Talking About The Things That Make Us Different

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Conversations about race, class, sexuality or religion can often be fraught or awkward. Michele Norris, host of NPR's All Things Considered, and Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More, say creating spaces for those exchanges can lead to surprising revelations.

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, broadcasting from the Aspen Ideas Festival. Conversations about what makes us different - race, class, sex, language, religion and so much else - starting, knowing what to say and what words to use. Those conversations can be so difficult and awkward, we can try to avoid the elephant in the room.

But as our world becomes more complicated, discussions about our differences become more and more necessary. No matter what makes us different - and we are all different - we are all experts in our own experience, and we all have something to contribute.

Was there a time you wanted to start one of those conversations but didn't? Tell us your story. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll also take questions from here in the audience at the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, and thanks very much for coming in, we appreciate it.


CONAN: Later in the program, the challenges of building bridges between different faiths. But first the dialogue of difference. And I'm joined today by my colleagues Michele Norris, the co-host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED; and Michel Martin, the host of TELL ME MORE, and it's good to have both of you on the program today.

MICHELE NORRIS: It's great to be here.

MICHEL MARTIN: It's great to be here.

CONAN: I have to start by asking: Who's doing the show?


NORRIS: I know, it's scary, right?

CONAN: It is a little bit, yeah.

NORRIS: Robert and Melissa, I guess, are back, holding down the fort.

MARTIN: And Tony Cox is sitting in for me.

CONAN: Let me ask you, Michele, was there a time that you tried to start one of those conversations and flinched away - and didn't?

NORRIS: I want to say no, but if I'm really honest, I have to say yes. And I try to quiet that urge now, to push it down and to push ahead because it's become something that's very important to me in my work as a journalist and in my work as an author, and in sort of the sideline that I developed exploring America's conversation on race.

I understand why people do it, and it can be because of your own fear, or often it's because you're concerned about making somebody else uncomfortable. And so people self-censure. They decide not to have a conversation, and even on the radio when this happens - Neal, I bet that you've had this experience - the temperature changes even if someone's not in the room with you.

You know that you're entering an uncomfortable zone. And if you can push past that, the rewards are so great for the parties involved in the conversation but particularly, for those of us who work in the media. For anyone who has the benefit to listen to that conversation, it's worth pushing past that.

CONAN: Michel, those of us who know you could not imagine your not being able to start one of those conversations.


MARTIN: Well, Neal, you know that journalism is filled with shy people who are just looking for an excuse to run in when others are running out. I mean, I think that's the dirty little secret of our profession - is that a lot of us in fact are very shy, but part of the reason we chose this is to give us an excuse to confront that which - of which we are afraid.

And so I'm frightened constantly, but I master that fear. And I think that part of the pleasure of my job is not just that I get to, you know, travel around and talk to people or have people come to me to talk to me, but that it gives me an excuse - and also a paycheck - to confront my fears on a daily basis.

NORRIS: Can I just say something here about the question? As I listen to you, you used such an important word: listen. You know, when you - people think the most important thing we do on the radio is talk. The most important thing we do is listen. And when you find yourself in one of those uncomfortable conversations, one way to get past that is to give yourself the opportunity to listen.

You have to participate in the conversation. So sometimes, you just participate enough to ask the simplest of questions - maybe three words - and then sit back and listen because that's the most important ingredient in any productive conversation.

MARTIN: But - this is the other Michel. The - but a conversation, by definition, has to have two people in it - or at least two people in it - and one of the most important things I've learned is that you have to stay in the room, and you have to try to get other people to stay in the room with you to have that conversation. And that, sometimes, is the hardest thing to do.

CONAN: Well, that means including everybody, and if you're talking to people about difference, how do you make sure you are including everybody - the general audience - not just the people like the gay man, or the person with a disability to whom you're speaking?

NORRIS: You mean making sure that the audience is broad enough or that the conversation is broad enough?

CONAN: The conversation is broad enough, that you are speaking for the audience and not for the people with the disability or the people with the sexual orientation?

