The most interesting, most revealing, most honest, and gravest conversations about race are the ones we typically never get to hear, because they percolate in private spaces. In the locker room or the bedroom. At the kitchen table or during a smoke break outside the factory. The conversations people have with themselves in their own head while brushing their teeth or driving to work.
The rise of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Parler have created new windows to peer at our consternation about race. But even with that relatively new gust of candor, there is still roiling terrain that our computer and phone screens cannot reliably reach. There are still self-imposed filters that often keep people from posting their innermost questions or laments in an open forum for the world to see.
That terrain is difficult to traverse as a stranger, and yet I’ve spent more than 10 years doing just that, thanks to a simple project I started in the attic of my house. I had written a memoir about my family’s complex racial legacy, and I was setting off on a 35-city book tour back in the days when that kind of travel was still possible. I was nervous for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because I knew I was going to be facing audiences in bookstores and big theaters across the United States, asking them to engage in conversations about race.
You see, a decade ago I was convinced that Americans would rather jump off a cliff than have an honest or personal conversation about race in public. As it turned out, I was wrong.
In an attempt to create an entry point for a difficult conversation, I began asking people to think about the word “race” and then take whatever popped into their mind and reduce that thought, memory, anthem, or question into one sentence with just six words.
I printed postcards that read “Race. Your thoughts. 6 words. Please Send.” and distributed them everywhere I went. I had no idea that years later I’d find myself awash in a tidal wave of every kind of emotion as the stories found their way into my mailbox, and eventually into my in-box after the small team I assembled created a website and invited people to submit their stories via the internet.
I had no idea that what I was actually creating was a taproot that would carry me into people’s most private spaces, to towns I’d never heard of, countries I’d never visited, and cultures that were both foreign and familiar. I had no idea there were so many people who were so eager to talk about race and identity that they would share their thoughts with a stranger, knowing that their stories could be posted on a website for anyone to see.
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When we began collecting stories digitally (and not just through postcards), we included an additional prompt to the form for submitting six-word stories online. It was a simple query before hitting the send button: “Anything else to say?” That was like turning the spigot on full blast. People went well beyond six words, providing backstories that ranged from a few sentences to long, deep, and revealing essays.
There’s the Ohio man who has spent most of his life as the only African American in the room at school and at work. He said he was seen as “safe” and “nonthreatening” but says he is secretly “full of rage.”
Or the woman who grew up in Colorado and was told never to speak about her grandmother’s Choctaw heritage for fear that she would be reported and sent away to live on a reservation. Her grandmother was a proud woman who, despite the hatred and discrimination in their town, passed on stories about her Choctaw ancestors in the safety of their home. Stories that are cherished today.
A river of humanity suddenly flowed in my direction, and it has challenged my baseline assumption that people are afraid to talk openly about race.
MY MOTHER HATED MY DARK SKIN • I’M WHITE, BUT I’M NOT BASIC • I AM MEXICAN WHEN IT’S CONVENIENT
Over the course of the project we have archived more than 500,000 stories from all 50 states and around a hundred countries and territories. We received stories from distant places where people are more likely to focus on ethnicity, religion, and caste rather than on race. And yet people understand the forces at work behind the word: power, rejection, belonging, and fear.
This project started at a time when events and trends evinced a shake-up of America’s social order: a Black family in the White House; dramatic shifts in attitudes about gay marriage and LGBTQ issues; the aftereffects of 9/11; and demographic changes that were abundantly apparent in advertisements, crowds at malls, students enrolled in school, and in the U.S. states where the non-Hispanic white population has slipped into minority status (six and counting).
In the U.S. our national discussions of race are usually dictated and defined by big, explosive events: debates over immigration, a pioneer who breaks the color barrier, hateful language spray-painted on a storefront, a Confederate flag flying defiantly in the air, or a Confederate monument tumbling to the ground. But there is an intimacy to the stories people tend to share in this project. Yes, there are direct references to slavery and affirmative action quotas and America’s first Black president, the kinds of things found in history books and news headlines. But more often than not, people emote about their kids and co-workers, their neighborhood or church, the way the world responds to their accent, traditions, or body size.
There are many stories of women who are mistaken for nannies because they don’t look like their multiracial children. Many stories from Black men who see strangers pull their purses a bit closer as they step on an elevator or pass by on the street. Many stories from white people who assert that they’ve never owned slaves and are tired of being made to feel guilty about a past that does not directly touch their lives.
We’ve also heard from many families wanting to make sure their children are seen as “fully” or “authentically” American. They share a common aim, but their definitions of “truly” American vary. It also has changed since I started this work, as shifting demographics place America on a trajectory in which today’s minorities become the majority.
