For over 52 years, educator Jane Elliott has been talking about the problem of racism in America. Ever since the morning after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, Elliott has conducted her “Brown-eye/Blue-eye” exercise, in which she separates a room of people based on their eye color, treating the brown-eyed people better than the others. Elliott’s exercise, which began in her third-grade classroom on April 5 1968, has been praised by many, including Oprah, who had her on her show in 1992, and the rapper, Killer Mike, who recently said Elliott’s work was required homework for all of white America.
On June 13th, one day after “Loving Day,” or the day commemorating the U.S. Supreme Court decision that officially dubbed interracial marriage legal, my fiancée, Eva Walker, and I talked with Elliott over the phone. I’d been slated to speak with Elliott for a week, or so, but once our conversation was nearing its conclusion, it seemed best to ask if Eva would join the call. Eva, who is Black (I am white) and born in Seattle, Washington, has known of Elliott’s work for over a decade and considers her a hero.
Jake: Hi Jane. Thank you for speaking with me today. May I ask, even before conducting your exercise, why did you first go into teaching?
Jane: Because my father wouldn’t help me if I went into nursing. I was already registered at a college where I could learn how to be a nurse and he said, “If you’re going to go into nursing, then I’m not going to help you. If you go into teaching, I’ll help you.” Well, he didn’t have the money to do either one, but I shifted the money I had borrowed to UNI [University of Northern Iowa], I took it away from Broadlawns Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, and went into teaching.
Jake: As you look back on your life, how and when did you first learn prejudices?
Jane: When I was born. But I learned racial prejudices in a different way. When I was a kid, my father would say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And he’d say, “If you think you’re smarter than he is, prove it.” And he’d say, “A man’s judged by the company he keeps and the best of company’s none too good.” And that’s as far as it went until we got to the age of when we were about to get married, and he would say, “Don’t bring any pickaninnies into my house as grandchildren.” Well, that was something he had never voiced before and I was really quite shocked about that. Because we had lived, my husband and I, in Waterloo, Iowa, which was called “Little Chicago” at that time because of the large Black population. My husband ran a store in the north end of town, which was the Black section. We found out that those people of different color groups were absolutely marvelous, as far as we were concerned. So, I was more than a little disillusioned with my father having said that.
But things got better. After we had some children, things got a lot better. My daughter married a Saudi Arabian and they came home to Iowa for a couple weeks at one point and they brought that beautiful little girl [of theirs]. My father was sitting in the living room in a rocking chair with his big overalls on and we took that tiny little baby and put it in his arms and it looked up and he said, “This is the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen.” And then he looked at those two people standing in front of him, that Arab man and that Anglo-American woman, and he said, “That’s a good cross. By god, that’s a good cross.” Yeah. See, if we can all just get the idea that it’s a “good color cross” but it’s not a “racial cross” - he didn’t see it as a racial cross, he saw all of us as human beings, he really did. But he just thought that the way some of us behave is absolutely reprehensible. He had no time for racist behavior in his presence. But it was difficult for him to be around me because, you know, I’ve gotten way too aware.
Jake: How are racial conditions the same or different now compared to when you first conducted your famous exercise in 1968?
Jane: We are back now to worse than we were when I did the Blue-eye/Brown-eye exercise. Because at that time, the Civil Rights Movement had begun and was making good progress until it was sapped by the Women’s Movement, which was a white women’s movement. But we are worse off now because our so-called leader is so racist, so sexist, so anti-Semitic, so everything that’s wrong and he is leading people in exactly the wrong direction. He and the members of the business roundtable are going to take this country down the tubes unless we’re very careful.
Now, I think things are worse now than they were then because you see pale faces have learned how to continue to write racist laws, laws that segregate deliberately and how to defend those and how to put them in terms that you aren’t quite certain what they’re saying until you see it in practice, and then you know, “Oh good lord, we’ve done it again.” People who haven’t read the book, The Color of Law, should get it today and read it. And they’ll realize that most of the segregation we have in this country is not because people don’t want to live next to one another unless we’re the same as one another, it’s about lawyers who write laws that are prejudicial because lawyers learn the same thing through age 22 that everybody else does - and it’s a lie.
