Bridging the Divide: Thoughts on Diversity and Race


Michele Norris, award-winning journalist and former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” describes her current project as “eavesdropping on America’s conversation about race.” Norris created The Race Card Project in 2010 to explore how Americans think about and navigate the often-difficult topic of race, and she shared her insights at the CFA Institute Diversity & Inclusion 2018: Strategies for Success Conference.

Eight years ago, when Norris was on a tour for her book, The Grace of Silence, she decided to bring postcards to book events and ask the audience to write just six words about race on the cards and mail them back to her. To her surprise, she received a 30% response rate — and her parents were postal workers, so her mother loved that she was supporting the U.S. Postal service.

Norris always hated the phrase “the race card,” or references to “playing the race card.” It seemed like a way of saying “please stop talking.” But she used the term for her project to turn the notion on its head.

The post cards turned into a website that allows people to submit six words on race electronically. She has now received more than 250,000 responses from people in all 50 states and 96 countries around the world. Norris says that the site invites people to share experiences, ideas, thoughts, or laments on race. She noted that some people visit the site just to “lurk” or observe, and that is o.k., too.

Although some call Norris an expert on matters of race and identity, she thinks of herself as someone who has listened more than others. She currently directs The Bridge program at The Aspen Institute, and its goal is to build sturdy cultural bridges, especially at this time when we really need them.

Norris encourages people to cross bridges and enter the world of others – to try to hear the views of others. She explained that going to other worlds and trying to understand other perspectives is key to building a better world for everyone. The goal, according to Norris, is not to create a place where everyone agrees with each other – that is asking too much.

However, bridges are supported by oppositional forces. The goal is to cross the bridge and come back. Instead of being a weakness, figuring out how to listen to each other across the divide can bring us to a moment of strength. Norris noted that there is great value in “staying at the table,” even when you disagree.

Norris said that she chose six words because it is a concept that people understand. And in making it short you get to a distillation, getting to the essence of something. Six words could be pithy and inviting, while a sentence could easily turn into a paragraph. Six words can be powerful.

Some responses were uncomfortable, and some shocked the audience. Things like “black babies cost less to adopt,” “I am white and pay the price,” and “Lady, I do not want your purse.” Others suggested a backstory that led Norris to prompt people with a follow up question: “Anything else?” People began to reveal their stories, and Norris learned why people chose their six words.

Norris has learned a great deal from the project and from the stories she receives. One surprise was that the majority of respondents were from Caucasian ancestry.

The nature of the responses can show where society stands on race and diversity. Norris has been hearing from white Americans who thank her for providing a place where people can tell their truth, and she has seen the site drive some positive changes.

Norris also noted that some white men feel uninvited. They fear saying the wrong thing, and they feel that their stories are discounted. We see this in our political climate, and it should not be ignored. Some responses have mirrored issues with sustained downward mobility for some white Americans, which is new. Norris explained that when race was discussed in the past, white Americans were seen as bystanders. She has since figured out that we must learn how to include all people in the conversation, and we cannot ignore anyone’s views.

The website will post things that are edgy to help understand the terrain at the moment. Norris noted that “just because they didn’t say it, doesn’t mean they didn’t bring it in the room with them.” Her goal is to create a circle of trust so that people can share their stories and build sturdy cultural bridges to strengthen communities and organizations. Ultimately, she wants to create a situation where we not only think about diversity, we act on diversity.

Norris says that she decided to hold up a window and a mirror. The window is for understanding the experiences of others, and the mirror is to understand and contextualize our own experiences.

Although the Race Card Project provides a framework for further discussion on diversity – How should we talk about race? What consideration should we give it in our work environments? – Norris does not like the term “diversity training.” She wondered whether this talk of “difference” could mean different experiences, to include conditions like poverty or a military background. Norris is concerned that organizations are only directing Team A to work with Team B, when we need to get curious about others and their experiences, which can be the building block for something bigger. We need to place value on listening and on diversity of thought.

This is a challenge in the financial world, financial management, and the spaces where financial professionals work, said Norris. if we are asked to picture a “genius,” or “financial titan,” we often have assumptions of how these people look. We need to change our perspective.

Right now, the investment industry has a diversity problem. But research has shown that diversity brings strength and greater profitability. Instead of seeing diversity improvements as something that we have to do, Norris wishes that we would change how we look at diversity. She noted that we could stop calling it “diversity” and start calling it “reality.” We get to learn more and make our organizations stronger. In finance, we should create an environment that reflects the clients that we serve.

Norris recommends that we “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” We may need to think about this just like we think about working out at the gym: no pain, no gain.

Finally, Norris stated that as a long-time journalist, she has been asking people to listen to her. With her time left on earth, she plans on working to create cultural bridges so that people can listen to each other.

When asked about her own six words on race, Norris said that they have changed over time. Currently, they are “More work left to be done,” which is a call to action that we should all heed.

All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: CFA Institute

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