April 19, 2002

Diversity speaker Elliott delivers the shocking truth about racism in America

Racism is not only alive and well in America, it permeates every level of our society and is taught in our schools and homes, diversity trainer Jane Elliott told a Lab audience recently.

"I am a racist. I was born, raised and educated in this country. But I wasn’t born a racist. There is no gene for racism, there is no gene for homophobia and no gene for ageism or sexism. Those are things you have to be taught," she said, lambasting the white-centered education most American children receive. "It is not human nature. It is carefully taught."

And until people start speaking out when they see discrimination occurring, it will continue unchecked, she said.

"We could stop it if we chose to," Elliott said. "You need to think about what you’re doing…You are responsible for what you think, what you say and what you feel. Make a difference."

Elliott, whose talk was sponsored by the Affirmative Action & Diversity Program, is widely recognized for her "Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes" discrimination experiment, which she first used with her third-grade class in 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In this exercise, participants are labeled inferior or superior based on the color of their eyes.

As she took the stage in the Bldg. 123 auditorium last week, Elliott wryly noted that she would probably offend everyone in the room in the first five minutes of her presentation. "And I don’t care," she said, launching into her talk.

"I realize some of the things Elliott says are provocative, but I don’t think her comments are intended merely for shock value," said Tommy Smith, manager of the Lab’s Affirmative Action & Diversity Program. "She tries to help people understand that these attitudes, which are harmful, are not innate. Rather, they are created by society, which means they can also be corrected by society."

During a lively, two-hour presentation, Elliott was entertaining, provocative and inspiring at the same time. She interspersed her lecture with funny one-liners, eye-opening statistics and poignant anecdotes.

A frequent presenter at universities and businesses, Elliott has no illusions about why she is so successful.

"I know full well why I’m hired to do this presentation. I’m short, I’m female and I’m old, so I’m not threatening to anybody. I’m white, so I have credibility," she said. "If I were black and saying these things, you’d be saying I have an agenda…I know why I get hired and it’s a crime. But as long as you continue to commit the crime of racism, I’m going to get hired."

Elliott invited two Lab employees to join her onstage to illustrate her point about who has power in American society. She asked each one separately if they valued their height, their gender, their skin color and their age, and refused to accept some of their answers.

For example, when she asked them to state their race, one answered black and the other replied Caucasian.

"Wrong," Elliott exclaimed. "That’s your skin color. You’re members of the human race. Next time you fill out an application and it asks you your race, write human. If they want to know your skin color, they should ask you that question."

Elliott recommended that her audience read two books, "Lies My Teacher Told Me," and "Rage of a Privileged Class" to become better informed on the subject of race.

"It’s time to get educated. You think you’re well educated. You’re not. You’re well schooled," she said. "Education perpetrates discrimination in this country."

She railed against America’s treatment of Middle Easterners since Sept. 11, noting that two of her seven grandchildren are half Saudi Arabian. "We have now created a new class to hate. What will it take to undo the damage that is being done to Middle Easterners?" she questioned.

Elliott talked about how she first decided to do her "Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes" discrimination experiment 34 years ago. She wanted to teach her third grade students in all-white Riceville, Iowa, about discrimination, so she chose a characteristic they couldn’t change.

The day after King was killed, she divided her class by eye color and told her brown-eyed students that on that day, they were intellectually superior, were more responsible and would have more privileges. The next day, she reversed the exercise and the blue-eyed children were on top.

The results were shocking, she said. Suddenly, the children placed in the "privileged group" were standing taller, performing better on their classwork and putting down their classmates who had different colored eyes.

"I learned a lot about anger in that exercise. I learned a lot about power. I didn’t know about racism until then," she explained. "I learned that day more than I wanted. I didn’t want to know I was a racist, that I was part of the problem."

She performed the experiment every year from 1968 to 1984, at great personal cost, because she believed so strongly that her exercise could serve as an "inoculation" against racism.

As a result of her work, her own children were ridiculed by their classmates, teachers and other parents, her husband lost all of his friends and her parents lost their business after the community stopped frequenting their restaurant.

"If I had known what would happen, I wouldn’t have done the exercise in the first place," Elliott said. "I will go to my grave with what happened to my children, my husband and my parents."

Outside of her Midwestern town, however, her work has been widely praised. She was chosen as a "Person of the Week" on Peter Jennings’ ABC Evening News broadcasts. Evening and several television documentaries have been filmed, including "Essential Blue Eyed," and "A Class Divided." Copies of those videos are available to lend from the Affirmative Action & Diversity Program. For more information, contact Michele Cardenas at 3-2796.