Jake: So often people don’t think they’re racist or prejudice. Why do you think they can’t see that in themselves?
Jane: They can see it! They can see it and they know it! Somebody said to me once - a Black person said to me, “Denial is not just a river in Egypt. It’s also what so-called ‘white people’ do all day long.” They are in denial because they don’t want to admit that they have the problem and they don’t want to look at ways to solve it and if you try to solve it, you have to work at it. If you have been programmed from pre-birth to the age of 22 or 25 or 40 or 66 with the myth of race, then you don’t want to look and dig that out of your mental set. You don’t want to make or do the job that is required if we’re going to rid ourselves of this ignorance.
What we’ve got is educated ignorance. My dad used to say to people, “You’re an educated fool.” And that’s what we have, a whole lot of people running around who are educated fools. They’ve got lots of education but - they’ve done studies in this country that prove the longer you stay in school, the more bigoted you become. Because every year you’re in school, you are reinforced what you learned in grades K-8. And most of what you learn in social studies grades K-8 was ANTI-social studies.
Jake: Why do you think civility can be such a thin line between people?
Jane: I’ll tell you why! Because we don’t get rewarded for it. We get rewarded for following the national needs and the rhetoric of whiteness. We are rewarded for supporting that. We are rewarded monetarily for supporting that. What people don’t seem to understand is racism is a moneymaker. A huge moneymaker. And if you don’t believe me, talk to Wal-Mart. You talk to businesses that hire people of color at lower wages for periods of 30 hours per week so they don’t have to pay them any benefits. These companies make a ton of money by hiring people at low wages and putting them in menial positions and keeping them from gaining any power.
We keep people of color in this country from gaining enough power and paying them enough money so they can put money away and have something to hand down to their children. That’s what my white children are depending on. That’s what my white grandchildren are depending on. Because we make enough money to have enough money to give away to our children. Many, many people of color, many Hispanic, many Asians, practically all Native Americans don’t have enough money to get from day-to-day, so they don’t put anything away, so they don’t have an estate to send down to their kids. And a lot of money in this country is handled by pale faces and is passed down from generation to generation. Am I right about that?
Jake: Yes ma’am 100-percent!
Jane: See, people can say, “Racism is a bad thing.” But they don’t hire that person because they don’t want them to make too much money and they can’t afford to give him too much power. Right now, you’ve seen a resurgence of the ugliness of racism. Because people are finally coming to the conclusion that within thirty years, pale faces will have become a numerical minority in the United States of America. And they are scared to death of what people of color are going to do to them when people of color have the power. I get that question every time I do a speech anywhere. Some liberal white female says, “What if those people-" and I know who she’s talking about when she says those people “-if those people get power, aren’t they going to want to do what we’ve done to them?” And I say, “What have you done to them, Madame?” And she says, “Oh, you know what I mean!” And I say, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.”
But at the University of Houston a couple years ago, some woman asked that question and I said, “Let’s find out.” There were 1,500 people in the group and at least half of them were Black. I said, “For every person in this room who considers himself or herself a member of the Black race, who wants to get even with ALL white folks, please stand.” Three young Black males stood. And the rest of them looked at them, like, “Are you out of your mind?” And I said, “See? They don’t want to get even with all of us. But let’s be honest about this. Will every person who considers himself or herself a member of the Black race in this room, who would like to even with one or two white people? Please stand.” They all bounced up, cheering and laughing and high-fiving one another and it was like, “Free at last, we’re free at last!” It was just beautiful.
And all of a sudden, that white woman wasn’t relaxed anymore. She was happy when she thought they didn’t want to get even with us, but when she found out that they might want to get even with one or two, I said, “Now, let me tell you something. If you wanted to be treated fairly in the future, treat people fairly in the present and make sure you don’t behave in such a way that you are one of the one or two they want to get even with. Does that make sense to you?” And the Blacks all cheered and she just looked like, “Uggggh.” Because that meant she had to change her behaviors if he wanted to change her future.