And although we operate under the banner of the Race Card Project, many of our storytellers send tales that have nothing to do with skin color or the race or ethnicity boxes they tick on the census. The stories swirl around military service, sexual orientation, disability, or hair color.
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Through this work, we get to see people as they see themselves. They chose what they wanted to talk about, what they wanted to interrogate or examine. As a result, we get to see a part of the world that is usually walled off. I’ve been able to listen to police officers, teachers, farmers, voters, and health professionals on the front lines. I’ve heard from released prisoners, returning soldiers, teenagers transitioning to a new gender, and people who never really meant to pass for something other than their inherited identity but who realized it was just easier not to correct someone who thought they were white or Christian or Filipino.
This multihued canvas underscores something that often gets lost when we consider matters of race. That word with all of its weight is usually tied to the historic toxicity of racism. Given America’s Jim Crow past, that means the word “race” usually conjures up an automatic frame around white privilege and bias against Blacks. But that binary blanketing winds up obscuring or erasing other cultural threads. In the grand discussion of race and ethnicity in the U.S., Latinos, Asians, Iranians, Arabs, Native Americans, and indeed people of all kinds of cultural backgrounds are pushed to the fringe.
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This is a quilt that includes all of those threads. Micro-essays that are heartfelt and frank and underscore a hard truth. Yes, America is increasingly integrated and tolerant based on changing laws and evolving attitudes, and yet our experiences, assumptions, and fears around race actually are more complicated as a result. Progress comes with its own brand of indigestion.
After doing this work for years, I’ve had the benefit of tracking some stories over time, and that has provided valuable lessons about the fluid notion of identity. In a changing America, identity of all kinds—race, gender, class, ethnicity—is less likely to be defined by checking a box of fixed certitude as if encoded forever in amber.
Indeed, some of these six-word tales confirm that identity, anthems, and attitudes evolve based on time and circumstance. The people who roared their beliefs in college and resent that they must speak more carefully upon entering the workplace and eyeing a position in upper management. The white machinist who voted for Obama twice is drawn to right-wing groups that give voice to his gnawing fear of being edged out by immigrants who challenge his status and work for lower pay. The woman who championed diversity programs sours on the work after finding herself constantly on the defensive as people she saw as fellow warriors assert that her efforts, though well intended, overstep the boundaries of cultural appropriation.
The long view often is full of surprises. People transmute or constrict. Attitudes alter or calcify. Events outside of our control can almost immediately catalyze a nation’s views and create a sense of personal vertigo.
I AM EVERYTHING DONALD TRUMP HATES • HATED FOR BEING A WHITE COP • THE INVISIBLE ARAB UNTIL 9/12
Listening to this symphony over so many years has been rewarding beyond measure. It also has been tough. Keeping the project alive has been a challenge. I am grateful to everyone who has entrusted us with their individual tales, and grateful to a small army of people who saw the potential in this project and have helped support it. There have been triumphs and breakthroughs and epiphanies, but this is an archive built primarily around race, so every week brings a new brand of anxiety or intensity. I am not suggesting this is a burden, but the contours of my heart are different after a decade. I have a better understanding of the challenges around race, the roots that feed racism, and the knee-jerk tendency to wish that it would all just be over, instead of trying to better understand why we can’t overcome our divisions.
GRANDMA SENT $100 WHEN WE BROKE-UP • I AM DEAD TO MY FATHER • HELD AT GUNPOINT ... WILL TRY ANYWAY
The word “post-racial” was still being thrown about when I started this project in 2010. But even back then, many aspects of our lives suggested that race was not moving off the table anytime soon. Instead, it was about to become the main course—always on the menu in one way or another and usually served up piping hot. Ten years later, sociologists are talking about a public health phenomenon called racial battle fatigue—a condition defined as the cumulative result of a repeated stress response to unsettling mental and emotional conditions associated with persistent racial tensions. So much for post-racial. You can’t even say that word these days without an attendant eye roll.
We are living in a moment in which so many people say they’ve grown tired of racial strife, while at the same time they’re working hard to assert their particular viewpoint. Are we really tired of the subject or merely uninterested in ex-ploring a world outside our own? In reality, exploring alternate worlds and perspectives is harder in some ways because of political polarization and media segmentation. Much of what we read, hear, and watch only confirms what we already believe. That is where this project differs. Each entry is a window into someone else’s realm.
The Race Card Project archive includes a full spectrum of views and life experiences. You may find something familiar, something that will make you nod your head in agreement. But I can guarantee that if you scroll through these stories, you also will see things that will spark discomfort or make you want to cry, or squirm, or shake your fists to the sky.
