NPR Host Michele Norris talks about her memoir, ‘The Grace of Silence’

Listen to the audio story:


LeTania Kirkland: You venture to write this book about other people and the conversation about race in America. What caused you to change course and write about your own family?

Michele Norris: Well, I started listening to this hidden conversation about race around the country because I wanted to capture it and write about it. And when I set the frequency to listen to that conversation, I started picking up bits and pieces of it in my own family. I started realizing that the older people in my family were talking about things that they’d never spoken of before. I realized as interested as I was in the other book, where I was listening to other people and examining how they talk and think about race, the story I had to pursue was my own family’s history.

Kirkland: As a journalist who’s normally telling other people’s stories, what was it like to switch roles and talk about your own family’s experience?

Norris: It was incredibly difficult and vertigo producing. I’m used to being on the side lines. I’m not used to being a part of the story, and I couldn’t stay on the side lines in this case. I had to get into the story, I had to speak honestly about not just what i was discovering, but what it meant to me.

Kirkland: And you found that your parents kept things from you regarding their own experience around race. That’s what you call the grace of silence. Why do you think they chose to keep those things from you?

Norris: They moved on. They decided not to dwell on painful aspects of their past. But I now understand something else, that they were trying to create a narrative of their lives about ambition, success and getting to a better place, but they also did not want to burden the next generation, and that is where the grace comes in because it would’ve been so easy for them to wallow in complaint or frustration or feed their kids a steady diet of regret, woe and complaint. And they didn’t do that, because they so badly wanted their children to soar, that they decided not to dwell on it.

Kirkland: You have your own children now. How as a parent do you negotiate your own grace of silence or not?

Norris: I grew up in a family with lots of secrets, and I just made those secrets public by writing a book about it. My children will know about the things I never knew when I was growing up. But i will try to not just put the information out there and let it sit, I’ll talk it through with them. I want them to take away from this a strong sense of perseverance and to know that bad things happen in life, but it doesn’t have to define you. I hope they will be a bit more open in their willingness to talk about this than previous generations were. I hope the main lesson they take from this is that they come from strong people.

The Salary Gap: an obstacle to gender equality

For many members of the “millennial” generation, feminism is a thing of the past, devoid of any relevance in modern society.

“You’re equal,” they say.  “What is there left to fight for?”

The first-generation feminists fought for suffrage.  The second-generation feminists fought for equal access to education and employment and for abortion rights, among other things. 

Their blood, sweat, and tears paved the way for a new generation of women who grew up secure in the fact that they could do everything the boys could do.  They attended the best colleges, broke into the male-dominated corporate world, and learned what it was like “to have it all.”

And when a woman “has it all,” why would she attempt to break that mold? 

The answer is as simple as this statistic: a woman still gets paid an average of 77 cents to a man’s dollar.

NPR reported that the gender salary gap holds steady, despite President Barack Obama’s passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in January of 2009, which extended the amount of time pay discrimination victims have to file lawsuits.

Women of color face an even greater wage disparity. 

Chart credit: NPR

Economists credit the pay gap to the greater likelihood of a woman taking childcare leave and a woman’s tendency to work in lower-paying fields.

But Catalyst, a women’s research group, found that among MBA graduates, women were paid $4,600 less for their first job.  This pay rate even applied to women without children.

Economist Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress said that the pay gap grows over time.  She cited research that indicates that women are less likely to negotiate a pay raise.

“There are assumptions that women don’t care about money, which is crazy!” said Ilene Lang of Catalyst, in an interview with NPR.  “There are assumptions that women will always have men who will take care of them, that women will get married, have children and drop out of the labor force.  All those assumptions are just not true.”

In 1963, when Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, women made 59 cents to a man’s dollar.  In the past 47 years, many strides have been made toward the equality of women.  But on the salary plane, only 18 cents have been gained.

Today’s woman can be as educated, as qualified and as skilled in a field and still make less money than a man.

That doesn’t sound very equal to me.