By Markus Williams
Where shall I fly and where shall I be?
Someone planted a tree.
A tree they may never see.
A fair thing is a pretty thing and a right wronged no man. These words spoken by her wise father have been a value Jane Elliot has chosen to live by her entire life. If it is true you must be carefully taught to hate then it is equally true that we must carefully teach love. She was born in Riceville Iowa one of seven children. They lived on a farm and each of them was expected to work in order to keep the farm and home running smoothly. Her parents were teenagers when they got married from different religious backgrounds. Her mother was a Catholic and her father was a Southern Baptist. Her maternal grandparents decided to disown their daughter when she married outside of the faith and her paternal grandparents were not much happier. They did not consider the marriage biblically legitimate so the grandchildren were seen as bastards and they were treated as such. At the age of five Jane witnessed her first lesson on discrimination. Her younger sister had died and at the funeral her mother’s parents came but refused to leave their car. Jane’s father went to the car to greet them and Jane watched as her grandfather spat tobacco at his feet. Although she did not have the vocabulary to articulate her feelings she recognized that was not a good way to treat fellow human beings, particularly family members. Both sets of grandparents were religious but she did not find either Christ like. This was an image she has not forgotten in 75 years so she understands the long lasting impact that discrimination has on an entire group.
In high school she had a profound experience that would influence her thought for the rest of her life. She had both an uncle and a teacher who had fought in the Second World War and their resulting views were strikingly different. Her uncle’s hatred for the Japanese was palpable; he could not say enough negative things about them. Her teacher however came to a different conclusion and he shared with his class that he would never again fight in a war and neither would any of his sons. One man saw race and the other saw human beings. With this example she saw past her white privilege and into a better world.
Jane was well into her teaching career when Martin Luther King was shot. His death and what happened in her classroom would put her values as a human being to its ultimate test. She observed a news reporter asking a black leader “When our leader John F Kennedy was shot his widow held us together, who’s going to control your people?” She decided to carefully teach her third grade students that we are all each other’s brothers and sisters. Racism hurts everybody. If Martin Luther King can be shot simply because he’s marching for peace and justice what might any of us be shot for. Injustice to one person is injustice to every person. She asked her students if they would like to do an exercise to find out how it would feel to be treated as a person of color in America. The students agreed and she called it the “Blue Eye/Brown Eye” exercise. She divided her class based on their eye color and gave one group favor by giving them extra time at recess more food at lunch and constant positive reinforcement. The other group was not so lucky. They received constant negative reinforcement, sitting in the back of the room and fewer privileges. She noticed a change in their personalities. The superior kids who had not been doing well academically were now performing better, they became arrogant, bossy and unpleasant to be around. For the inferior students the exercise saw their grades suffering and they became timid and submissive even the ones who were once dominant. After several days of this exercise Jane asked the kids to write what they had learned. The local newspaper heard about the exercise and decided to print what the students wrote. The associated press picked up the story and from there the “Blue eye/Brown eye” exercise grew into something that would teach the world. The publicity led to Jane being invited on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
However, not everyone was happy with her exercise. Johnny Carson received phone calls expressing disapproval for Jane as a guest. Her fellow teachers walked out of the room when she entered and parents did not want their children in her class room because she was a lover of black people although they used different words. As time moved on reaction became more positive. She increasingly appeared on more television shows including ABC News, PBS and she has been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show a total of five times. Request for her to come and speak or do diversity training became so overwhelming that she found she needed leave her beloved job. She was teaching in a larger classroom now .
She is considered the foremother of diversity training and has done workshops for many organizations including the White House. She continues to be invited to speak at many colleges and universities. The “Blue eye/Brown eye” exercise has grown to include discrimination of all forms and she has become a strong advocate for religious, gender, and LGBT rights. She believes that if we do not do our individual part in the human symphony we will not be happy with who carries the melody. Although she decided to dress up this evening usually you will find her wearing her shirt that reads “Racism is an emotional commitment to ignorance” but she has taught us that discrimination in any form is a commitment to ignorance.
We celebrate you Jane Elliot for your commitment to teaching the world the deep roots of hatred. Your work has helped us to see our fellow human beings through better eyes.