NORRIS: It depends on the conversation. I mean, sometimes conversations are broad enough for everyone - what should be included or will be included - and sometimes, they're a little bit narrower. But in terms of keeping people at the table, I mean, part of that is trying not to do - engage in this exercise that we're so good at in this country in trying to shut down a conversation if anyone does show the courage enough to take on this, to try to talk across differences.

Because often when people do that, they're sanctioned: How dare they say that? They played the race card. They said something. And instead of trying to examine if what they said holds any kind of hard truth, even if it makes you uncomfortable, what happens so often is people get a little bit of finger-wagging. Well, how dare they talk about that? Or, you know, how dare that they try to turn the conversation about them or turn it into this uncomfortable area, as opposed to trying to keep the conversation, keep the ball in the air, keep the conversation going.

MARTIN: I think some of the most important things that we do is discourage yelling, and just simple courtesy goes a very long way because I think you - it's surprising to me how - oh, and part of it is just the popular culture. It just encourages a kind of conversation that is very in-your-face, raised voices.

You know, oftentimes when people write me a nasty letter - and I'm not encouraging this - but I write them back, and sometimes what I'll just ask them, is why do you feel the need to speak to me this way? I'm listening. You don't have to raise your voice.

CONAN: And what - we get nasty letters from all kinds of people about all kinds of things, but was there a feeling when you started your program, from some listeners, that you weren't including them?

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting, and I'm glad you asked that because if you were to chart the responses to this program on a graph, it would have been a U-curve. I mean, some people - this program is explicitly about trying to report the story that is perhaps not as well reported, to report the different point of view, and different can mean lots of different things.

And initially, the initial response was love it, love it, love it, finally something I want to listen to; and hate it, hate it, hate it, what do you people think you're doing? And this was not the first program at NPR to include kind of diverse voices per se, but there are some people - and frankly, I'll just have to say it, I'll just name it - I think some people have a sense of entitlement about what they're supposed to hear on this network. And when you violate that sense of entitlement, they were irritated.

But I have to tell you, four years in, we have completely turned that around, and some of my most passionate and beautiful communications come from white people, who've said to me things like: I didn't think I'd like this, but I do. I didn't think I was interested, but I am. I feel like - I thank you for giving me the opportunity to hear things that I have not had a chance to hear, to talk to people who I otherwise, who I want to hear from but I don't have any way to meet.

NORRIS: And, you know, what's interesting about that is how we sometimes forget to invite white people to the table when we talk about race, for instance, or when you're talking about differences.

CONAN: You wrote about that in your book.

NORRIS: Yeah, you automatically go to the community that represents the difference that you're trying to get to in the conversation. And so just take race, for an example. If there is a story that has to do with race, there's a section of the Rolodex that most of us will go to in the news media, and you know the faces and the voices that then you'll hear.

But when you have a conversation about race, how often are white Americans included in that conversation? Not as often as they should be is what I - is, you know, is the conclusion that I come to. I know you do. I know we try to, also. But in the main, when you talk about race in America, it's a conversation that is usually conducted by, held in favor of, or controlled by people of color.

And that, you know, brings us to an interesting point because of the way things are changing so much in this country. When you talk about a conversation that is, you know, that is about minorities, the term minority in itself is interesting - and is about to change, so...

CONAN: We're talking about talking about differences, and we want to hear your experiences. If you've tried to start one of those conversations about race or about someone of a different sex, somebody who's got a disability, somebody who's different from you, and you've been having difficulty with that, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We're also going to get questions from here in the audience at Aspen, Colorado, and we'll start there.

BRIAN PARKER: OK, Brian Parker(ph) from San Francisco, California. So first of all, thank you for this dialogue and hearing some of the comments. I think my question starts with the background of a lot of progress we've made on race here in our country, particularly highlighted by an African-American being elected president in 2008; higher graduation rates than ever.

I guess this for me is juxtaposed against progress that still needs to be made. I was fortunate enough to be out here for the Socrates Seminars on education, and we talked about issues of race and affirmative action, and there was some uncomfortability in the room.

