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50 Years After the March on Washington, Americans Share Their Secret Thoughts on Race

The Race Card Project proves that 6 words can really pack a punch

It was slow going at first. But within a month, about a third of the postcards I had given out made their way back to me — each freighted with emotion.

"Change on counter, not in hand."

"My great great grandfather owned slaves."

"I see the scared in you."

"A terrible, unnecessary barrier against love."

The Race Card Project Goes Viral

After a few more months, The Race Card Project migrated to the social media universe, and the stories started to blossom on Twitter and Facebook.

Eventually, I created a website, theracecardproject.com, to allow people to view one another's stories and offer comments. The idea was to inspire an honest dialogue on this tinderbox of a topic. And it has worked.

Online, people have been shockingly candid, revealing their fears, disappointments and resentments. After an Atlanta white woman wrote, "Educated. Black strangers scare me still," visitors to the site challenged, applauded, even pilloried her. But a few invited her to visit one of several historically black universities in the area to meet educated black people as a way of tempering her fears.

A man who tweeted, "Purses are clutched when I approach" prompted responses from several women who admitted they do exactly that. They pledged to think more about their actions. Just as with face-to-face encounters, the online dialogue is often prickly and certainly moves people out of their comfort zones. But even when people disagree, they stay at the table. They stay engaged.

Nearly 30,000 Essays — and Counting

I've now collected almost 30,000 of these tiny essays, and I interview a few of the six-word authors each month for radio conversations that air on NPR's Morning Edition. The essays have served as a window into a world that was previously unavailable to me ... or perhaps to any of us, because many people who share their stories say they've never told them to anyone before. They are heartfelt and frank. And they underscore that while America may be far more integrated than it was 50 years ago — certainly cause for celebration — our experiences around race have in some ways become more complex and more difficult.

The conversation about race is no longer driven solely by black Americans. Indeed, because of mixed-race marriages, new immigrant patterns and an ever-shifting color line, it is increasingly hard to predict how "race" — so elastic, so far-reaching — will surface in any of our lives. But as the six-word essays show, inevitably it will. The ones I have received tell tales of triumph over adversity and reaching beyond bias ("My son's not half. He's double"), and many, many others tell tales of heartache, regret, violence, guilt, anger and defeat.

Next page: The most common words among the 6 words. »

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