Jane Elliott was teaching elementary school in Riceville, Iowa, in 1968 when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. In thinking about how to convey the enormity of what happened and why to her all-white class of third graders, she put together a lesson that would help students understand the killing—and the virulent and systemic racism behind it—on a personal level.
That exercise, which came to be known as “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes,” earned Elliott worldwide attention as she traveled the globe to train others in her methods, but at home, she and her family were ostracized. Other teachers refused to talk to her, and her children were harassed—even assaulted. Yet these reactions only reinforced Elliott’s belief that she was in a position of privilege: as a white person in America, she faced exclusion because of the work she did, not because of who she was.
Christelle de Castro: What catapulted you to want to create the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise?
Jane Elliott: I didn’t want to create it, and I didn’t create it. I knew that one of the ways they decided who went into the gas chamber during what has come to be called the Holocaust, was eye color. The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, I had no way to explain that killing to my students. At that point, we were studying the Sioux Prayer that says, “Oh great spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” I decided that the next morning when I went to school if my kids didn’t understand what we were talking about, we would talk about that killing. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been one of our heroes of the month for February, and he was assassinated in April. I decided that I would separate the students according to the color of their eyes and let some of them walk in the shoes of a child of color in this country for a day, and then I would reverse the exercise on Monday. I didn’t know how this would work. If I had known how it would work, I wouldn’t have done it.
When I visited you in Iowa, it hit me like a ton of bricks like, Wow, this is in the middle of nowhere, there’s absolutely no diversity, and here you have this woman who’s doing this fearless work trying to dismantle racism, which is hard to grasp.
Number one, number one, you don’t have a woman who’s doing fearless work. Black women do fearless work all day, every day. Native American women do fearless work all day, every day. Asian women in this country, particularly during the Second World War, do fearless work all day, every day, just trying to stay alive. Black women just try to keep their children alive. I didn’t have any of those cares because I didn’t realize how ugly racism was. I wasn’t fearless. I just figured: I’m an educator, these kids are ignorant. I’ve got to lead them on pigment so they won’t talk when they’re 50 years old and 30 years old the way their fathers are talking. It has nothing to do with being brave. It has to do with being foolish. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
It was bravery with me later on when people threatened me and when they had to take me out of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, at midnight because the teachers I put through the exercise had called the superintendent and said, “If you don’t get that bitch out of town, we’re going to shoot her.” That took some courageousness to get in that car. I didn’t know what was going on. The next morning, I had to get up in a motel alone and look out and realize that behind one of those second-story windows could be the person who was sent there to shoot me. That took some courage, but then I figured, Well, you asked for this. You put yourself out there. Now put your head above the parapet and somebody is bound to try to shoot it off.
I don’t think a lot of people really know this aspect of your work, how people got violent and threatening. I mean you’ve gotten some scary backlash sometimes.
Well, yeah, I had some scary backlash, but what was funny about it was these are grown adults, so-called “superior” white males… All they have to do is shut up and listen.
When a woman says to them, “Well, obviously you can’t know much, you’ve got the wrong color eyes, that’s the reason you act the way you do,” they immediately become what they have accused women and people of color of being: angry, defensive, uncontrolled, violent. I’ve been hit by white males during this exercise. I’ve had a knife pulled on me. This guy pulled out his little pocketknife and I said, “I’m not going to touch you, I don’t want to be anywhere near you. Take your little stabbers and go to the back of the room and stay there.” He looked at me like, Who are you? I thought, Go for it, buddy, because like I’ve said, I’m not going to put up with this.
What were the views of your parents?
My mother’s view was: go along to get along. My dad’s view was: by God, do the right thing.
Were your parents racist themselves?
Well, of course, they were. Of course, they were. They had been raised in or around Riceville, Iowa, where white was right and everybody else was wrong, it’s as simple as that. There was no question about the fact that white people were “superior.” Yet my dad would say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” He’d say, “Don’t put a stone in another man’s path.” He’d say, “Until you’ve lived his life, by God, you don’t know what he goes through. You better not judge him. Judge not that ye be not judged,” and he didn’t judge people.
Do you think you’ll ever retire?
I won’t retire as long as Trump is alive.
So you’re going to keep going?
It’d be kind of silly at this point for me to say, “Well, I’ve worked long enough now,” and just sit down and rest for the rest of my life.
You’re always working. When I was over at your house, you were taking calls and counseling people. I don’t think people know that about Jane Elliott. You’re always either traveling, teaching classes, or you’re on the phone with sometimes complete strangers trying to help them out.
