other Black veterans, he’d fought overseas and was denied the right to vote at home. When he was trying to enter a building, he had an encounter with police and was wounded in his leg....

At that time my belief and my condition was that people didn’t want to talk about race. It was hard to have a conversation about race. So I created the Race Card Project to invite people into these conversations. I went to a Kinkos and printed postcards with the prompt: Race. Your Thoughts. 6-Words. Please Send. Of the initial 200 postcards, about 30 percent came back – and that’s a lot.... We saw something in that return rate that suggested that maybe people did want to talk about race.... With that, we created a website to share what we were getting. The vast majority that we get now arrive in our inbox digitally.

MVM: Have you noticed a change in how Americans talk about race?

MN: Yes, within the inbox and certainly outside of it.... We are more outwardly divided in our country, and we have had a number of events that have dragged us into the public arena to talk about and debate race. Whether it’s the experience of Covid and the impact of George Floyd, or elections in 2016, 2020, and 2024, all of that is captured in the inbox. 

But there are changes I see there, and it’s all different. It’s not debating or yelling; people are talking about their experiences in intimate and vulnerable ways.... They are often revealing things that [reflect] the news or the outside world, but they are writing through the prism of personal experiences, about kids and marriage and lost loves and their family, and why they didn’t befriend someone in high school, or a love they weren’t allowed to pursue.

MVM: In 2012 you told the Vineyard Gazette the six words you keep going back to are “Still more work to be done.” Are those still the words you return to?

MN: They are, and ever more part because it comes back to me. I can’t easily walk away from the project. It’s a vehicle that allows people to listen to each other. [Those six words] apply in a particular way right now; so many people are trying to unravel our progress as a country in terms of advancement and understanding race and creating spaces where people can coexist. 

MVM: Your new book is a collection of stories and photos born out of the Race Card Project. How did you select them?

MN: I wanted it to feel like you were hearing a cascade of voices. I wanted it to be a book of unusual form.... I wanted great diversity, and a lot of stories came from white Americans, which isn’t what you’d expect because that’s usually not what happens when you’re having a conversation about race. A lot of people who feel like they have bystander status when talking about race felt like they had an entry point, so they shared their stories in large numbers. I went through the inbox very carefully.... I had to think about how to put together this Rubik’s Cube....

We try to provide lots of different kinds of experiences in the book, and you might think, “Oh my goodness, it’s all deep and difficult,” but there are also really beautiful moments in the book. Like [the words of] Jeffrey Kingdom from Danville, Indiana: “White flight child knows no brother.” He talks about growing up in a 1950s family who moved to the suburbs, and he didn’t know people who weren’t white. Through work and people he met at work [he realized there] was this big diverse world out there that he was never exposed to. 

I love his card because he ends with this hopeful note: he now has children, and his children chose to live in urban centers with lots of friends who are of all different races and ethnicities, and they are gay, straight, young, old. His children’s lives will be more complete; their lives will be richer. And good for them, and good for all of us. 

MVM: On August 18 you’ll speak at the Martha’s Vineyard Author Series. You’ve interviewed authors at the festival in the past. This year, you’ll be in the spotlight Who do you think should interview you?

MN: Oh,’s an Island full of interesting people. To be able to bring the book back to where so much of it was written and so much of it was imagined, and where so many of these six word stories were on the walls in my basement.... Martha’s Vineyard is seeped inside the pages of this book. So much of the ideation and collection and design of the [Race Card Project] website and the really different writing and magical thinking happened in my happy space there. 

MVM: What are some things you like to do when you’re on the Vineyard?

MN: I just love to be on the Island. I love the feeling of setting ten toes down on the Vineyard; it feels like you leave the world behind. Of course, I love the beaches, but I also love taking long walks or bike rides on the trails. I love finding [honor-system farm stands]. I love the fair. I love discovering new things to eat. I love sitting in my backyard and seeing stars that I don’t see in the big city and just enjoying the night sky. 

I love going to Menemsha and watching the sun fall into the ocean and applauding it with people who come from all over America and, really, all over the world; people who are suddenly in communication with each other because they’ve witnessed God’s grace. I’ve been doing that with my kids since they were small. I love playing games with friends who come from near and far. We used to come for a week and then two weeks. Now that we are empty nesters, we spend months living on the Island. You really get to know everyone in a special way. We participate in gleaning and living the life of the Island, not the tourist parts. We like to do work with the Island Housing Trust. We like to go to the [Portuguese American] Club. We like to go to the places that you don’t get to when you’re careening on and off the Island. And just saying all this makes me really want to get in the car and drive and get there today. 

My kids have grown up there and been there every year since they were born. The Island is our family glue.... The Island is diverse, and it’s ever changing in a space where people coexist and listen to each other. It’s a very special place.

MVM: Your podcast, Your Mama’s Kitchen, explores the significance of the heart of the home and the memories that come from growing up and spending time there. What was it about your own childhood kitchen that inspired this project?

MN: My kitchen growing up was very organized, because my mother is a highly organized person. But at the same time, it was really fun. There was a radio in the kitchen and we would dance, and my mom let us experiment. As organized as she was – and my dad was in the military, so he was also very organized – they let us experiment in the kitchen and get messy, as long as we cleaned up (laughs). 

The kitchen was really the place where we spent the most time…. If there was a big conversation, it happened in the kitchen. That’s where life happens. 

As a journalist, I would ask questions when we would do a mic check. A standard question is: “What did you have for breakfast?” They would say, “coffee and toast or oatmeal,” and, you know, that’s just not enough for the engineer. So I would start asking different types of questions, and that was the best one: “Tell me about your mama’s kitchen.” Before they would start talking, there was always some sort of yummy utterance, a beautiful sigh that suggested they were going somewhere really wonderful in their memory. And they did. They would start describing what it looked like or smelled like, or the food. I thought it would be a delicious starting point for a beautiful podcast.... 

We’ve done almost forty episodes; we’ve had Michelle Obama, Conan O’Brien, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, José Andrés…I ask people the same questions and each conversation goes in a completely different direction. It is a reminder that we have things in common. At the same time, it reminds us that there is something beautiful in our differences. You can listen to someone who grew up in a different part of the world, who ate different things, practiced a different religion, came from a different place before they landed in America, and you’ll hear something of your own story. 

MVM: What is next for Michele Norris? 

MN: We’re going to do a children’s book around the Race Card Project, and I’m excited about that. I hope the Race Card Project turns into a podcast…. The people at Simon & Schuster are talking to me about another book. I’m pretty busy right now. I’m writing the future in pencil, but I know it’ll include a lot of time on Martha’s Vineyard.