Illustration by Patrick Yeung.

America’s social landscape has undergone a severe transformation in the 45 years since the civil rights movement. While institutionalized race discrimination and anti-miscegenation have been repudiated in American society, the legacy of the Jim Crow era and racism linger on in the American psyche, and race as a topic remains taboo to many people.

“People try to ignore race because it makes them uncomfortable,” said Cabrillo College student Alex Moreno, who plans on attending Bookshop Santa Cruz’s upcoming book reading. “As children we’re taught not to focus on it.”

Bookshop Santa Cruz seeks to examine why race remains a taboo by hosting a reading and Q&A session with National Public Radio host Michele Norris about her book, “The Grace of Silence.”

In writing the book, Norris, the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” sought to shed light on the perceptions of race and its evolution in America, particularly in light of Barack Obama’s presidency. Her approach changed after several interview participants responded hesitantly to questions about race. After she gleaned that reluctance is common in those asked to speak about their perceptions of race, she asked her family for help. She thought that by making it more personal, she would figure out where that apprehension came from. The project subsequently turned into a memoir.

Norris’ project, which began in the months prior to the 2008 presidential election, was intended to provoke conversation about race in America and the public’s personal opinions about the possibility of America having its first non-white president. Norris came to find that when confronted with questions about race, many people chose to remain silent.

“A lot of people would rather keep their mouths shut than talk about something sensitive like race,” Moreno said, reflecting on why Norris was met with silence with regards to her questions about the topic of race. “[Norris] is questioning why people get silent,” he said.

In the introduction of her book, Norris said that her interest in the topic was piqued when she realized that the unwillingness to discuss race was something that her family shared with many of the people she was interviewing. When she questioned the silence, she uncovered a painful secret in her father’s past: He had been shot by a police officer.

Norris changed the approach of her sociopolitical study to reflect her personal and familial experiences with avoiding race as a topic of conversation. This endeavor encouraged Norris to write her study of American racial perceptions as a memoir instead, one that included her personal story and how it was a result of the unwillingness of many people to discuss race.

Despite the many reasons for silence with regards to race, some people believe that this suppression of discussion can be overcome.

Susan McCloskey, Bookshop Santa Cruz’s events coordinator said Santa Cruz is an open community that “embraces silence in order to be politically correct.”

“In ‘The Grace of Silence,’ Norris mentions how older generations of people are less willing to discuss race,” McCloskey said. “I think students and young people are willing to start dialogues about tough topics to improve and educate society.”

Local NPR affiliate radio station KUSP is also playing a part in the discussion on race in America. Rick Kleffel, KUSP station personality, will attend the book reading and Q&A session to take part in the dialogue about race.

“This event and ‘The Grace of Silence’ are all about getting people out of their own heads,” Kleffel said. “Reading Norris’ book and many other books will expose people to other experiences and give them things to consider. Learning about the situations and opinions of others can aid the learning process and contribute to conversations about the event, and society as a whole.”

Kleffel further expounded on how Norris’ book contributes to the overall discussion of race in the country.

“If a person combines knowledge of their own experiences with the things that they can learn from Norris’ book or other books they can form new opinions based on what they’ve learned,” Kleffel said. “Events like this one can really engage a community.”


The book reading and dialogue session will be held this Sunday at Bookshop Santa Cruz, at 1520 Pacific Ave., from 7 to 9 p.m.