Former third-grade schoolteacher, anti-racism activist, and educator as well as feminist, Jane Elliott is known internationally for her ‘Blue eyes- Brown eyes’ exercise. Her first famous exercise was conducted to her class, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on 4th April, 1968.
The task of combating prejudice and racism requires education, introspection, and commitment. Jane has ran this exercise for many years and has left a powerful impact on her students. After appearing on the Oprah Show in 1992, delivering presentations to audiences world wide as well as lecturing groups and organisations, she continues to use her voice in the hope of educating people out of ignorance.
Why did you become a teacher?
My aunt Blanch and my two older sisters were teachers, and my father disapproved of my wanting to become a nurse. He said he’d help me afford the necessary schooling, if I’d become a teacher, and I wanted to do something that he would approve of, so off to Iowa State Teachers College I went, the week after I graduated from high school, with no money, but high hopes.
Growing up in Riceville, a white town, you had a moral upbrining where your farther had taught you to ‘never judge a man until you have walked in his shoes.’ How easy was it for you to keep these values when the environment around you was the very opposite?
I got out of the Riceville environment, physically and mentally, and found, upon entering the college environment, that there were black students there who had more money than I had (everyone did, so that wasn’t surprising), were more talented than I was, and were smarter than I was. They were the exact opposite of what I had been led, by my environment, to expect. I found out that my father was right to advise us not to ‘judge a book by its cover’, among other things.
Your well known ‘Blue eyes-Brown eyes’ exercise came from Hitlers ideology of creating an ‘Aryan’ race. Althought the exercise has been life changing for many, what was the one thing you learnt from these exercises?
The first, and most distressing thing I learned in the first few minutes of that exercise, was how white people look to people of color. You see, I was on the bottom on the first day, since I had blue eyes, and I watched my brown-eyed children become what the significant adults in their environment, including me, had taught them to be. I was shocked and disgusted and I will spend the rest of my life trying not to exhibit the kinds of behaviors and attitudes that those students displayed on that day.
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You once said, on the Oprah Show in 1992, ‘if we started telling the truth in schools, we would not have racism – it would be cured.’ The issue of the schooling system indoctrinating students rather than educating them out of ignorance, occurs due to the idea of white supremcy needing to be maintainted. Why do you think this system still remains and what could be done to change it?
We need to retrain every teacher, so that they become educators. What we’re doing at the present time in the schools in this country is train teachers to perpetuate the status quo. We’re convinced that the people who are paying our wages through their taxes have the right to have their children learn what they want them to learn. I was told that numerous times, while I was in college and after I got into the classroom. I didn’t think it was right, then, and I certainly don’t think it’s right, now. “It was good enough for my father, and it’s good enough for me,” was, and is, the justification for continuing to teach the myth of white supremacy and racism. And many white people are convinced that this system of ignorance is good for them, because they don’t realize how it cripples them and their offspring, all of whom are going to be living in an increasingly diverse world. Ben Wattenberg has written a book, “The Birth Dearth”, which threatens white people in this country with the disastrous consequences of our not producing enough white babies in the future. He was an advisor to presidents of the United States, and his influence can be seen in things like the “Right to Life Movement”.
Having built a career based on publicily speaking against discrimination. Does it disappoint you to see people such as Trump gaining so much support today?
I hardly think that ‘disappoint’ is the best word to describe what my attitude is toward people who would be so ignorant as to support this xenophobic, male chauvinistic bigot. That there are numbers of citizens who have graduated from high schools in the last 30 years, and are happily following this Pied Piper, is an indication of the severe failure in our educational systems.
With science and technology developing at a fast pace and with the accessability of the internet, we are able to improve our understanding of the world around us. With this in mind, do you think we have used these new developments to our full advantage?
Unfortunately, as we have seen in the last year, the accessibility of information is not always an advantage, unless those who are receiving it are able to make informed and intelligent judgements about the veracity of those imparting the ‘facts’. Just as we’d be well advised to get more than one opinion about a health problem, so we must evaluate what’s coming across the Internet, on the basis of the biases of the source, and thereby make an informed judgement, rather than simply accepting whatever is written as being the unvarnished truth.
If you had one message for every individual on the planet to hear, what would that be?
There is only one race, the Human Race, and we are all members of it. Grow up and get over your ignorance. Read the book, “The Myth of Race”, by Robert Wald Sussman, ASAP. It will change the way you see your world, and yourself in it.
If you want to find out more about Jane and her work, check out www.janeelliott.com