That’s not surprising. This is a journey through race and identity. This is a project that holds up a mirror to the world. Given the subject, why would anyone ever expect to enjoy or embrace everything they see?
Over the past decade, the Race Card Project has grown into a trusted space that excavates hidden truths and questions hardened narratives. The six-word writing exercise and narrative archive is now used in schools and universities across the country and outside the U.S. It’s also used by institutions of all kinds that are seeking to stoke conversation or surface stories that people don’t normally discuss.
Decades from now this vast archive of first-person narratives around one of history’s most vexing issues will help historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and journalists understand the lived experience of race and identity in a period bookended by the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump—and now punctuated by a global pandemic, street protests, and political turmoil. The archive is like an almanac, a catalog, a repository of the small things that make up the larger picture. We are defined by laws and events and trends, but the smaller pixelated moments actually are what complete that picture.
I have spent 10 years working on a project that began with a mistaken assumption. I thought no one wanted to talk openly about a subject as prickly as race. I was gloriously wrong. Sometimes you open the wrong door and find yourself in the right place.
Tell Your Story
To join this conversation, go to theracecardproject.com. Follow the prompts to add your six-word story. Write more if you wish, and see the statements of others who’ve also come to share their stories.
‘Black Boy. White world. Perpetually exhausted’
Esayas Mehretab, Richmond, Virginia
On the first night Esayas Mehretab moved into a new apartment with his college roommate back in 2012, they decided to go out with a group of five friends. They all piled into a minivan and headed out to explore the neighborhood around Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
Within seconds they were pulled over by city police and told to exit the car one by one, with their hands up.
“It just got crazy because we got pulled over and there was one cop car and we’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Mehretab says. “And then there were two cop cars, then three, then four, then five, then six, and they just kept coming. We were pretty scared to say the least.”
Mehretab says police handcuffed the students, told them to lie down on the sidewalk, and took their wallets. After about 30 minutes, the students were uncuffed and allowed to stand. The police explained that there had been a robbery that night and two of the students in the minivan—the two who were Black—fit a description of the suspects.
“That’s how I was introduced to the city of Richmond,” Mehretab says. He and his friends in the van never talked about the incident again, and he didn’t mention a word to his parents until years later, when he decided to share his six-word story: “Black boy. White world. Perpetually exhausted.”
Mehretab’s family had come to the United States as refugees, seeking to escape persecution in Ethiopia during that country’s civil war. Mehretab was five years old at the time, and for most of his life he was told to focus on achievement, school, and sports.
“For me there was always a sense of having no space for myself to go and talk about my experiences, my struggles, and what life was really like for me as a Black boy,” he says.
Mehretab, now a senior recruiter with a company in Richmond, eventually decided that his parents needed to know about the challenges he faces as a Black man and an immigrant, including his encounter with the police. His silence, he says, normalized that situation. In retrospect he treated it as a rite of passage, he says, something that was going to happen eventually. No big deal. “I dealt with it. I got through it.
“I should have been angry and I wasn’t, and that makes it even sadder than what happened.”
‘Ashamed that accomplished minorities surprise me’
Daniel Chaim Robbins, Seattle, Washington
Sometimes submissions to the Race Card Project hit people like a punch to the gut, and Daniel Robbins’s six words certainly fall into that category. They tend to make people squirm. Some are angry that he would dare to say something like this out loud. They are offended by his honesty.
I have a different take. I appreciate his candor, because it represents an attitude that is very much alive in the workplace and the classroom and really anyplace where the achievements of people from historically marginalized groups collide with deeply ingrained expectations. Robbins, a product designer who lives in Seattle, submitted his six words back in 2014 after attending a leadership program that explored the roots and impact of racism.
“No matter how liberal and progressive I might claim to be, no matter how many workshops I’ve been to or essays I’ve read about privilege, I still hear my inner voice express pleasant surprise when I see a minority doing well at something,” Robbins wrote in a short backstory that accompanied his six-word submission. “Whether I see a minority excelling in business, writing an editorial in the national press, or doing rounds in a hospital, inside I first say, ‘Wow, look at that!’ ”
He added, “I am not proud of this and I don’t know how to fix it.”
Years later, he’s still working to find those answers, still committed to making himself vulnerable by pushing past his comfort zone. And he still admits to hearing that little voice of yowza astonishment when he sees excellence in what he considers to be unexpected places. Everyone is different, but for him, he says the first step is to acknowledge that little voice and then figure out how to respond.