Jake: Did your own psychology or life change once your family and you became disliked or hated for your work?
Jane: [Laughs]. Oh god, yes. Oh, yes. [Laughs]. Where I was living [Laughs], that’s not a welcoming environment for me. My mother kicked me out of the family after my dad died. My dad wouldn’t have allowed that. I’ll never forget the day I showed him the Canadian Broadcasting film that they made in my classroom. I took it up to the hotel that my husband and I owned and that my parents were living in and I showed just the two of them, my mother and my father that film. And after it was over, my dad at that time was about 59-years-old, he stood up, he took his red handkerchief out of the back pocket of his big overalls, he blew his nose, he wiped his eyes, and he said, “I wish somebody had taught me that when I was 9-years-old.” He was crying and I was crying and nobody has ever been able to tell me again - ever again - that what I did was wrong.
Jake: What goes through your mind when you see the protests in cities all over the world today?
Jane: I see all those different colored people in that protest and I think, “Here we go! Mitch McConnell you tried to destroy the whole thing by keeping Barack Obama from being successful. But look at all these people who listened to him! Look at these people who are not listening to Donosaurs T. Rump. Think about what’s happening here, fools! We’re all watching.”
If those protestors remain as they are right now, if they remain in that state of mind for the next four months, we are going to vote the McConnells and the Trumps out of office. And when that happens, there’s going to be a sea change in this country. I believe that. I honestly believe that there’s enough of them here that know there’s only one race. If they would look around them, in that crowd while they’re protesting, if they look at the people around them and see that most of them are wearing masks, most of them listen to what the President says, even though he sets the wrong example, most are out there protesting something ugly that happened.
Now I want them to protest the fact that they showed that picture over and over and over of that Black man flat on the ground with that too-assured person’s knee on his neck. I don’t see that as humanitarian, showing that over and over. I see that as an attempt to intimidate young Black boys and their mothers. That picture says very plainly to me and the fact that they showed it so often says very plainly to me, “Look this is what can happen to you if you don’t behave yourself and if you get into trouble with us.”
Jake: Do you think your exercise will be conducted in the future?
Jane: I’ve gotten a lot of requests to do the exercise with various groups of people and I don’t want to do it anymore because it’s hard work and I’m too old for this nonsense. But I have three people in my family who want to learn how to do it and carry it on. And I think it will be conducted. But I’m afraid - and this is what’s going to happen if we aren’t very, very careful. I’m careful about who I train to do it. Because if you put that exercise in the wrong hands, you could do more harm than good. And I know that. And I know how that would work. But, you see, right now, I’m too old for any of this nonsense. But one of the reasons I’m too old for it is, what I’ve seen happen in society today and in the nation at large is exactly what I did with my 3rd graders that first time in that Brown-eye / Blue-eye exercise.
You need to realize that I learned that exercise from Adolf Hitler. One of the ways they decided who to put into the gas chamber was eye color. If they had blue eyes and pale skin, you were obviously a member of the Master Race. Master Race, think of those words. But if you had brown eyes, even if you had a good German name, they threw you into the gas chamber because they thought you might be a Jewish person who was trying to pass. Now, I based that experience on what I learned from 1933 to 1941. Adolf Hitler came to power the same year that I was born. And so did Franklin Roosevelt. So, I had lots of years to learn how to run that exercise. I learned it from Adolf Hitler and I learned it from people in this country. I had lots of years to learn it and I had lots of years to learn how wrong it was to treat people unfairly on the basis of a physical characteristic over which they had absolutely no control.
I think that if enough qualified educators - not teachers, I don’t want to put it in the hands of teachers - I want to put it in the hands of educators. Big difference between educators and teachers. So, if I could find 100, 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, one million educators who had the skill and the ability to empathize with those who are different from themselves and knew any psychology at all - not just child psychology but any psychology at all - I would love to teach them how to do that exercise. And I’ve tried that. But each time, most of the people who are taking the training say, when it’s over, “I can’t do this. I can’t be that mean.” And I’m saying, “You fool. What you mean is, you don’t want to expose yourself.” Because some of them enjoy doing it far too much.
