Jane Elliot: Anatomy of Prejudice (A Review)

 

“If you aren’t angry about racism in America you’re probably white, because you don’t think it’s affecting you.” –Jane Elliot: Anatomy of Prejudice

Last week I went to a lecture by Jane Elliot, a former third grade teacher known for her famous “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” experiment back in the 60’s which was designed to expose her all white students to the experience of being a minority. The experiment was the subject of the documentary “Eye of the Storm,” which I and many other students across America watched in grade school. 

Elliot has been doing anti-racist lectures for 50 years, and made it clear that is nothing to applaud, as it means we still have a massive race problem in America. She repeatedly referred to herself as “the bitch” throughout the two hour lecture, and at one point had the audience of 2,000 plus people chanting “Fuck Donald Trump” in unison with raised fists. She had a lot that resonated with me and the others in the audience I’m sure, but she also went off on a lot of tangents that I didn’t necessarily agree with at all. One being when she blamed her husband’s death of three years ago on the Women’s Movement of the 70s, because she claimed the Women’s movement put “undue stress on men.” Ironically, she is billed as an anti-racist, LGBT and women’s rights speaker. 

Elliot spends the first hour speaking about the election, but she finally gets around to speaking about her famous classroom exercise about an hour into the lecture. She explains she was sick with emotion the night that MLK was shot, and knew she had to explain it all somehow to her all white 3rd grade class in the morning. So what did I do in school the next day?

“I decided to do what Hitler did. I decided to assign negative traits because of physical characteristics. I would assign people with blue eyes these negative traits, and people with brown eyes the positive traits. I would treat what I was assigning as true all day, I would look down on the people with blue eyes and I would stereotype them by saying “those people are all the same.” I said that brown eyed people were smarter, and “when you gave a blue eyed person something nice they would tear it apart. What do they do that? That’s just how they are.” When the blue eyed people reacted angrily to my treatment of them, I would do what Hitler did by stereotyping Jews as angry, and I would call them the angry blue eyed people. Kids caught on quickly- they knew how racism worked.

With only a day of this differential treatment, the brown eyed people became more confident, mean toward their fellow blue eyed peers and they excelled at their studies. The blue eyed people became unsure of themselves, many broke down crying and were not able to focus on their studies.

“We have a blue eye- brown eye experiment going on on the national level. And I want it stopped, ” Elliot shouted with passion into the microphone. “Eye color racism wouldn’t have been in my classroom if I had not brought it there. Similarly, racism would not be in America if white people had not brought it to its shores.”

Elliot told about how she made a mistake in class that day, and a brown eyed girl from the back of the room shouted it was because I had blue eyes. She said she was so angry, she wanted to “hit her across the room and watch her slide down the wall like a cracked egg”. She then reflected on how she was immediately stunned and furious at her student’s ease at discrimination, but also at her own violent reaction to racism.

She stated her opinion that the recent election is a direct result of white people’s discomfort with having a black president. She also notes that Obama was our 3rd black president. Lincoln was part Cherokee, white and black. Eisenhower was part black.

She’s bouncing around onstage in a big white sweater and black slacks. She picks two people from the audience to join her onstage on her left and right. Little do they know that they are signing on for the next hour and ten minutes onstage.

“Sir, when people meet you do they say ‘I don’t see you as a male”? He answers no.

She turns to the woman of color who she has picked out of the audience.

“And have people met you and said, ‘I don’t see you as black”? She, and the audience of predominantly people of color answer no.

To the white man she asks,  

“Is skin color important to you?”

Yes.

“Think about it much?”

No.

That’s power ladies and gentlemen.

To woman of color she asks,

“Does it take courage to get up in the morning sometimes?”

Yes.

“Why?”

Because I’m thinking about how I might be perceived. How I might be judged by the package… (she motions to her body). 

She turns to the man and explains to the audience that people like this are the ones who have and assign power. He has height, age, gender, race, weight. These are all physical characteristics over which he has no control.

She speaks to the woman of color again.

“Have you had people say to you ‘When I see you, I don’t see a black person?’ ‘I didn’t mean that, you took it wrong,’ ‘I have lots of black friends!’ ‘What’s up with your hair?’”

Yes. All the time.

“Do you think you know more about white people than I know about black people?”

Yes.

“Because I have to in our society, right? So we’ve established that he is a free person, and it takes courage to be her. Liberty for some and justice for a few. The third verse of the star spangled banner is about sending slaves back to England. We’ve always been a racist nation. Old people are afraid to fix it because they are afraid of losing their pensions, social security and medicare.”

