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Editor's Cut: Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes with Jane Elliott

Educator, activist and diversity trainer on racism in America
Photo by: Julie Brigidi

BRISTOL, R.I. -- On April 5, 1968 – one day after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. – a 35-year-old third grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, divided her students into groups based on their eye color. An exercise in how we treat others based on their physical traits quickly became a controversial example of the insidiousness of racism in America. Jane Elliott became an international sensation, catapulted into a career as an anti-racism activist and diversity trainer after an appearance on The Tonight Show and the PBS documentary A Class Divided. At 81, Elliott still administers the Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes exercise to children and adults around the world, and unapologetically takes to task anyone who perpetuates racism and discrimination. 

Here is an extended cut of Elliott's interview during a recent visit to Roger Williams, where she discussed her groundbreaking anti-racism advocacy, voting rights and women's reproductive rights in her hallmark take-no-prisoners fashion.

Why do you think your experiment took off the way it did in 1968?

Number one, it wasn’t an experiment. Never call it an experiment, because that would be unethical. I do not experiment with children without their parents’ knowledge or permission. You can call it an exercise or an experience. Why did it grow legs and run? Because I was on the Johnny Carson Show, and if you could get on the Johnny Carson Show at that time people would discuss what it was you were discussing. And I think that’s disgusting.

How did your students’ behavior change, and how did it impact you?

When I started the exercise, my brown-eyed people who were “on top” the first day in that exercise began to behave the way they had seen me and the other significant adults in their environment behave. They became vicious and domineering and arrogant and prejudiced and discriminatory. And to my mind came Robert Burns’ statement, “And would some Power give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us.” And I thought, “Oh Sweet Jesus this is what’s happening here.” By the end of the first hour and a half, before the first recess, I was out in the hall with my head against the lockers crying because of what my students were doing to one another and to me because I had introduced racism based on eye color into my classroom.

When did you realize that you were on to something in your classroom?

When went down to the teachers’ lounge at lunchtime to share with the other third grade teachers what was happening in my classroom, one of the teachers said, “I don’t know why you’re doing that. I thought it was about time somebody shot that son of a bitch.” It still makes me sick to my stomach, because all those other teachers either smiled or laughed or nodded because she had expressed their feelings perfectly. And that’s when I knew, oh my god, my third graders are going to be less ignorant at the end of this day than those teachers are. And they were.

How do you embody the role of a racist bigot when you administer the exercise?

Every time I do it I have a migraine headache the next day because I’m doing something that is in complete opposition to what I believe in as an educator, as a Christian and as a human being. It used to cause me great anxiety when I had to take my four kids in to get their DPT shots, but I knew it was going to protect them. This exercise is like injecting the wide virus of racism into people, so that in the future when they see it they’ll recognize it and refuse to go along with it.

What is the enduring impact of the exercise for those who experience it?

They never forget it. I have had people come up to me whose teachers have put them through it, and when my presentation is over they come up to me and tell me it’s the most important lesson they ever learned. And that’s what the vast majority of students say. That it changed their lives. And they’ll say, “Our kids might learn racism, but they won’t learn it from us.”

What did you learn from your experience on the Johnny Carson Show?

I would not have dreamed of telling everybody what I was doing – not because I felt I was doing anything wrong, but because we did lots of strange things in my classroom. I was bored and I didn’t want my kids to be bored.

When Johnny Carson called and asked if I would come on, I wasn’t terribly thrilled by that because two weeks before that he had a man who trained chickens and ducks and turkeys, and before that he had a man who shot a coke machine because it wouldn’t give him his product. But I went because I’d never been to New York and I’d never flown before on a big plane. But 25 to 30 percent of his audience is so racist – they will say the most horrendous things and not sign their names – they were people you wouldn’t want to associate with and certainly wouldn’t want teaching your children or running your military establishment.

How has the exercise evolved since that first day?

It hasn’t. It’s the same. No matter what I do or what group I do it with, I do the same thing. Now I give a culturally biased test to the members of the group – a test to which the brown eyed people know half the answers before they take the test, because that’s what we do in schools all the time. White kids taking those tests know half the answers because the tests are all about white kids.

Do adults who participate in your program react differently than children?

No difference, except that adults are more violent. I’ve been hit by a white male during the exercise. I’ve had a knife pulled on me. They took me out of Uniontown, Pa., because the teachers I put through the exercise in a very limited way in the morning called the superintendent and said “if you don’t get that bitch out of town we’re going to shoot her!”

Do you see difference regionally and internationally?

Nope, it’s the same. Internationally it’s the same because when we talk about western civilization what we’re talking about is white culture. It has nothing to do with being western civilization it has to do with being white culture.

What’s your response been to the critics of your exercise?

