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Jane Elliott Comes to Colby College
Teacher and anti-racism activist Jane Elliot has become infamous for her "brown eyes/blue eyes" exercise that intrigued the nation shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As an activist with over 40 years of experience in various schools, universities and corporations, Elliot spoke at Page Commons on Tuesday, March 11 to the students of the College about her experiences with racism, prejudice, and the warped ideologies of past and present that have shaped America today.
The talk, presented by the Students Organized for Black and Hispanic Unity (SOBHU), began with the straight-talking Elliot diving into conversation with the audience concerning the statistics of rape and violence in America. She discussed many important subjects regarding prejudice of all sorts-including gender, sexuality, and race bias. From No Child Left Behind and racial profiling to immigration and social security, Elliot touched on a multitude of hot-button issues affecting Americans today.
The experiment that she is most famous for took place when she was a teacher in Riceville, Iowa. Shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Elliot found herself at a predominantly white and Christian school with concern over how to teach these children about racism. Elliot created an exercise to explore the nature of racism and prejudice within her young, all-white classroom. She divided her students on the basis of eye color, conferring extra classroom privileges and better treatment on students with blue eyes and indicating inferiority in students with brown eyes. Quickly, oppression and mistreatment between the students began, demonstrating the rapid and hard-hitting affects of prejudice based on uncontrollable physical characteristics. The next day, Elliot reversed the exercise and placed the brown-eyed students in a more privileged status, showing a swift role reversal between the oppressed and the oppressors. "If you get the opportunity to abuse another person on the basis of a physical characteristic over which they have no control and you get the authority to allow it, you go nuts," she said.
Since then, Elliot has done this exercise in order to open the eyes of her students to the prejudice around them almost every year she has taught and in lectures throughout the country, despite the personal and professional problems caused by sparking this sort of controversy in a small, homogenous town. "Prejudice is an emotional connection to ignorance," she said, and her talk with the students of the College was a small step to severing that connection.
Elliot brought together the topics of politics and prejudice during her lecture, shining light on the ingrained ideologies and injustices both apparent and inconspicuous. A self-proclaimed "recovering Republican," she said, "I'm in a 12-step program to get over it." She spoke critically against the views of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, and political activist Ward Connerly on affirmative action, asking the audience whether the men and women of color who were afforded the ability to maintain jobs and an education because of that policy should have that taken away. "We don't need a colorblind society," she said, while addressing the platitudes held today advocating a blind eye to racism. "We need a society not blinded by color."
Calling up two members from the audience-Zack Rich '10 and Associate Director of Admissions and Multicultural Enrollment Denise Walden-Elliot demonstrated the innate and explicit differences in experiences they faced on the basis of "physical characteristics over which [they] have no control," including height, age, gender, and finally race. When she asked Walden about her race, she countered each response stating that "black" was a color group and "African-American" was a geographical designation, before agreeing with Walden's final response: they all belong to the human race. Despite that fact, "In this society, my color puts me at a disadvantage," Walden said.
Elliot quoted the philosopher Edmund Burke saying, "The only thing necessary for the perpetuation of evil is for good people to do nothing." In her words, "We can make a difference if we want to, or we can sit on our poly-unsaturated fat asses and do nothing." Blue eyes and brown joined in applause as the students, faculty and staff of the College prepared to leave the talk-hopefully taking with them a new sense of awareness for the campus and their daily lives.
Written by Tajreen Heyadet '11
"Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind,
-Baruch (–Benedict de) Spinoza