Michelle Norris: ‘How diverse is your world?’

Conclusion of a three-part story

The first two parts of this story on the April 10-12 “Power the Future” conference covered opening remarks from Forum on Workplace Inclusion Executive Director Steve Humerickhouse and the keynote address from Earvin Johnson. The story concludes this week with the conference’s closing speech by award-winning journalist and Minneapolis native Michele Norris.

Norris strongly advised that getting people’s honest ideas about race will help move forward workplace diversity. “When we talk about race…is it always about skin color? Does it reflect your core values?” Norris asked the audience of local, national and international diversity and inclusion leaders and others at the University of St. Thomas-sponsored event.

Michele Norris
Michele Norris Sarah Morreim/MSR News

Norris is the founding director of The Race Card Project that she started in 2010, and she was recently named executive director of The Bridge, a new Aspen Institute program on race, identity and inclusion. She admitted that she had never envisioned talking about race around the nation as she has been doing in recent years.

“I tried very hard not to be the person who focused solely on race,” she said. “I’ve been in journalism for three decades, and as an African American woman often [I’ve been] the only, the first, or one of the few people of color in the newsroom. As a person of color, you bring a special understanding around the issue of race.

“But I didn’t necessarily want to be the person who covered race all the time. I wanted a full portfolio – I wanted to cover politics, sports, policy and culture. I was afraid if I covered race…that would be all I do and get pigeonholed.”

But she eventually realized, especially after doing a book on her family history, that race in America couldn’t be avoided no matter how she tried. “Much of it based on my growing up here in Minneapolis,” Norris said. “I grew up here as a brown girl. I’m a child who grew up [who] didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me. So I had to imagine a life I did not see.”

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“The temperature around race changed dramatically… We are a divided nation right now.”

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Starting The Race Card Project “was the right thing for me to do,” Norris later told the MSR.  “It is not about me.”

Race isn’t always about Blacks and other people of color, and diversity doesn’t mean that Whites can’t be a part of it, Norris said. “White America…needs to understand that race and race issues apply to them as well.

“I feel we do each other a disservice if we entertain the folly that race is no longer with us,” she said to the MSR. “I would like to in my lifetime see the eradication of racism… We’ve had 25 decades of slavery, 100 years of the post-slavery period, and really only five decades of alleged freedom. The notion that it all [would] be over just because we had a Black president” is wrong, she stressed.

The Barack Obama and Donald Trump elections both produced “sudden change” in this country as it pertains to race, Norris noted. “The temperature around race changed dramatically around both candidacies, and inside both administrations. We are a divided nation right now.  The divisions are very apparent.

“The lessons I learned on the atmosphere around race was the sudden change. You’ve seen the sudden change of atmosphere with the election of Donald Trump. Some forces have become emboldened… You’ve seen racial angst. You saw this with the election of Barack Obama, but through a different lens.”

Norris challenged her audience to self-examine their commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion. “Is it something you want to do or you have to do?” she asked.

“How diverse is your world? What does your kitchen table look like when you have guests over? [What are] your backyard parties like when you entertain? Who are your friends? Where are your blind spots in the places where you actually encounter diversity?

“When you don’t encounter diversity in your own personal life, how does that improve or impede the work that you do in diversity and inclusion?” she asked the conference participants.

Norris proposed that talking about race should make people feel uncomfortable because this will help produce change. “Race will always be with us, but not always in a negative sense,” she said, ending on an optimistic note.

Related content:

Earvin Johnson shares his business magic

‘Missing voices’ slow progress toward true equity

About Charles Hallman

Charles Hallman is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at challman@spokesman-recorder.com

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