An Unfinished Crusade: An Interview with Jane Elliott
From the vantage point of more than thirty years since she first taught her eye-color exercise in discrimination to a third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa, Jane Elliott reflects on what she has learned over the years about the lesson’s impact. She also discusses her life today as a lecturer on diversity and prejudice and recounts some of her experiences, some of them disturbing, in her travels throughout the United States and abroad. This Web-exclusive interview was conducted on Dec. 19, 2002.
What are you doing now? Are you still teaching your exercise?
Yes, I’m doing the exercise and giving lectures about its effects all over the U.S. and in several locations overseas. I’ve just recently spent five weeks in Scotland and England where we did the exercise with a group of diversity trainers and others interested in the topic of diversity. We also taught a group of trainers how to most effectively use films made of the exercise, and I delivered several lectures about the anatomy of prejudice. Over the last 18 years I’ve given lectures in Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, and Saudi Arabia, to name those I can remember.
What have you seen or learned after conducting your exercise in various parts of the world?
I’ve learned that discrimination and its effects are the same no matter where you find them. I get the same results with the exercise in Berlin or in the Netherlands that I do in the U.S. or Australia or Curacao. And what’s even more distressing is the fact that I’ve gotten the same results using the exercise with adults in Scotland and Australia in the year 2002 that I got using the exercise with children in Riceville, Iowa, in 1968.
A number of years ago we did the exercise in Berlin in a building not far from the still-raw remnants of the Berlin wall. There was a woman from East Germany in the brown-eyed group who insisted that we not do the exercise. She said we could appeal to her reason but not to her emotions. So we had to vote on whether the group would hear the lecture or do the exercise. The group voted to do the exercise and when it was over the East German, with tears running down her face, said, “I’m so glad that I lost that vote. I learned so much by going through this exercise. I could never have learned from listening to you talk what I learned from the experience.”
What was the exercise’s relevance for Germans who participated?
For the Germans then, as now, the problem is the rise of neo-Nazism and the issue of immigrants, most of whom are people of color. The problem is the same all over Western Europe because of the need for workers and the unwillingness of many people in those countries to accept those who are different from themselves. However, the problem is not people of color; it’s the prejudices that have always been in Western Europe and are now resurfacing. Many European people, like many people in the U.S., deny that they are racist while continuing to discriminate against people of color.
And you have also taught the exercise in Australia and given talks about it.
Yes. I’ve done several lecture tours of Australia as a result of the eye-color tapes being shown on their television networks. The response to the tapes and the lectures has been overwhelmingly positive every time. In December of 2001, I was asked to do the exercise with a group of Australians for SBS television. They wanted to show their own citizens’ reactions to the exercise instead of re-running the tapes done in the U.S. I was concerned that the participants, having become very familiar with what I do, would be forewarned and would not react as others had. I needn’t have worried: The participants, during the exercise, reacted exactly as people everywhere do, but the reactions to me from people on the street were utterly fantastic. We were walking down the street in Sydney one day and a guy in a Land Rover — what we think of as the stereotypical outback white male Australian — stuck his head out the window of his vehicle and yelled out, “Hey, Elliott! Elliott! Will you come to the outback with me? I think you could make a difference.” And I said, “Let’s go. I’m ready now,” and I headed for his truck, laughing. What I had forgotten was that in Australia they drive on the “other” side of the road. My husband had to yank me back onto the sidewalk to keep me from getting hit by another truck.
There I was in Australia talking about the blue-eye, brown-eye exercise and the effect it has had on people who have gone through it and people were saying to me, “Make sure this tape is always available, because seeing that exercise in those tapes changes not only the people who go through the training but also the people who watch the tapes.”
And, just to be clear, it’s the very same exercise, but you’re conducting it now with adults?
It’s the same exercise except that now I set it up so that the blue-eyed people are ghettoized in the middle of the room and the brown-eyed people are sitting on each side of the blues and are able to keep them under surveillance at all times. I don’t reverse the exercise with so-called adults because that would put it in the category of a game. Discrimination based on physical differences over which we have no control is not a game. It is a reality, and to reverse the participants’ positions during the exercise would destroy the reality of the experience. I don’t foresee a time when white folks in this country are going to say to people of color, “Look, we’ve been in the driver’s seat for about 600 years. Now we’re going to give you a turn.”