I say if you don’t approve of white children experiencing this for a day based on their eye color, then you tell me why you are willing to inflict it upon children of color based on ignorance about the color of their skin for their lifetime. When you stop doing that to others for a lifetime, I won’t have to do it to children or anybody else for a day. Justify what you’re doing on a daily basis, and until you do don’t criticize what I’m doing on one day of their lives. You justify what you’re doing for the rest of their lives. They don’t say much after that.

Before that they’ll say I’m not a racist. I say really, did you go to school in the United States? ‘Yes.’ Who discovered America? ‘Christopher Columbus.’ What are the names of his three ships? ‘The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria.’ I said do you have a picture of it when you were in school? What’d you draw on the land? ‘Indians.’ You can’t discover a place where people are already living. Who discovered America? ‘Well that’s not what it means!’

One woman said to me – I’ll never forget this bitch – she said ‘I don’t dislike blacks. When I see one I just think there but for the grace of God go I.’ Does that sound racist to you?

I talked to a young woman this morning who said her skin color was god given. I said no it’s not, it was an accident of birth. God doesn’t care about your color; God did not give you that color. That color is the result of having a great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother back there in sub-Saharan Africa where the first modern human beings evolved and that person was black and in your genetic structure is an echo of that first black woman’s genetic structure. And she said well God gave me my skin color and I said no, God did not give you your skin color! This is an accident of birth; get over that. If you think because God gave you your white skin then what about people of color? Did he choose to abuse? No, he didn’t. But we, white people, choose to abuse.

Unfortunately for this group I’m not rereading the ‘Isis Papers.’ Do not read it until you’re at least my age, because the first chapters tells you where skin color came from and it’s flat out wrong. (Read the book The Color of Man. Everybody needs to read the book The Color of Man.) But there’s some stuff in the ‘Isis Papers’ about which she is right on target, and everyone should read some of those papers she wrote – but not the first one. White is not the result of Albinos being born mutants and the people in the tribe kicked them out because they were white. That’s not what happened.

After all this time, do you find that the needle has not moved as much as we like to think it has?

It’s worse than that. We have made some progress, but now white people are suffering from skin scare, they’re afraid they are going to lose their numerical majority in this country and then people of color are going to want to treat us the way we have treated them. And if you think I’m lying about that you get the book The Birth Dearth, by Ben Wattenberg, and you read it. And he says that the major problem in this country today is that there are too few white babies being born in the United States. He’s a member of the American Enterprise Institute; he gives advice to presidents of the United States. It’s terrifying.

He says we can pay women to have babies the way they have in Western Europe all these years. But he says, unfortunately, we’d have to pay women of all color so we don’t want to do that.

He says the second thing we could do is increase the number of legal immigrants allowed in this country every year. He says unfortunately the vast majority of those who want to come to this country are people of color so we don’t want to do that.

He says the third thing we can do is remember that 60 percent of fetuses that are aborted every year are white. If we could keep that 60 percent alive that would take care of our birth dearth.

Now if you think the Right to Life movement is about morality or religion or protecting the fetus, you’re wrong. It is about increasing and perpetuating white numerical majority in the United States of America. It has nothing to do with religion, unless you believe as I do that insomuch as ye have done unto one of my brethren so have you done unto me. How dare you tell a woman what she can do to her body? And if you have the right to tell a woman what she can do with her body, as far as carrying a child to term as a result of unwanted pregnancy, then you have a right to tell a male who contributes to an unwanted pregnancy that he has to submit to involuntary vasectomy so that he won’t contribute to another unwanted pregnancy. Now do you think men would think twice before they try to tell a woman what she can do with her body? Damn right he would. And that’s the answer to abortion.

You’ve given your life’s career to teaching others – what have you learned through this process?

I’ve learned that I don’t know much. I really don’t know much about racism because I don’t have to. I’m white; I don’t have to know those things. And I know that there is a solution to this situation, and the solution is walking in another person’s shoes for a day and you’ll change the way you see them in the future.

I’ve learned that kids behaving in these ugly ways are exhibiting the behaviors that their parents and significant adults in their environment modeled for them.

I’ve learned that Oprah Winfrey is wrong when she says that we won’t get over this until all these old white men die. It just isn’t old white men who are doing that today; it is young white men who are afraid they’re not going to have the power they do now because they’re going to lose their numerical majority. Scared to death. You wouldn’t have to be scared if you treated people fairly. If you treated people fairly you wouldn’t have to be scared of them treating you unfairly later on. I think it’s a good lesson – otherwise I’ve wasted a whole lot of time.

How can the current generation of college students help to achieve greater equality among ethnic groups?

We are not equal, and we’re not guaranteed equality under the Constitution. We are guaranteed equitable treatment under the law – it is fairness and justice that you have a right to. You must vote. When you vote in this country now, you are voting for the future. The U.S. should not be a melting pot, it should be a stir fry – a place where people are appreciated as they are and where you can make a difference without being white. A place where differences are good