Review: "30 Days of Race"
A young man decides to confront race by questioning strangers on the street. The result of the process is powerful. In his first conversation, the stranger seemed to search deep inside himself for his understanding of race in order to genuinely help J.A. Mitchell and offer him some closure. Mitchell developed these conversations into the book 30 Days of Race.
The conversations and the people he spoke with varied. They were a mix of races, ages, genders, and opinions. Mitchell asked them if we focus too much on race in the U.S., if all white people are racist, what people think about race and dress, or race and international politics, and so on. His project become like a sociological or anthropological study, gathering threads of narratives used to explain the concept of race that arose through natural flows of conversation. The book presents the “Idea of Race” and its social realities like a tangled yarn ball or a wildflower bouquet, with some shriveled and ugly pieces indeed.
Throughout the discussions, Mitchell does not impose his own opinions or analysis, but allows people to think through their own. This allows him to experience a sample of attitudes about and relations to race in the general public. These ideas inform social issues and become the fodder for racial debates that periodically arise in mainstream U.S. news and politics (think immigration, hurricane Katrina, and Don Imus), where racism goes beyond just the interpersonal and rears its ugly head in its institutional and cultural forms.
The reader is invited to consider what is behind each stranger’s unique thinking and be astonished at how ranging the concept of race is, and yet how entrenched it is in our minds. In an interview at Community Change, Inc. Mitchell noted that the opinions and explanations seemed to hinge on something deep in every stranger’s reality.
The reader experiences what Mitchell experiences, including exhaustion at the retelling of racism, frustration at those who deny it, and sadness. It is frustrating that many white people indicate an awareness of racism but allow themselves to avoid it and its impact on people of color in favor of color-blindness. Yet the book is also refreshing, as Mitchell experiences human connections and strangers surprise him with moments of insight and humor, such as when a young Cape Verdean woman says that the only white people that are not racist (or maybe they just don’t show it) are the ones that try to act black.
Mitchell supplements the conversations with research on history, science, and news stories that have shaped our understandings of race. He traces its etymology, reminds us of eugenics, and cites scientific and genetic evidence that shows no consistent biological or genetic basis for race beyond melanin and skin color. Race is a socio-historical construction.
30 Days of Race is a reminder of the countless occurrences and perspectives that have created the idea of race. At times it leaves a broiling in my gut. And it demonstrates how race pervades individuals and society, as Mitchell writes, like an antiquated virus.
30 Days of Race is Mitchell’s first work. He is also an artist. I recommend you purchase it on hiswebsite or borrow it from Community Change, Inc. for a fresh take on the social tangle that constitutes race.