“You know, to understand that that’s an interior voice and that sometimes it can be more respectful for me to show them just as much—how do I say this—to show them the same response that I’d show anybody else,” Robbins says in an interview. “It’s sort of like the white liberal progressive side of me wants to say, ‘Oh my God, that’s such a great idea. How did you come up with that?’ But I wouldn’t say that to a white co-worker.”
‘White husband became Iranian September 11th’
Maren Robinson, Chicago, Illinois
‘You don't look Iranian!’ ‘I am.’
Rom Barkhordar, Chicago, Illinois
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Maren Robinson and Rom Barkhordar were on a cross-country road trip when they pulled into an Arkansas truck stop to fill up and grab a bite to eat. When they walked inside, everyone was staring at a TV mounted high on the wall. Smoke was rising from side-by-side skyscrapers in New York City.
“What’s going on up there?” Barkhordar asked. A man sitting at the counter explained that the World Trade Center was under attack. Then a second man sitting nearby spat out an expletive usually directed at people of Middle Eastern descent. Barkhordar looked at his wife and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Barkhordar is Iranian American. His wife, Maren, is blond and of European descent. September 11 became a line of demarcation in their lives. “I would say that definitely was the first moment I had that I just physically feared for [Rom’s] safety, and that has not gone away,” Robinson says.
After hearing a radio program about the Race Card Project, both Robinson and her husband were inspired to share their stories. But neither of them knew what the other had said when they submitted them.
The change they experienced after 9/11 is captured in the six words Robinson submitted: “White husband became Iranian September 11th.” She also provided a written backstory to explain her choice of words. “I watched how my American-born, half-Iranian husband went from being perceived as white … to being perceived as vaguely ‘Middle Eastern’ (eliciting double takes on trains and extra searches at airports) after September 11th.”
Robinson is a script consultant at several Chicago area theaters and is an administrator at the University of Chicago. Barkhordar is an actor with a long list of credits in theater, television, and video game voice-overs. His submission to the Race Card Project reads: “You don’t look Iranian!” “I am.”
Before 9/11, Barkhordar says, he was seen as a swarthy white guy who could play a range of ethnic roles. After 9/11, the work that came his way was most often for Arab bad guys, the kind of roles denoted in scripts as “Terrorist #2.”
Then Robinson and Barkhordar began getting mail and telemarketing calls in Farsi and Arabic, languages neither of them speak. The sudden influx of Middle Eastern messages was a complete mystery. Today they suspect they were being surveilled by some government initiative to make assessments about Middle Eastern men in the U.S.
“I mean, I have a totally clear and spotless background and record,” Barkhordar says. “They were just going by the fact that I had a certain last name that was Iranian, that I was male of a certain age, and so I fit that profile.”
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on the horizon, they still feel the sting. If anything, their experience has made their allegiance to Barkhordar’s ethnic background stronger, especially through their work in theater. In her role, Robinson advocates for stories that examine a broader range of cultures and characters. And Barkhordar has grown a beard, in part to more closely identify with his culture, on and off the stage.
‘Blackcican Spanish speaker Didn’t teach kids’
Marisha Vandenberg, Riverside, California
Marisha Vandenberg says she had never been happier in her life. After raising three children with her husband, Richard, she had returned to school with the intent of earning a master’s degree in education. Yet when one of her professors at California Baptist University in Riverside asked students to send their six-word stories to the Race Card Project back in 2017, Marisha wrote about regret.
“Blackcican Spanish Speaker Didn’t Teach Kids” are the six words she chose for her class assignment. Her first three words are like a quick bio: Her father is Black and Creole, and her mother’s side of the family came from Mexico. Marisha was raised in a tight-knit family that included her Latino grandparents, two uncles, and three aunts.
Her next three words, “didn’t teach kids,” hark back to a decision she now wishes she could reverse. Her husband is white and of European ancestry. He had a DNA test and discovered that he has Norwegian, Swedish, German, English, and Dutch ancestors. Marisha jokingly calls Richard her Viking.
When she and Richard started their family, Marisha’s mother would encourage the Vandenberg toddlers to use Spanish as they were learning to talk. Marisha had always assumed her kids would grow up bilingual just like she did, but Richard was worried that they would get confused. She insisted they would be just fine. “He had never experienced anyone being bilingual in the home,” she said of her husband. “None of my reassurances helped.”
People who see her story at the Race Card Project website might jump to the conclusion that Richard is uncomfortable with Latino culture, Marisha said. But she insists that they wouldn’t take that leap if they knew his heart.
In time, she agreed to an English-only approach for their children, but because they spent so much time with her extended family, she was secretly betting they would learn Spanish almost by osmosis. To her regret, that didn’t happen. If anything, the grandparents and great-aunts and -uncles wound up learning more English from the kids than the kids learned Spanish from their elders.
