The Return of Jane ElliottBreaking News
tags: racism, education
The day after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the schoolteacher Jane Elliott scrapped her lesson plan — teaching her third graders the Sioux prayer about not judging another person until you have “walked a mile in his moccasins” — for an experiential learning exercise.
She split the children at her all-white school in Riceville, Iowa, into two groups based on their eye color: brown-eyed students in one, blue-eyed students and anyone else in the other. The members of both groups received treatment based on that one arbitrary quality, the pigmentation of their irises.
Over the course of two days of instruction, she convinced the blue-eyed students that they were not as smart, worthy or human as their brown-eyed peers, who were rewarded for their supposed superiority. The exercise demonstrated for the students how easily prejudice could be learned, and hopefully unlearned.
“Racism is ignorance based on being miseducated. Racism is a result of being indoctrinated instead of educated,” Ms. Elliott said by phone from her home in Iowa in early July. “I don’t sugarcoat racism.”
When teaching, or speaking to a reporter, she uses a strict tone. There is no tolerance for talk of colorblindness, no coddling of so-called white fragility. There is only understanding how it feels to be mistreated based on meaningless standards.
Her uncompromising, one-size-fits-all approach to anti-racist education differs from that of many contemporary writers and thinkers, who emphasize the importance of hard conversations, visible allyship, box ticking and historical fluency. Perhaps it is because she has seen history repeat itself.
“I was born the year Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt came to power, in 1933. I remember what the Nazis did from 1933 until 1945. And I saw that same thing happening in this country where skin color is concerned,” Ms. Elliott said, recalling the 1960s.
Though Black thought leaders had spoken directly to white people about systemic racism for years, as a white woman herself, Ms. Elliott was able to make the pain of discrimination personal for them with the “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” exercise. It was not unusual to observe tears streaming from the eyes of blue-eyed participants, who had likely never experienced serious discrimination based on their appearance.
That the exercise resonated with people led to a second career for Ms. Elliott. She held lectures and workshops all across the United States, including an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1992, a conversation with Angela Davis in 2018 and a seat on “Red Table Talk” that same year.
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