What Jane Elliott observed in an all-white third-grade class almost 50 years ago echoes loudly in the age of Trump
In 1968, an elementary school teacher named Jane Elliott decided to find a way to teach her students about the power of racism and prejudice. Elliott was white, as was every student in her Riceville, Iowa, classroom. She used the color of her students’ eyes as a way of determining what group would have power and privilege and which group would not. This became known as the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed teaching exercise. Its power was immediate: Given a simple prompt, even children are capable of reproducing the lessons and rules of American racism with ease.
In the almost five decades since Jane Elliott first conducted the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed exercise, racism has “evolved” in America. Yet its foundations (and long-term impact) still remain. In many ways, white supremacy and racism are among the most adaptive and enduring inventions in modern history. Jim and Jane Crow were defeated. But America’s schools and neighborhoods remain racially segregated — in many communities, at levels at least as bad as if not worse than during the 1960s.
Racial discrimination by the United States government as well as private business is technically illegal. However, the voting rights of African-Americans and other people of color are under assault by Republicans; racism against people of color continues across the labor, banking and housing markets.
The chain gangs, debt peonage and convict lease system that was imposed on black Americans after the Civil War across the South and elsewhere no longer exists. In the present, America’s prisons continue to be part of a racist criminal justice system that punishes blacks and Latinos more severely than whites charged with the same crimes. Corporations and other private interests continue to profit from the mass incarceration of nonwhites. In too many communities, police behave in a way that is not too far from their origins in the United States as slave patrollers.
The American people twice elected a black man, Barack Obama, as president. White America responded with rage and anger. In a racist backlash and act of revenge, millions of white Republicans and other conservatives would then install the budding fascist Donald Trump and his cadre of white nationalists in the White House.
Progress is fitful along the color line in America. For every step forward there now seem to be two steps backward. How did this happen? Is racial progress an illusion in America? What responsibility do Trump and his voters have for the record increase in hate crimes that have occurred since the 2016 election?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Jane Elliott, now an anti-racism educator and activist. Since becoming famous for her Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed teaching exercise, Elliott has spent almost 50 years traveling around the world to educate adults and children about the damage that is still being caused by racism, ethnocentrism and prejudice.
My conversation with Elliott has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.
As someone who has been fighting racism and social injustice for close to 50 years, what are your thoughts on the wave of hate crimes that have swept across the country since the election of Donald Trump?
The fact that these hate crimes have exploded in number since Trump started to run for the presidency is not a coincidence. This man is a hate-monger. This man does not even recognize that he is encouraging the Nazification of this nation. It’s a classic case of how to separate people and conquer — that’s what he’s doing.
Pick out a group of people — in his case it’s going to be the Muslims — demonize them, talk about them as though they are our major problem and the cause of all our problems. Then encourage people who are upset because they do not make any money and who are upset because their families are going downhill. They are upset because it seems that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. It’s all right now to hate Muslims. Before he started, it was all right to hate blacks. The Muslims make a really good target — particularly for these evangelical Christians who are being led down a really ugly path to [the idea of] Sharia law. I think they don’t even recognize what’s happening.
The mainstream news media wring their hands and are so confused about how “good” white Christians could vote for Donald Trump. If the media put this in proper context they would discuss the history of racism and white supremacy among Southern evangelicals. This should not be a surprise.
We are not in a post-racial society. Now the racists are coming out of the woodwork because Donald Trump is making it all right to be a racist, to be a sexist, to be an ageist, to be an ethnocentrist — to be all the things that we have fought against since the ’60s.
I see the election of Donald Trump as one more example of white male privilege in action, and how white racism hurts white people.
I have a real big problem with the phrase “white privilege.” If you tell white folks that they are privileged, they are going to say, “It wasn’t my fault; I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t plan for this, it’s not my fault. I’m not responsible.”