I also use a culturally biased test with adults, which is something I didn’t do with my third graders. In the U.S., I use the Dove Counterbalance Intelligence Test, which was a test designed for the purpose of giving white folks a chance to have their IQ scores based on their ability to correctly respond to material about which they know practically nothing. The items on the test require a familiarity with life in the black community in the ’50s and ’60s. Of course white people in this country can’t pass it. After all, they’ve never been expected to know anything about a reality other than their own. On the other hand, we give culturally biased IQ tests in the classrooms every day all over this country, and children of color are routinely expected to pass them. In England and Scotland I use the Elliott Discrimination Inventory Test, in which the items are about life in various countries in the U.K. And in Australia I use the Koori test, in which the items are about the aboriginal cultures. White folks fail the tests unfailingly.
Clearly, the reach of your exercise in discrimination is due to the hundreds of national and international showings of the film about it — on television, in the classroom, at conferences. …
Right. I was at the top of the Eiffel Tower last month — had just come from working in Scotland, had never before been to Paris — and somebody tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned around, this tall, young, black woman said to me, “Did you used to be a nun?” I said, laughing, that I hadn’t. She said, “I know you from somewhere. You’ve had an impact on my life. How do I know you?” I asked, “Would it be blue-eyes, brown-eyes?” She said, “Ah! That’s what it is!” She was ecstatic. She had seen A Class Divided in a college class in Denver, Colo., years before. She said, “I studied you for a week. We saw that film and then we studied you for a whole week.” She went on, “Ill never forget that; that has had such an impact on my life.”
Did you have any inkling that what you did that day back in April 1968 would have such an impact?
Oh, my, no. That was strictly a classroom experience for my students on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. That was as far as it and I were going to go. I had no intention of ever doing anything but teaching third grade in Riceville, Iowa. I was perfectly happy doing that and I thought I was making a difference with my students. Then I did that exercise, and for the first time in my life I truly made a difference in my students, and I truly made a difference in their futures. Many of them say that to this day. They also say that it made an impact on their parents. I believe them. I know it certainly made an impact on mine.
How difficult has it been for you to continually, over the years, have to perform the role of a cruel, bigoted person who singles out people in a particular group and humiliates them and makes them feel inferior?
It’s very, very difficult. Doing that exercise for me is to deny everything that I believe in for three hours or five hours or however long the exercise takes. Every time I do it I end up with a migraine headache. I absolutely hate this exercise. But more than I hate the exercise, I hate the necessity for something like this in the year 2002. And the worst of it is that the exercise is as necessary today as it was in 1968.
Because we are still conditioning people in this country and, indeed, all over the globe to the myth of white superiority. We are constantly being told that we don’t have racism in this country anymore, but most of the people who are saying that are white. White people think it isn’t happening because it isn’t happening to them.
Invariably, when I do a presentation anywhere in this country, the issue of affirmative action comes up. People say that white males are the ones who are being discriminated against in this country today. So I say, “Fine. OK. Will every white person in this room who would like to spend the rest of his or her life being treated, discussed, and looked upon as we treat, discuss, and look upon people of color, generally speaking, in this society, please stand?” And I watch. And wait. And the only sounds in the room are those made by people of color as they turn in their seats to see how many white folks are standing. Not one white person stands. And I just let them sit there. Then I say, “Do you know what you just admitted? You just admitted that you know that it’s happening, you know that it’s ugly, and you know that you don’t want it for you. So why are you so willing to accept it for others? The ultimate obscenity is that you deny that it’s happening.”
I think white people aren’t aware that racism isn’t just wearing white hoods and burning crosses. It’s also fixing the system so that black votes don’t get counted. It’s refusing to open the polling places in precincts where most of the eligible voters are people of color. It’s outlawing affirmative action at the state level even though it has proven successful. It’s building more prisons than we build schools and guaranteeing that they will be filled by targeting young men of color with things like the “three strikes” legislation in California, and the DWB — “driving while black.” These are problems encountered by young black men all over this country. It’s the fact that there are more children attending segregated schools in the U.S. today than there were previous to Brown vs. Board of Education. It’s white flight and red-lining by financial institutions. It’s television programming that portrays people of color as villains and white people as their victims. It’s ballot-security systems, which are used to intimidate minority voters and so result in the very activities which they are supposedly designed to prevent.
What have been the reactions of people of color who have seen the film or participated in your exercise?
