Revisiting Jane Elliott
Putting white people's racism in the spotlight for five decades
I've been revisiting Jane Elliott. She's the person who ran the somewhat controversial Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes experiment with third graders the day after the assassination of MLK Jr.
It was a way for those young people to experience how it was to be discriminated against, and it really made people think. I first came across this when she re-ran the experiment on an Oprah show in the 1990s. Check it out here, and see if you find it as eye-opening as I did.
And I revisited it again recently, by watching “The Angry Eye”, where Jane Elliott runs the experiment with college students. Here’s the trailer:
Finally, I was interested to see if her decades of dedication to this cause had resulted in change, so I watched a couple more interviews with her. I can’t remember which ones, but they’re easy enough to find on YouTube. For example, there’s this one: "Interview with Jane Elliott: Inspiring Activism Webinar".
Here are some of the insights that came out time and again from the programs and interviews:
First, it's amazing how easy it is for people to adapt to discriminating against others. I noticed that particularly in the Oprah version of the exercise, but it happens in almost every version. However, what also happens is that the people who are first discriminated against are less likely to treat people badly when the roles switch, as they do in some versions of the exercise.
Second, most white people can't stand for even a day the treatment that people of color get their whole lives. Watch any version of the exercise and see how long it takes for someone to start whining, crying or both. Sadly, in the versions I watched, most of the Black people didn’t even complain about discriminatory treatment, because they were used to it.
Third, ingrained ideas about what's due to white people invariably surface. Yes, I’m talking about privilege. Interestingly, most people don’t even think about having it until it’s taken away.
Sadly, despite dedicating more than 50 years to this fight, Jane Elliott believes that racism isn’t getting better. In fact, she thinks things have got worse in the last few years, as the backlash against the election of a Black president has taken hold. I’m sure many of us have seen that in action.
In one of the interviews I watched, she called out the big lie of race, the lie on which racism is built. And she’s got another little exercise that’s extremely telling.
In her “sit or stand” exercise, she asks anyone who wants to be treated like Black people to stand. Nobody does, which means people know how badly Black people are treated, and know it’s wrong.
Jane Elliott has devoted much of her adult life to making sure white people don’t remain ignorant of the racism they are perpetrating. She freely admits that she herself didn’t always know better, but once her eyes were opened she had to do something about it.
Here are a few articles where you can learn more about how the experiment was received. There are also some tools on Jane’s website.
How does Jane Elliott’s work land with you?
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021-2022. All Rights Reserved.
Screenshot on cover image: Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes on Oprah.