This ain’t about white privilege; this is about white ignorance. Now people are talking about white innocence — we didn’t know! Yes, we did. We knew and we chose to ignore or deny or cooperate with a lie of white superiority. It is a lie, it is a myth. The myth of race that we believe in is comparable to the Greek myth that said the sun was a god in a golden chariot that moves across the sky every morning.
Right now we are living in a pigmentocracy, judging people on the basis of the amount of chemical in their skin. It makes no sense. We have to get past it and we have to get past it now, because very soon white people will have lost their numerical majority in the United States, and that’s what is scaring white males right now.
They and other white folks are worrying, “If people of color get power, aren’t they going to want to treat us the way we treated them?” There’s a solution for that: Change the way you treat people of other color now, and what you do today is going to create the future.
Do you think the average Trump voter was thinking, “I’m going to stick it to the black and brown folks!” Were they mad about Obama and this was revenge? What do you think the calculus was?
If we had not had eight years of a black man in the White House this backlash would not have been this great. Trump is a perfect example of how you can buy a business, and how you can buy a job, and how you can bully yourself into a position where you do not belong. I’m getting more ugly hate feel than I’ve gotten in years right now as a result of having this person in the White House, and having this philosophy, and having these kinds of words said on a daily basis.
When you first did the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes teaching exercise those decades ago, did you imagine that 40 or 50 years in the future the United States would have elected Donald Trump? Is this just unfathomable or was it wholly predictable?
No. I did not think we could ever be this ignorant as a nation. I really didn’t predict that we could ever go through this again.
People have forgotten that those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. That’s exactly what we are doing. We are repeating the mistakes of the past of the 1930s, and we ought to be smarter. Young people don’t know because they maybe had a page and a half about the Holocaust in their social studies books.
If you could do a workshop or focus group with Donald Trump voters, what would you tell them? How do you think they would react?
First, I’d say to them, “Will every person in this group who considers himself or herself a member of the white race, please stand.” They bounce up, they’re so happy. I’ll do the black race, then brown race, then yellow race, then red race. Now, everybody’s standing. “Now every person in this room who considers himself or herself a member of the human race, please sit down.” They all sit down, and then they look at each other like, “Shit, she got us.” I did, I got them. They’re all members of the same race. They’re members of what the Bible calls the human family, the family of men.
Skin color is not the problem, skin color is natural; ignorance is the problem and it can be cured with education. But the kind of education that we offer in this country is not education, it’s indoctrination. When we decide to stop indoctrinating students and educate them instead, we can change the level of racism in this country in two generations; I know about that a bit.
How would you respond when one of those Trump voters inevitably says, “Well, I’m not a racist” or “You’re a reverse racist” or “Why are you picking on white people?”
No. 1, everybody who says they’re not a racist, then I say to them, “Then did you graduate from high school? Because if you graduated from high school and you aren’t a racist, you didn’t learn what you were supposed to learn.” You need to go back and take the whole program all over again, because that’s what they’re teaching in this country.
What about the likely claim that you are “mean” to white folks when you talk to them about racism?
You’re hearing the truth spoken in a way you don’t want it told. You want something gentle and pleasant. You want me to be gentle and pleasant, you show me a way to be gentle and pleasant as a racist. It hasn’t happened yet. You’re not enjoying this, and I’ll tell you why you’re not enjoying this. You’re seeing the other side of this picture. You’re seeing yourself as others see you, and you don’t like it.
The thing I learned the first day I did that exercise, oh my God, I’ll never forget it. I watched my wonderful little brown-eyed students — all white students in that classroom — become what I and the other significant adults in their environment had taught them to be. And it was just terrifying to see my third-graders turn into me. I would not have known it, would not have recognized it, if I had not had been on the bottom the first day in that exercise.
It was absolutely shocking and embarrassing and humiliating because those kids were exhibiting the behaviors that the important or the significant adults in their environment had modeled for them. I found out how it feels to be judged unfairly on the basis of a physical characteristic over which I had no control, which was the color of my eyes.