Elliot continued to posit that we do not need a colorblind society because there is nothing wrong with skin color. We have re instituted slavery in our country with the prison industrial complex. We need to educate the educators in America. We are not a melting pot, we are a stir fry. You don’t blend the vegetables in the blender when you make stir fry. No, you make sure each element in the stir fry maintains its unique consistency.

“This is as diverse an audience as I’ve ever spoken to. In 50 years of anti-racist talks, Kansas City. She talked about how when MLK joined forces with Malcolm X and led to Poor People’s March on Washington, that’s when he signed his death certificate. There were white people in that march as well as black people. That was too much for the government to handle. 

She noted that she’s received death threats her whole life just because she goes around saying that it’s okay to not be white. She recalls how her family was spit on, verbally and  physically targeted, and threatened for the past 50 years since she did the Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes experiment. 

“Your freedom of speech to say ugly things ends with my freedom to not have to hear it. White people have two big freedoms in America. One is the freedom to be racist, the other is the freedom to deny being racist. When we are put into school in America, we are indoctrinated with the myth of white superiority. If we don’t come out of school as full blown racists, we’ve failed the course. 

She asked black people in the audience if they have ever had a teacher single them out and ask them what black people think about a certain thing; asking them to speak for their whole race. 

“Did you think, are all white people as ignorant as you, bitch? Did you think, why do white people think that all black people think the same?

She then asked the audience to all inhale, exhale, and repeat.

“You’ve just inhaled a little bit of the person sitting next to you. Now shake the people’s hands next to you and say ‘hello cousin.'”

This is when she gets the auditorium of 2,000 plus people to raise their fists, and chant “Fuck Donald Trump” in unison four times.

She starts to get a little paranoid, and thinks that someone in the back of the auditorium is behaving shiftily. 

“We’re all human. You can shoot me, fool. I miss my husband, thanks.

She makes him sit in the front row by her so she can calm down and keep an eye on him.

“Racism is an individual problem. I know you’re going to say it’s a cultural problem, but to actually change anything, you’ve got to focus on yourself. On my website are 18 commitments to combat racism. Do one a thing a month, intentionally. And in a year we will be on our way to creating a new world.

Where she started to lose me was with issues pertaining to women. I agree completely that the women’s movement has always had a problem representing all women and previous movements have focused more on white women than minority women. Hopefully today’s intersectional feminist movement will begin to change that. What I don’t agree with is discrediting a whole movement and blaming it’s inability to be inclusive on the death of men. 

Elliot apparently does though, and gets emotional on stage.

“I’m angry about what happens to men in this country. The Women’s Movement of the 70s was all about white women, and not about white men. We place too much pressure on men in America. White women were the major beneficiaries of affirmative action.”

Her brand of feminism gets even stranger when she asks “the first modern humans who evolved on the face of Earth to please stand.” Black people in the audience begin to stand up, and then she asks for “all of the black women to please stand up”.

“Folks, this is the original human being. Every person on the face of Earth is my relative. White people change Jesus into a white man because white folks adjust their environment to fit them. Other folks have to adjust their needs to their environment. Skin color is not a gift from god, it’s a bodily reaction to one’s natural environment.”

In seeming stream of consciousness, she then goes on to speak about how females can reproduce asexually, and for a long time on Earth the planet was full of nothing but females.

Finally, she references the book, “The Birth Dearth” which was written by a man years ago stating that the majoring problem in the US is that “not enough white babies are born, and America will soon no longer be a ‘white man’s land.'” Elliot explains that the author had three sick solutions to this made up problem. His first solution is to pay women to have babies, but that wouldn’t work because the country would have to pay women of color to have babies as well. The second solution was immigration, but that wouldn’t work either because they would have to let women of color in as immigrants as well. The third solution, which she believed is being enacted today, was to end abortion.

“Approximately 60% of aborted babies are white, so if they can stop abortion, they think they can increase the white population. Isn’t that sick? I am not supportive of abortion at all, but I am not in support of ending abortion so that we can have a ‘white’ America again.”  

I think she could have had a stronger lecture if she had focused on the issue of race aloe, instead of venturing into her more obscure ideas about women’s issues.  Regardless, she pulled the lecture back to race in the end by noting a saying from the Jewish faith.

“’I cannot forgive you for what you do to other people. I can only forgive you for what you do to me.’ I don’t have a right to forgive racism, as a white person,” Elliot shouts. “Think we don’t have a racist nation? How do you explain number 45?”

 

She concluded her two hour lecture by stating that the reason people listen to her, the reason she’s allowed to say what she does is because she’s white (so she has credibility) and because she is female (so she is innocuous). She then crooned, “Don’t stand for nobody but Jesus…” and walked off the stage. 

Photo Credit: https://embizwenigrahamstown.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/elliott.jpg

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