It’s White Ignorance, Not White Privilege, Jane Elliott Tells Sold-Out Crowd
As I walked upstairs to meet her for our interview I was both excited and nervous. I knew of the 83 year old educator, author and activist from her appearances on Oprah discussing race and performing her now famous Brown-Eyed/Blue-Eyed Experiment on Oprah’s audience. I knew she first conducted the experiment as a teacher with her third grade students in 1968 as a response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. I knew the experiment involved separating people by their eye color and treating brown eyed people as if they were superior and blue eyed people as if they were inferior. I knew in the years since her appearances on Oprah she has continued to conduct the exercise around the world. I even knew in more recent years, that rappers like T.I. and Killer Mike have doted over her.
I knew all of this, yet I still did not know what to expect.
In studying up, I found myself watching again, a special on YouTube, during which Elliott (herself a white woman with blue eyes) performs her exercise on a group of college students. She warned them, “I consider this exercise an injection of the live virus of racism. If you’ve been through this exercise, the next time you see racist behaviors, sexist behaviors, homophobic behaviors, ethnocentric behaviors, ageist behaviors, maybe you will say to yourself, ‘wait a minute, I had that for one morning, I’m never going to allow that to happen in my presence again without responding to it negatively.’”
She told the students this, after introducing herself as the “resident bitch for the day”.
During the video Elliott reduced two blue-eyed young women to tears. As one young woman began to cry from being berated by Elliott while sitting in a special group for blue-eyed students (all wearing green collars) in the center of the classroom, Elliott responded, “James Byrd, black man in Texas, dragged to death behind a pickup truck by three white males. Matthew Shepherd. Matthew Shepherd, a young man a little younger than you are, had the misfortune to be born gay. Beaten. Beaten with a pistol about the head until they cracked his skull and then they hung him in a deer fence and left him there.”
“Those things happen because we live in a society in which people are allowed to treat those who are different in an ugly way because of their differentness. I cannot shed tears for a young white female in this exercise who knows that this is an exercise, who knows that it’s temporary, who knows that she’s getting one hour of college credit for being here. I’m sorry but I have to save my sympathy and empathy for those who go through something much worse than this every day of their lives. And when they complain about it we say, ‘you took it wrong’.”
The other blue-eyed woman left the room in tears, frustrated by Jane’s exercise. When she attempted to re-enter the classroom, Elliott told her she would not be admitted back into the group until he apologized to every person of color in the room for getting up and leaving, exercising a privilege that the people of color do not have in our society (walking away from being discriminated against). As the girl began to apologize for the fact that racism existed, Elliott interrupted her mid-sentence, yelling, “Bullshit! You’re not going to apologize for the fact that there’s racism, you’re going to apologize for what you just did!”
The young woman ultimately would not apologize and Jane made her leave the exercise.
Elliott pointed out that this was the level of frustration the blue-eyed students were experiencing, having to deal with this treatment for a couple of hours. She then asked them to imagine how they would feel if they had to deal with this experience for a lifetime, after watching their parents go through it and their children go through it, all their lives.
This was the woman I was preparing myself to meet and interview.
As I walked into the room I had to make my way through the people already in line to speak to her. Once I did, any trepidation I had was immediately allayed. Not only was she ready for the interview she was eager to do it and more friendly and sweet than I could have imagined after watching the introduction she gave those college students in the YouTube special.
I started with the elephant in the room. I had to know what a woman who began an experiment on race when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, thought of how we got to a point where Donald Trump could become President of the United States. The question barely left my lips before Jane responded in her signature frank style, which still somehow caught me off guard.
“Ignorant white people… who were angry at the presence of a black man in the White House for eight years. Trump is the backlash to a black man in the White House.”
She added, “We can solve part of that problem by renaming the White House the President’s Residence. Which is what it is. There’s lots of white houses in Washington D.C.”
Elliott was in San Diego to speak at National Action Network San Diego’s ‘Martin Luther King Jr. 88th Birthday Celebration’. The $15 tickets sold out quickly and the crowd of more than 100 people packed the presentation room at The Lagoon Lemon Grove Community Church to hear Jane’s remarks.
She spoke just as frankly as I had quickly come to expect.
On her activism and the stupidity of racism: “We are all 30th to 50th cousins of each other. I will not allow anyone here to mistreat my cousins.”
On so-called white privilege: “Stop taking responsibility for white people’s ignorance. It’s not white privilege, it’s white ignorance. If you tell them they have privilege they will say they didn’t ask for it.”
On Trump: “We have an idiot in the White House.”
On the backlash to her Brown-Eyed/Blue-Eyed Exercise in its early years: She recalled people saying about her, “If you don’t get that bitch out of town, we’re going to shoot her.”
On what black women endure in this country: “White men choose to be brave. Black women don’t have a choice.”
On the golden rule: She says she doesn’t like the golden rule because it says “do unto other as you would have done unto you”. She says she prefers the original translation, which is, “Do unto others as others would have you do unto them.” A subtle but vital difference.
On American education: “The longer you stay in school the more bigoted you become. Education in this country is about indoctrination. If you go through the American education system and you are white and you don’t come out believing in white superiority, it’s a miracle.”
After Jane’s remarks, there was a line of people waiting to speak with her and have their pictures taken with her. I knew my follow-up interview would have to wait a bit.
An hour after the event ended and Jane had spoken to everyone, I finally got to my follow up interview.
I asked her how she felt after walking away from an event like this.
She said, “People are hungry for education. They’re hungry for information.”
The YouTube special closes with Jane answering a question. With her voice uncharacteristically shaking and holding back tears, she says, “When am I going to quit? When racists quit. Do I have a job for a lifetime? I’m afraid so.”
As she was about get into a vehicle to leave the event, her answer to my final question was a bit more optimistic.
I asked her if she still believed what she said years before — that racism can be cured with education.
She replied, “Absolutely. It makes racism work. If it created racism you can use it to get rid of racism.”
“If you can learn it, then you can unlearn it.”
This article originally appeared in The San Diego Monitor News on January 19, 2018.