Michele Norris On The Anxiety Of White America And Her Optimism For The Future : Code Switch Former NPR host Michele Norris talks about her story for National Geographic magazine's issue on race. In it, Norris explores the unease of some residents of a rapidly changing Pennsylvania town.
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Michele Norris On The Anxiety Of White America And Her Optimism For The Future

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Michele Norris On The Anxiety Of White America And Her Optimism For The Future

Michele Norris On The Anxiety Of White America And Her Optimism For The Future

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In the same issue of National Geographic, there's a piece by Michele Norris. She's the former host of this show who now runs The Race Card Project, in which she asked people to send in their thoughts on race in just six words. When she began the project in 2010, Norris assumed she'd hear mostly from people of color. She was wrong.

MICHELE NORRIS: I think what happened is people felt that they had an entry into a conversation that wasn't always welcome to them. And it was a place where they could say things that you don't generally say out loud. And so people of all races pulled up to the table. But white Americans, in very large numbers, bought into the project and decided to share their stories. And here are some examples - (reading) white not allowed to be proud. Gay but at least I'm white. Hated for being a white cop. Abuse was invisible because I'm white. Other races resent us white people. Most white people are not racists. White people do not own racism. I unpack my white privilege daily.

MCCAMMON: Norris digs into some of these feelings in her story "The Rising Anxiety Of White America." It focuses on the town of Hazleton, Penn. Since the year 2000, it's gone from being more than 95 percent white to more than half Latino. That change makes some of the white residents uncomfortable.

NORRIS: When people talked about it, it was often the notion of suddenly being outnumbered. That's a word that I heard over and over and over again - going to the doctor's office and suddenly looking around and realizing everybody else is Hispanic, going to the local Walmart and realizing, boy, the things that they're selling in the produce aisle are different. Or there's a whole aisle where everything is written in two different languages, and I never noticed that before. Or the people who are checking me out when I go to buy lumber or groceries, they're different. And suddenly people are speaking Spanish. And suddenly it feels like this community that I knew so well - is what they were saying - is that they don't feel like it's theirs anymore.

And that coupled with economic changes, with jobs disappearing - and that coupled with the cultural things in a town where you had a very strong immigrant population for decades, you know. There were people from Italy and people from Ireland and people from Germany. And they all had their traditions. And suddenly they have to make space for newcomers who come in. But when the newcomers are brown and when the newcomers are less interested in assimilating in the same way and suddenly speaking English - they want to hold onto their old culture, and they want to hold onto their old language - suddenly the word immigrant doesn't have the same ring to it.

MCCAMMON: Michele Norris, as you've had these conversations with white people about the discomfort they feel about the change they see around them, how much did they seem to, in their own minds, connect that discomfort to issues of race?

NORRIS: It was interesting because they wouldn't necessarily say those brown people. There would often be sort of proxy for that. You know, the food is different. The music is different. The town feels different. There was a large threat narrative. I mean, people felt like, with the changing community, the crime rate had increased - or that they just didn't feel as safe as they used to. In some cases, it was for a good reason. Someone had literally drove a car into their restaurant. Or someone had had a wallet taken. In a lot of cases though, the fear was based on something in the abstract - not something that had actually happened to them. And there was a difference in the way that people who were more advanced in years talked about it than the kids.

MCCAMMON: I do want to ask about the next generation because you do talk about that a bit. And I feel like, in general, a lot of these discussions about race seem to sometimes almost end with platitudes that the next generation will be more enlightened, more colorblind or at least more comfortable with difference. Do you share that hope? Or is that in some way a naive hope?

NORRIS: Well, I am optimistic by nature. And yet I'm pragmatic. And so I know that when we say that race is perhaps an easier concept for young people, it's easier, but it's not easy. In fact, there's a body of social research that suggests that young people, despite inheriting this world that is so much more diverse, still sometimes cling to values that their parents had or that their parents' parents had. And yet I think the future is still something that we should be optimistic about. But it might take two, three, four generations before some of this gets easier. And it's not just because of demographics and race. It's also because of the economic tumult that we're facing. And it's also because of technological tumult. I mean, people's jobs are being replaced in large part by technology. And that creates a certain degree of vertigo. So it's not one thing. There are a lot of onions in that stew.

MCCAMMON: Michele Norris is the author of "The Rising Anxiety Of White America" in the April issue of National Geographic and a former NPR host. Thank you so much for joining us.

NORRIS: It is great to be back here. Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALOE BLACC'S "WITH MY FRIENDS")

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