So how do we make sure that we have the right conversations to keep making - notwithstanding the progress that's been made - to keep focused on the right issues like graduation rates, like Prop 209 here in California, like too many African-Americans still going to prison? So I would appreciate any comments you all have on that.

CONAN: Prop there in California. We're in Colorado at the moment.

PARKER: Thank you for the correction, that's right.


MARTIN: I'm reminded of something that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said to me when she was in a period between her service in government, when she was provost at Stanford. She had her educator hat on, and she was talking to me about some conversations that she had with students, trying to guide them through these issues.

And she said, you know, it's not in the Constitution that you're never to be uncomfortable. So that's the first standard to adhere to is that we're all uncomfortable about something at some point. It's not in the Constitution. So the first thing is to accept the discomfort.

And one of my standards is to lean into it, if you can, because often when you lean into the discomfort, that's where the interesting stuff happens. So that's thing one. Michele?

NORRIS: I guess it's like driving. You know, if you're driving fast, and you're taking a turn, the last thing you do is hit the brakes. Instead, accelerate because, you know, you'll take that turn a little bit better.

Brian, to answer your question how do you keep those issues front and center, to do what you did today, you stood up in front of an audience, you walked up to the microphone, and you said this is an issue that's important to me. I'd like people to pay more attention to that.

If there is an issue, no matter what it happens to be, I mean, we take our cues from our audience. We listen very carefully to what people care about. And so if you speak up, and you tell us what you care about and make sure that the issues that are important to you remain in the spotlight or get the spotlight that they deserve.

MARTIN: But I also think that everybody has a responsibility here. We've heard a lot of conversation in this country over the last decade - you did a program about this earlier - about what we've learned since 9/11. And there's been a lot of conversation about calling upon the Muslim community worldwide to call people out when they embrace anti-social, racist elements within their midst. Don't we all have that responsibility? Don't we all? That's not just for Muslims, it's for all of us to call out that which we know to be wrong.

CONAN: Guys, that music means we're coming up to the end of the segment. I just want to let you know that.


CONAN: We're talking about how we address our differences with two people who do it every day. Michele Norris, host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and Michel Martin, host of TELL ME MORE. Was there a time you wanted to start one of those conversations but didn't? Join the conversation, 800-989-8255. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Just looking around this room, there are any number of things that make us different: race, ethnicity, sex to pick just a few. We're all different with our own experiences, but talking about what makes us different can be awkward at best, often very difficult.

These discussions are also becoming more and more important. We're talking today about how we address our differences. Was there a time you wanted to start one of those conversations but didn't? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests today, my colleagues Michele Norris, host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and Michel Martin, host of TELL ME MORE. Let's go to the phones, and this is Joshua(ph) with us from Tallahassee.

JOSHUA: Hi, I was calling because I found out that in my personal experience, anyone with any particular difference from me I have no difficulty talking to. In fact, my Islamic friends say that they think I'm Islamic. My gay friends say that I probably have some underlying homosexuality because I so easily talk to them.

The one group that I always have had people difficulty speaking to are people who automatically think they have authority over me: an educator or someone with my experience in the job. I think that that's going to always be the place where we learn to become gated. And that's my problem that I've got.

CONAN: I hadn't thought of that as one of the differences, but yeah, speaking with people in authority, Michel, how do you speak truth to power?

MARTIN: You know, I was having an uncomfortable moment because I kind of share his difficulties in that area. Michele, do you want to...?

NORRIS: Well, you know, one of the things that I learned early in life that has served me well as a journalist and at a very young age was how to question authority without being sent to my room.


NORRIS: And that is, you know, one of the things that I try to do. I mean, sometimes you do need to raise your voice or be a bit more pointed, but again, it's not something I think that you should shy away front. It's - I understand the gated, you know, aspect of that conversation, but the point of - and when you talk about differences, I mean, the point of it often is power, and sometimes holding on to your power, sometimes keeping people distant from you, sometimes trying to acquire power that you don't have.