Well, they’re not complete when they call me, but when they get done with me, they’re closer to complete than they were. I put a piece in their heads that haven’t been there before. As far as I’m concerned, if enough of us do that to enough people, we can change the world.
That’s absolutely right.
If that’s all I accomplish in my life, that’s quite a bit. I think I’m very, very lucky. I don’t think people make the times, I think times make the people. I think I was born at just the right time. During the Depression, before the Second World War, lived through the Second World War and then the Korean War, and then all the ridiculousness that has come after that. Learned and read a whole lot about the Holocaust and enough that now when I see what’s happening in this country today, what we are doing is very, very similar to what the Nazis did before the Second World War in Germany and in Europe. Anybody who hears that or sees that is going to say, “She’s a nutcase,” because they are not aware of what happened then and what is happening now.
Everybody needs to read, everybody who has the ability to think and to read more than two-syllable words has to read the book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder. You will never forget it when you read it and you will never allow what is happening in this country to go on any longer. You will stand up. I said to these kids, these people I see, “Every one of you can make a difference, and you can do it now. Start Indivisible groups in this community now. Get on Facebook”—and I don’t like Facebook—”Get on Facebook and get the daily actions that will come to you from this group and start making a difference. Do not go gently into this good night, because we are in dangerous times.”
There were other books that you had mentioned that you were reading right now that you highly recommended.
Everybody should read The Myth of Race by Robert Wald Sussman. Everybody should read Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization by Anthony T. Browder. Everybody should read Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus. Oh my God, it is just fantastic. Everybody should read The Colour of Man by Robert Cohen. I’m reading Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World? which is really scary. I read regularly The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and try to live by them, but it’s very difficult for me. I make assumptions all the time, and I should know better than that but I still do it.
Ruiz also wrote something about love.
See, I don’t believe in love.
You don’t believe in love?
I don’t believe that love is the answer to all our problems. If you read what bell hooks writes about love and justice, you will never say, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” No, what the world needs now is people who treat one another justly and then we’ll have love, sweet love, but you won’t get love until we start providing justice. We will not have a loving society until we have just one. I think she’s absolutely right.
I think we have overused the word love to the extent that it no longer has any meaning. In the Bible, it says, “And now abideth these three: faith, hope, and charity.” It doesn’t say faith, hope, and love, but we white folks have altered that just like we alter everything else to fit our needs. Faith, hope, and charity. And charity is selfless giving. That’s what love is, and you don’t find selfless giving in the people who say, “I just love you.” They also say they love my potato salad, you know what I mean?
I completely agree with you. I hate seeing those people who have the “Free Hugs” signs. They’ll do it as an art project, as a social experiment. As though a video of a black guy and a white guy meeting for the first time and hugging means we’ve cured racism. It’s shallow work.
That doesn’t help a damn thing. That means the black person has to tolerate you putting their hands on them. And that black person wouldn’t dare put his or her hands on you without your invitation. That’s the reason I have a hard time with tolerance. People with power can tolerate. People without power have to agree to be tolerated. We tolerate ugly things that are going to go away. We do not tolerate people that we love. We have misused the word tolerance to such an extent.
I couldn’t agree more. I hate that word. Tolerance. Tolerate. I shouldn’t have to be “tolerated” for my differences.
According to the dictionary, tolerance means acceptance, appreciation, and value. With us, we say, “Well, I can tolerate.” I will never forget the vice president, W.’s vice president, Dick Cheney. He has a daughter who is a lesbian and a reporter said to him, “How do you feel about having a daughter who’s a lesbian?” He said, “I can tolerate homosexuals.”
I went berserk. I do not want anybody to tolerate me because that means they can put up with me. If they really knew the meaning of the word tolerate, they wouldn’t use it, because they don’t want to recognize, accept, and appreciate me, they don’t want to put up with me. When somebody says, “I’m a very tolerant person,” I think, And you don’t see color, do you?
Oh Lord, eight-year-old football players are kneeling during the National Anthem! It’s on television right now. I just think that’s priceless. Protests go beyond St. Louis. Good for them. Good for them! Start them young! This book that I’m reading, On Tyranny, says you must protest. You must question and you must protest. Do not go along to get along.
Anti-racism activist and former teacher Jane Elliott is the subject of a feature in the fifth edition of SUITED, a biannual fashion and art mag dedicated to showcasing “those who have found what they are well-suited for.” SDMNEWS are both fans of Vice and Suited, and we thought you should be too, so we are sharing Christelle de Castro‘s interview with and photos of Elliott, along with words from Mariana Nannarone.