While this was happening, the world around them was shifting. Especially in California, the ability to easily switch between Spanish and English was increasingly seen as a skill employers were seeking—and sometimes rewarding with higher pay.
By the time their kids were teenagers, the Vandenbergs decided to change course. They made sure the kids took Spanish in school and gave family members the green light to serve as language ambassadors. The kids are getting there, Marisha says. They know the basics. But she admits that Spanish—or the “Spanglish” she often speaks—doesn’t quite roll naturally off their tongues. Ironically, after working for years in restaurants in his youth, Richard had a stronger command of Spanish than his kids—but they have since caught up.
“I wish my young ignorance hadn’t allowed me to cave in,” Marisha says. “But it’s never too late to right some wrongs.”
‘We aren’t all “Strong Black Women”’
Celeste Green, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Celeste Green doesn’t mind that people see her as a strong Black woman. She is in fact all three of those things. What irks the 32-year-old resident physician is that it’s too often all that people see, overlooking traits that make her equally proud: her grace, intelligence, patience, and composure.
So when it was time to write an application essay for her second attempt to get into medical school, she built her personal statement around the six-word story she sent to the Race Card Project back in 2012: “We aren’t all ‘Strong Black Women.’ ”
“Who I am is not just a Strong Black Woman, frowning and forging through life like a checklist,” Green wrote in her essay to the University of North Carolina’s medical school in Chapel Hill. “It is not my duty to feign strength or self-righteousness, but to turn my experiences into empathy.”
Green, who was admitted and is now in her obstetrics and gynecology residency, said the strong Black woman trope is a double-edged sword. It’s too often harmful to women who think they must always live up to that expectation. And it’s dangerous when people think Black women can handle just about anything without help or respite. That stereotype has become so fixed in the popular imagination that it’s often considered as a kind of “you go, girl!” compliment.
“It just carries so much expectation, being strong,” Green wrote. “ ‘Why would we give her more pain medicine? She’s strong.’ ‘She doesn’t need that grant or scholarship. She’s strong.’ And these examples sound hyperbolic, but when we look at disparate health outcomes, pay gaps, recognition for our art, our advocacy, our intelligence … Black women continue to be overlooked.
“I think if a Black woman truly feels her most powerful and capable when she describes herself as strong, then I fully support her existing in that space,” Green wrote. “I feel strong much more often now than in those moments when I wrote my six-word story. But ‘strong Black woman’ can quickly change from an adornment to a burden.”
Too often, she wrote, it’s “an excuse to demand more of us at the expense of our own well-being and peace.”
‘I wish he was a girl’
Kristen Moorhead, Silver Spring, Maryland
Kristen Moorhead sent her six words to the project on November 26, 2014, the day Cleveland police had released a grainy surveillance video showing how 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by an officer seconds after the officer arrived in response to a 911 call. The child, it turned out, was holding a toy pistol.
Like Tamir Rice, Moorhead’s son, Che, was 12 then. His mother typed, “I wish he was a girl.” She said it felt like a silent scream.
“I’ve always told my son, ‘You can be anything you want to be,’ ” she also wrote that day. “He’s 12 now. Almost my height and swears he doesn’t see color. His possibilities are infinite, yes, but there’s a cruel catch. You can be anything you want to be, but first you must survive.”
This winter I watched as Kristen read her six words to her son, who’s now 18. She explained that she hadn’t wished for a different child but was processing a deep-seated fear because so many unarmed Black men and boys have been killed by police.
At six feet tall, Che towers over his mother. The product of several gifted and talented programs, he’s now preparing for college and no longer professes that he doesn’t see color. Conversely, he said his color and gender are what the world often sees first in him.
“I’m very much still in the habit of whenever I’m walking into a grocery store, even walking past someone on the street, I’ll always say ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ or try to have a miniature exchange with them, just because the way that I speak tends to change people’s perception of me,” said Che, who still has a boyish voice. “Meaningless exchanges. Like, ‘The weather we’re having is so nice.’ And having to always have this happy face on … and put up this wall that makes me a one-dimensional figure that can exist as a person, or not even as a person, but as a semblance of a person rather than a threat.”
You’ve probably heard of the tradition in which Black and brown parents give their children “the talk,” advising them how to comport themselves so they can get home safe, especially if they encounter police. Well, this was “the talk” in reverse. A child explaining to his mother for the first time how he’s absorbed and acted on all her advice. Kristen is glad her son learned the lessons, yet feels more pain than pride.
“There’s a level of resentment, honestly, that my kid has to learn this, and that I had to teach it to him,” she said. “There’s no satisfaction in your child mastering these lessons.”
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This story appears in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.