And so it's part of the equation, and running away from that will get you nowhere.

MARTIN: And don't you think empathy goes a long way, trying to figure out where that other person's coming from kind of goes a long way...

CONAN: I don't know. I spent a lot of time in my room.


MARTIN: Same me. But trying to figure out what is causing that other person to react in the way that he or she is something helps. But yeah, I spent a lot of time in that room, too.

CONAN: Here's an email. Thanks very much for the call, by the way, Joshua. Here's an email that we have from Shirley(ph). Sitting in a meeting with a white male supervisor manager in his late 30s in a corporation of over 7,000 employees with four African-American women who were facing discrimination issues, the white male supervisor blurted: I'm just a white boy from Missouri, and I don't know what you expect of me.

He followed that comment with a silent smirk. I understand he was frustrated. However, this company had diversity training for all of their leaders on an annual basis. Do you think diversity training works in a large corporation? And I suspect that answer is: Well, I guess that depends given the corporation and the trainee.

But that kind of response I don't think is - it is unheard of. It's...

NORRIS: It's not unheard of.

CONAN: It's not unheard of, yeah.

NORRIS: Yeah, that's not unheard of. The journalist in me in that situation would want to say tell me about your life as a white boy from Missouri. I mean, to turn it on him. He put it out there, and I'd want to know more about that. And it might take him out of - because he perhaps was trying to find a comfort zone.

I think that was - you know, we just heard the word gate used as a verb. I think that's probably what he was doing in trying to close the gate and, you know, turn the conversation away from him. But the way to keep that open is to press him and say tell me, you know, what do you mean by that.

MARTIN: But this does raise an important point, though, globally - nationally and globally about the need to be skilled in this area. We are rapidly - the time when one could just claim the space and just say all I need to know is what I need to know is rapidly coming to an end. And in order to be effective as a manager, in order to be effective as a leader, I would think that this person would want to add to his skill set.

And so I don't know about, you know, diversity training per se. That's a good subject for a show. But I think that just as a broader question of why I would encourage people to try to enhance their skills in this area, to me it's like learning how to swim. It's harder when you're older, it's easier when you're young.

If you assume that this is something that is going to enhance your life, your skills, your task in the future, it - I just think we are just rapidly coming to a point - if you consider that, you know, 20 - one out five school-age children in this country is Latino. We are rapidly becoming a much more diverse country, not to mention the world.

And it seems to me if you want to be a national player and a global player, it's a no-brainer: You'd want to enhance you skill set whether you think it's fun or not.

NORRIS: But even if you live in a state like Utah or Minnesota or New Mexico or - and I grew up in Minnesota. But there are a number of states that now have very large minority populations. You know, as the National Journal told us in a recent piece, the future is arriving earlier than expected.

You know, the latest census tells us that almost 47 percent of people under 18 in this country are minorities. That's up from 39 percent in 2000. Those are the voters of the future, those are the workers of the future, and so if you do want to have success not just on a global level but really anywhere, you do have to have a certain facility with this.

And if you don't have a certain comfort with it, you need to get comfortable with your discomfort because this is, you know, this is the America that we live in. You used a great word. You said enhance your skills because if people see it as an opportunity to enhance their skills, as opposed to an eat-your-peas exercise, as opposed to the training that they're forced to do on the first Wednesday of every month, they will have a completely different view of it in the end.

MARTIN: Yeah, I don't say it's - diversity isn't something I have to do. Diversity is something I get to do.

CONAN: Let's go to a question here at the microphone in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Jerome.

NANCY BROWN: Hello, I'm Nancy Brown(ph), and I have a personal problem in bringing up a subject that seems to me to be the elephant in the middle of the living room, and that there's a very high percentage of births in the African-American community amongst unwed mothers.

And it seems to me that we're here at Aspen trying to talk about improving education and economic opportunity and jobs, and unless we admit that it takes a family, it takes a village, it takes a whole community to raise a good citizen and a child who's got a chance at success in this world that we are destined for failure.