You have to be very, very careful about the people for whom you teach that exercise. They would misuse it just as we’ve misused television. We’ve misused - we’re certainly misusing iPads and computers with Twitter and tweeting and all that nonsense. That technology is being grossly misused. And somebody would grossly misuse this exercise and then it would be blamed on the exercise instead of the person who did it wrong.
Jake: Do you have faith in people as you look to the future?
Jane: I call a whole lot them “Sheeple.” Because they follow wherever the leader who has the bell on his neck will take them. And that’s exactly what’s happening in this country today. But the size of the crowds of protestors who are marching in all the major cities and some of the minor ones lead me to believe that they are now going to turn on the head of the flock. And they’re going to turn away from him. They have to. If they don’t, he’s going to lead us over the cliff. They’re like lemmings. Right into the sea. I’m afraid that people are going to be ignorant and if he has enough money and if the boys in the business round table are willing to go along with it, he can buy this next election. He bought the last one. He’ll buy the next one.
Jake: I don’t think Trump will win this time.
Jane: I’m not going to say, “I hope.” Although I do hope. That was what Martin Luther King Jr. was about: hope. For me, that’s an acronym for “Holding Onto Positive Energy.” It’s hard to hold onto positive energy when you are seeing the millionaires and billionaires and trillionaires having their taxes reduced while the rest of our taxes go up to make up the difference. It’s a scary time. And I’m afraid the sheep are going to just follow along. It’s absolutely distressing to think that people would allow him to speak at West Point after he had his doctor sign a statement saying he had bone spurs on his heels so he couldn’t go into the military. And then he stands up there and praises those “young men who are the future of our country.”
He keeps saying the “future of America.” Somebody needs to tell him and everybody in the network that America is everything from the northernmost point of Canada to the southernmost point of South America. That’s all America. North America, Central America, South America. Every person in those areas, in those countries, are Americans. He needs to start saying, “The United States of America.” But we are so arrogant in this country that we can call ourselves, “America.” What that means is the rest of them don’t count! But they evidently do count with this fool because he’s building a wall across the southern border of the United States to keep out those people who aren’t “Americans.” But wait a minute! They’re all Americans. You can’t build a wall to keep out Americans when the ones on the other side of that wall are all Americans! Am I making sense here?
Jake: Yes ma’am!
Jane: I’m sick of Presidents or anybody else standing up and saying, “God bless you and God bless America.” I think, “Oh my god, you don’t bless people and then build a wall to keep them out!”
Jake: These little cues are subliminal. Not many people are thinking that way when they see the news and when they see Trump on TV. But you absorb it.
Jane: Over the past week, there’s been a band on the bottom of the MSNBC News that says, “America in crisis!” All of America isn’t in crisis! The United States of America is in crisis! But if you read Robert Wald Sussman’s book, The Myth of Race, you realize that we are all 30th to 50th cousins because we all have the same ancestor back there between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. Now, get over it! We’ve only had this problem, the problem of racism based on skin color, for about 550 years, something like that. It started with the Spanish Inquisition. Before that, there were people of different colors, but they weren’t enslaved because of their color. They were enslaved for lots and lots of other reasons but not on the basis of color. And somebody needs to tell these fools that what we call “white people” only constitutes 25-percent of the population of the earth. Only 25-percent of us are light-skinned. The other 75-percent are shades of brown. And that’s exactly what we should call white people, another shade of brown.
Jake: It’s so juvenile to separate people on color. It’s such a kindergarten thing in a lot of ways.
Jane: It is totally ridiculous, totally unacceptable and senseless! Because anybody who thinks that skin color is an indication of intelligence needs to think again. They need to read Anthony Browder’s book, Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization. And then tell me - or just read the 2018 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Just read that magazine. Then you don’t have to read any of the rest of this stuff because it shows you a map of where the modern human beings started and how they moved across all these landmasses to finally populate every landmass on the face of the earth without the benefit of any modern technology. How the hell did “dumb” people do that!?