Reactions vary, of course. There are those blacks who ask me what a white woman like me is doing talking about their experience, since I can’t possibly know what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Sometimes I’m accused of just running another white woman’s game. Those are valid criticisms, but two weeks ago in Glasgow, Scotland — and this happens every time I give a lecture — a black woman came up to me and said, “You have no idea, you are the first white person ever in my life who has validated what I have said all my life and what I have experienced. Thank you.” I said, “You don’t have to thank me. Everything I know about this topic I’ve learned from people like you. It’s I who should be thanking you.” She said, “Oh, but you don’t understand. These are the things that we have been saying for years. Nobody would tell us that they believed us or that they felt the way we do. You validated me today.” I couldn’t walk in her shoes, but I could — and can and will — continue to truly listen and to try to understand and to tell others what I’ve learned.
A black woman at a major corporation here in the Midwest just this past summer, after hearing my presentation, almost beating on the table as she spoke, said, “For the first time in my life I can be me. It’s real; it’s not my imagination.” Because, you see, we have convinced ourselves and tried to convince people of color that they’re imagining the racism they’re experiencing, that they’re paranoid. …
That they’re imagining the discrimination?
Yes, that they’re imagining it. That it’s not really happening. That they’re being too sensitive. That they’re just looking for racism. That if they’d just stop looking for it, it wouldn’t happen. That white women and people of color are just acting like victims. That they ought to just get over it. And, I believe, white people will keep on feeling, thinking, and talking this way until they’ve experienced some of the same treatment that people of color live with every day. However, the fear that that very thing could happen to white people is part of what drives the racist behaviors that we see in this society today.
Because of changes underway in our societies?
Yes. Every time I do the eye-color exercise, that very fear is expressed. Some white person will say to the person of color sitting beside him or her, “If people of color get on top, aren’t they going to want to treat us the way we’ve treated them?” And every time it’s over, some male turns to the female beside him and says, “If you women get power, aren’t you going to want to do to us what we’ve done to you?” Isn’t that interesting? We know what we’re doing and we fear the consequences.
Are you aware of any studies that have tried to assess the long-term impact of your exercise on young people?
I don’t know that anyone ever has done such studies. However, I do know that after we had done the exercise in Riceville for about four years, an associate professor from the University of Northern Iowa came to Riceville and did an attitudinal survey with all the students in the Riceville school, grades three to six, and all the students grades three to six in a nearby comparable community to find out what their attitudes were relative to race. What he found out when he compiled the results of the survey was that not only were the students who had been in my class in third grade less racist in their attitudes, as measured by this survey, than were all the rest of the students in the Riceville school, but also, all the students in the Riceville school were less racist in their attitudes as measured by this survey than were the students in the nearby community.
He said, “What’s happening here is not only are your students remembering what they learned and acting on it, but their attitudes are rubbing off on their peers, and that’s extremely important.” He also said that we can’t put that in writing, but that’s what he thought was happening. His material became the property of the university’s psychology department and unfortunately it later got destroyed, so both he and I lost some really valuable documentation.
Are there teachers today conducting the eye-color exercise with their students, as you did over the years with your classes?
There are teachers who are doing this. Every time I deliver a lecture at a college, and that’s roughly two or three times a week in the wintertime, during the question and answer period some college student or instructor stands up and says, “My teacher did that with us when I was in sixth grade and I’ve never forgotten it.” They may not remember anything else that happened to them in sixth grade, but they distinctly remember the exercise. So there are teachers who are doing the exercise.
However, I think the numbers of those who would do it are decreasing because of the very conservative stance this country is in right now. I think it has become much more risky to do creative teaching in the classroom. I also think the curriculum in the public schools is being circumscribed drastically because of the fundamentalists that are insisting that the schools teach only certain very narrow values. Several years ago the message was, “We don’t want values education.” Well, education itself is a value. There’s no way a teacher can go into a classroom without telegraphing her values to her students.
Now, teachers are being required to teach some values that are not the values that you want children to take into this next century. We need to stop inculcating in our students the belief that only white is right, the belief that there’s only one right way to worship, the belief that males are superior, the belief that the U.S. has and has always had the right answer to every question and that we are a superpower because God is on our side.
I know of at least one teacher who got fired for doing this exercise because the people in the community did not want their children to learn that it’s all right not to be white. That philosophy was very threatening to the people in that community. After all, if their whiteness didn’t make them superior, then what did they have? Had I not had an extremely wise superintendent when I did that exercise the first time, I probably would have gotten fired. He was under pressure to fire me. I didn’t know why he persevered until a researcher for “A Class Divided” asked him why he didn’t fire me, and he simply said, “Because in my heart of hearts, I knew what she was doing was right and I couldn’t fire her for doing the right thing.” However, 20 percent of the people in Riceville are still absolutely furious about what I did on April 4, 1968.