So that's the racial question that I'm asking: How can the African-American community address this area and make some progress?

MARTIN: Well, the first thing I would say is there is no question that has not already been asked within the African-American community. It's not as though it hasn't been noticed. So you're on firm ground there in wanting to engage that question. It's not new news.

And the second point I would ask is: Is there some way in which you would want to be helpful in this, and you are afraid to, or is it simply that you want assurance that this is known and discussed?

BROWN: Well, I am a supporter of Planned Parenthood, as well as NPR, and I try to engage - when I listen to NPR, and they have programs where they have representatives of the black community talk about the criminal justice system and unfair practices, and everyone's agreeing, they don't mention the fact that most of the young black Americans who are in jail probably were from unwed mothers or from communities where they didn't have job opportunities because they had this whole upbringing that wasn't successful.

Their parents were working to make ends meet. They couldn't participate in schools and all that. So if I knew what the answers were, I would be happy to participate. I don't want to in any way take away from the success of the black community. I want to enhance it, but I don't know how.

NORRIS: You know, I think that part of it is a framework. I mean, some of the things that you're talking about, people are working hard, and so they can't participate in school. You know, you described life for most working-class families, you know, who have to figure out how they get to the PTA meeting on a Wednesday night. That is not unique to the African-American community.

But I want to return to something that you asked in the beginning is how do you get the African-American community to focus on these issues. I invite you to think about this in a different way because we've got to encourage the entire community to think about these issues.

Children born to unwed parents, whether they are born in African-American communities or in Latino households or in, you know, poor white communities, and there are large numbers of children who are born in just that situation, you know, we all have a stake in that because whether or not they find a good education impacts all of us.

Whether or not they get an education and find jobs impacts all of us. Whether or not they will contribute to Social Security when we need it, because we do need them to contribute to Social Security, impacts all of us. And so it's the - you know, leaving the building that Michel talked about, whether we get out of the building that we live and think about the people who live in the building down the street or the building down the street, or the building across town. It's how you think about this. And it's the other, but it's also the us, and you have to conjoin those things.

MARTIN: But the final point I would make on this is I - I thank you for your question. I invite you to continue to raise it in your circle, but I also invite you to listen to the answer the people give you. Because there are a lot of African-Americans who would say the real problem is the disappearance of meaningful work for less educated people, which makes it very hard for men to fulfill the traditional role that they have been taught to fulfill in these communities. And their sense of shame is such - is so great that they don't feel worthy to play that role. So I say thank you for your question. Keep asking it. And stay in the room.

BROWN: Fair enough. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from John in San Francisco: In most of the 20th century, we were taught about the races of the world. In the '90s, there was a push to show that race did not exist. This was mostly led by the scientific community - many of us were convinced. In the last 10 years, it seems race is back. Why is that? Why did the meaning of race change? Were we wrong in the 1990s? Am I now supposed to believe in race again?

NORRIS: Well, I wonder if he's asking about a sociological concept or a biological concept, because those are two very different things. You know, on the sociological idea of race, it changes all the time because we change, because the makeup of the country changes, because the neighborhoods we live in change, because the places that we work change. And he asks this question, and it's interesting because three years ago, what was that word that everyone was talking about that came from nowhere?

MARTIN: Post-racial.

NORRIS: Yeah. I mean, how many of you had even heard that word before the 2008 election? I've actually done some research on this. It didn't - it appeared maybe three times in print before 2007 and then all of a sudden it was everywhere. And it suggested that maybe we were moving to this period where we didn't have to think about race. But it's part of who we are. It's a descriptor. It's sometimes used as a cudgel. But it's not one thing that you can define and then sit back and say, I've defined it. I'm done.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I love this question, because this is something we can find everyday as journalists. The facts don't matter to some people. They don't care what's true. They like their story so they're sticking with it. So part of what we saw with the rise of Obama and, you know, all that that entailed - you know, culturally, politically and so on and so forth - is a lot of people who are not with that program. And they're reasserting their view of the world in a very aggressive way. So I think it's - both things are true. You know, race can be biologically insignificant and socially very powerful. And since we live in the world of what is, we're gonna continue to talk about it.