Jake: Jane, I want to thank you for your time. It’s a pleasure to speak with you. You’ve made me cry many times and you don’t even know it. My fiancée is here and she loves your work. She’s a beautiful Black woman and she just wants to say hello, if that’s alright?
Jane: Wait a minute! You don’t have to be beautiful to be a Black woman for you to be my hero! Black women have competencies and abilities and intelligence that the rest of us don’t have. They keep on keeping on regardless of what happens to them and what happens to their children, especially their sons. I have nothing but great admiration for Black women.
Eva: Hi, Jane!
Jane: Hi there! How are you?
Eva: I just wanted to say, as a Black woman, I wanted to say thank you for all the work that you’ve done and on behalf of my family for all the work that you’ve done. I really appreciate it and thank you, thank you, thank you!
Jane: No, no, no, no! I accept your thanks but I thank you! For being able to develop the coping skills that keep you from being what we have accused you of being.
Jane: Yeah. You have developed skills, talents, and abilities that I, as a pale-faced woman, will never develop because I’ve never had to. I’m absolutely serious when I say Black women are my heroes. You don’t have to thank a pale-faced woman for doing what you have [begins to cry] been doing for however long you’ve been alive. For god sake! So, I get praise for doing what you’ve had to do. I get paid for it. You’ve paid to be allowed to live here. And then somebody says to you, “If you don’t like it why don’t you go back where you came from?” And you have to say to them, “If we all went back to where I came from, where we all came from, it would get really crowded in a hurry.”
Eva: Wow, yeah. I mean [begins to cry] it takes people like you willing talk about it - don’t make me cry, Jane, darnit! People like you basically saying, “Eva, your life matters. Your brother’s life matters. Your family’s life matters.” It just takes a really courageous person who - if you think about, it doesn’t “directly affect.” And I mean, that’s just so meaningful. And you’ve dedicated your whole life to doing things like that.
Jane: No, no, no! I haven’t dedicated my whole life to this! No, that’s not what I’m - I’m an educator. And educators are engaged in the act of leading people out of ignorance. Ignorance is the number-one problem in the United States of America. And we push kids to go to school so we can guarantee that they will grow up ignorant. And follow the ridiculous silliness of racism. Ugh. I’m just so disgusted that I’m this old and it’s still happening. I’m so disgusted that we still haven’t learned and we call ourselves the leader of the Western World. Well, we’re leading them in the wrong direction. But I’m awfully glad you came on and I’m awfully glad to talk to you. And if you’re ever in Iowa, come to my house, I live in an old schoolhouse, come stay with me. We live six miles from town, we have an old Baptist church next door that we have turned into a guest house. So, if you’re ever in this area, plan to come to my guesthouse. It won’t cost you anything and we’ll sit out in the backyard and watch the deer go by and solve all the problems of the world.
Eva: I would love to come see you!
Jane: Do that, I’m serious about that!
Eva: I’m very serious! I would love to see you. My mom is an educator as well. My grandfather was an educator. My family is here in Seattle. My grandpa taught physics and calculus and wanted to become an electrical engineer and my family is from Louisiana but we’re in Seattle now since 1968 because my grandpa was told that “Niggers aren’t engineers.”
Jane: And they don’t know what Black people engineered all those years! They don’t know that Columbus was taught Black like all the rest of us are. Oh. See. That’s the point. If we are told the truth in history, nobody would have been able to say that about your grandfather. They would have known better.
Eva: Exactly. And he ended up coming to Seattle to work for Boeing and he helped put Man on the moon. And my mom is an educator. I play music and teach music. But, I mean, that’s just some of the history with my family being from the south. And then, of course, Seattle over here. A lot of people hide behind their liberalism and say, “No, I don’t believe that! I’m not racist! I’m blah blah blah.”
Jane: When somebody tells you they aren’t racist, you need to say, “Did you graduate from high school? Yes? Well, if you aren’t racist, you need to go back and take the whole thing over.” Because that’s what we teach in the schools in this country, how to be a good American citizen and believe in the myth of race.