To this day?
To this day, yes.
Why? Is it because they believed you went outside the bounds of what a teacher should be doing with her students?
No, I think it’s because I taught that it’s wrong to be a racist. When I took my first social studies education course at the college level, the professor told us, “When you get a teaching job, remember that you must not teach in opposition to the local mores. The people who are paying your wages through their taxes have the right to have their children learn what they want them to learn.” In other words, if you’re teaching in a racist community, you must not teach in opposition to racism. I thought he was wrong then and I know he’s wrong now.
Interestingly, parents whose children had been in my classroom didn’t seem to have a problem with me, but those who had never had children in my classroom had a tremendous problem with me. I think their problem was partially because they had been misinformed by other teachers about what went on in my classroom, and partially because they didn’t understand what the exercise was about. Some of them still don’t understand the exercise. So to this day I’m called a “nigger lover” by 20 percent of the population in Riceville. I was grateful for the other 80 percent. However, while the other 80 percent didn’t protest what I was doing, neither did they protest what was being done to me or to my children, and it was mostly done to my children. Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the perpetuation of evil is for good people to do nothing.” I believe that, and I believe that bowing to racist intimidation is cowardice. I also believe that people do what they have to do to get through the day. I know that sometimes it’s better to bend like the willow than it is to resist like the oak, but how do you live with yourself when you discover later that you bent at some of the wrong times over some of the wrong issues?
Several years after I left there, a teacher in the Riceville school began doing some wonderful creative things in her classroom. I kept reading about her in the local and area papers and was impressed by her commitment and creativity. Then all of a sudden she was no longer in the papers or on TV. When, subsequently, I saw her at an all-school reunion, I said to her, “Darlene, you were doing some wonderful things in your classroom and then suddenly you stopped. What happened? Did the teachers get to you?” And this is what she said to me. “Jane, I didn’t want them to treat me the way they treated you.” I said, “Darlene, you knew it was happening then, didn’t you?” She said, “Yes, I did.” I said, “Darlene, you aren’t here for these teachers, you are here for your students and you were doing a good job with your students.” She said, “Jane, I wish I had your courage.” It shouldn’t take courage to do the right thing for students. That should be expected behavior. But what she experienced and what I experienced was intimidation. With her it worked. What a shame for her students. Evidently a teacher who does this kind of creative teaching makes some other teachers uncomfortable, particularly because she makes school too interesting, too much fun. I happen to think learning should be enjoyable, even — dare I say it — fun! Many teachers don’t share that belief.
Finally, could you talk a little about the dark side of what you’ve experienced over the years while lecturing and teaching your lesson on bigotry?
Yes. It’s been interesting. For instance, three carloads of blacks took me out of Uniontown, Penn., at midnight back in the mid-’70s because the teachers had called the superintendent of schools there and said, “If you don’t get that bitch out of town we’re going to shoot her.” I had done the exercise in a very informal way with a group of several hundred teachers, and the teachers were so angry that the committee who had arranged for me to come there had to get me out of town because they were truly afraid I was going to get shot. They didn’t want that to happen in Uniontown. That’s the only time I’ve been really afraid. And that’s when I realized that you can’t be controlled by your fear. I decided the next morning that I’d never let fear direct my actions again. I can be scared, but I won’t be scared to death, or, at my age, of death.
I’ve been hit by a white adult male during the exercise. I’ve had a knife pulled on me by a young white male during the exercise. A few years ago at a college in Texas a young white male dressed in camouflage clothes charged up to the platform after I’d finished my lecture and snarled, “Are you a Christian?” “Yes,” I said. “Why do you want to know?” “Because you’re not going to be doing this much longer,” be growled. “Are you threatening me?” I asked. “You need to know you’re not going to be doing this much longer,” he repeated. I turned to the security person nearby and said, “I believe this man is threatening me.” At that the young man took off running out of the building with the security person close behind.
I’ve had lots of that kind of stuff. I’m fully aware that it goes with the territory. But other people need to realize that this ugliness is still going on and that it’s still dangerous to stand up and be counted.
I think the films of the exercise teach some really important lessons. I think they prove you can “teach an old dog new tricks.” I think they demonstrate that racism is not human nature; it’s a learned response. We know that anything you learn you can unlearn, and the tapes give people who watch them hope that they can unlearn and, ultimately, give up their racism. And that’s one of the things that people who have seen the tapes or heard the lectures most often say to me: “This is such a hopeful thing.”
Originally published January 2003