CONAN: Michel Martin, host of NPR's TELL ME MORE. Also with us, Michele Norris, host of NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, author of the memoir "The Grace of Silence." They're with us at the Aspen Ideas Festival. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to the microphone here in Aspen.

SHEILA: Hi, I'm Sheila. I would consider my - I do consider myself a liberal and a very active do-gooder. And I also am incredibly dedicated to responsibility and people taking responsibility. So the way I act right now is I'm very involved in a nonprofit that's environmental education in the low-income communities. And so I periodically am in classrooms, not leading, but being there.

And I frequently - well, not always frequently, but here and there, I have experiences where the classrooms were out of control, there's little respect for their instructor, and little respect for actually the presenter who's been brought in to the classroom. And yet, because I'm white, I don't speak up later to the administration, to the teacher, to anybody about it, because I'm afraid I'll be another whitey.


MARTIN: Would you like to? Would you like to speak up?

SHEILA: Well, I like to - oh, I like to speak up just like I do right now.


MARTIN: Can we give you a permission slip?

SHEILA: Well, you know, we have a big agenda in our organization. And, you know, we - it's a delicate thing to work within the system, so that's - it's hard.

NORRIS: What do you think would happen if you did pick up the phone and make a friendly call?

SHEILA: I haven't gotten that far with it. I guess I would be fearful of resentment. And what do I know, I haven't walked in those shoes.

MARTIN: Well, you know what, I have to tell you, I don't think you can be friends with people who - when you're not honest with - that you're not honest with. I just think that's just a basic rule of friendship. You can't be friends - you can't be in real community with people when you're not honest to each other's face. So if you're really friends with these people, then you probably owe it to them to tell them the truth.

NORRIS: You know, I've known Michel.

SHEILA: We're not really friends. We're, you know, bringing something in.

CONAN: Yes, working together, I guess.

MARTIN: Yeah. But it is affecting your view of the thing, and I guess - well, here's my guess. My guess is they would probably welcome the feedback. And if they don't, then you've told them something they need to know anyway.

NORRIS: And they would be - if they're listening right now, they'd think, why didn't she tell me? If only she had told me. Michel has been my friend for, what is it, three decades now?


NORRIS: Do we want to give them that much - don't (unintelligible)? You know, we've been friends for a very long time. And one of the things - friends and colleagues in many places. And of the things I cherish about that friendship is she always tells me when my slip is showing. I don't know what the equivalent of that is for men, I'm sorry, but she tells me what I need to know when I need to know it.


NORRIS: And so, you know, I would share that with you, that it's information that they need to hear. And it would be even more welcome from someone who's already shown respect for and dedication to the children that they also care about.

MARTIN: Right. But I have to say, this is really what I'm at when I sit, staying in the room. Because if the people were of a different background and you felt that there was vital information that you have that could make their lives better, wouldn't you want to tell them? Would you want someone to tell you - I just think that's where real community happens, when people tell the truth to each other. And they don't always have to agree. I mean, I have to tell you that, you know, one of the people I've learned the most from in broadcasting is Neal Conan. And he and I are very little alike - you may have noticed.


MARTIN: And, like - and yet, you know, he has done me the honor of telling me, to my face, things that I needed to know to make my job better, to be - to do better. And I would have really been sorry if I had missed that. So I'm betting you that there's at least somebody in that universe who will hear you and be thankful.

SHEILA: OK. Thank you.

MICHELE NORRIS BYLINE: Thank you for you question.

CONAN: Thank you for the question. And I'm sure nobody who...


CONAN: ...you were talking to heard that at all. They don't listen much here now. Thanks to our guests. Michel Martin, the host of NPR's TELL ME MORE. And thank you for those kind words. I do appreciate that. And Michele Norris, the host of NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. They're here with us at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

When we come back from a short break, we're going to continue this focus on how we talk about and across differences, specifically differences in religion. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf will join us next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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