After MLK Was Shot, Teacher Jane Elliott Pioneered the Anti-Racism Exercise | JOB HACKS 

"There are no biracial children unless one of the parents is from outer space. It's time to change our vocabulary."

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

Name: Jane Elliott

Original Hometown: Riceville, Iowa

Job: Former schoolteacher, anti-racism activist, diversity trainer. For her famous Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise in reaction to Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Elliott has been featured in Smithsonian Magazine, on Oprah, and more.

Tell me about how you started your Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise.

I started the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. He was killed on April 4th, 1968, and I went into my classroom after having thought about what I wanted to do to explain the killing of that man to my third graders.

I decided to do what Hitler did: I decided that I would separate my group according to the color of their eyes and treat people who had the “wrong” colors as though they were inferior. I would lower my expectations of them, I would force them to live down to my expectations of them, and when they did, I would blame their inability to perform academically on the characteristic I was going to choose.

I couldn’t choose height because I was the only tall one in the room. I couldn’t choose age for obvious reasons. I couldn’t choose religion, because I wouldn’t do that. I couldn’t choose weight because we discriminate against people on the basis of their weight every day. I couldn’t choose skin color because I didn’t want to increase the level of racism within these students. I decided that I would discriminate against these children on the basis of the color of their eyes.

Now, since eye color and skin color are caused by the same thing — if it makes good sense to judge people by the amount of melanin in their skin, it makes even better sense to judge them by the amount of melanin in their eyes, because their eyes are closer to their brains. I had no idea how this would work. If I had known how it would work, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I didn’t know, because my number one freedom as a white woman in the United States of America is the freedom to be totally ignorant about those who are different from myself. My number two freedom is the freedom to deny ignorance. My number three freedom is my ability to say to people of color who accuse me of being racist or making a racist remark, “Well, you just don’t understand.”

That’s what we do. That’s what we get away with because we’ve been indoctrinated into the myth of white superiority. I went into my classroom the next morning and I separated my group according to the color of their eyes, and then I proceeded to learn more than I taught.

And the town of Riceville, Iowa, didn’t have a favorable reaction when you did this, right?

Eighty percent of the people in town shook their heads after they heard about it. Twenty percent decided I should lose my job. The teachers were more angry about what I did than most of the townspeople because if I was right, they were wrong. And obviously 52 teachers couldn’t be wrong and have one teacher be right. They were furious. It was not a pleasant time for my husband, my children, my parents, or me.

Was that the end of your teaching career and the beginning of your career in activism?

No. I taught in Riceville from before 1968 until 1985, at which time PBS made a film with the students who had gone through the exercise in third grade, in 1970. PBS made a film of those third graders coming back to Riceville for their five-year reunion after graduating high school: coming to the school, sitting down in front of cameras, and talking about what they remembered about the exercise and the effect it had on them. After that, I was invited by several corporations to do the exercise with employees in several places in the United States. That’s when I left teaching.

I went to the principal and said “I need 15 days of unpaid professional leave.” He said, “You’ll have to take it up with the superintendent.” So I went to the superintendent. He said, “Take it to the school board.” The teachers found out that I was going to the school board to ask for 15 days of unpaid professional leave and they said they’d sue the board if I got to do that because it wasn’t mentioned in our master contract. Well, in fact, since it wasn’t mentioned in the master contract we could have done it, but by that time I was tired of putting up with this nonsense. From that moment on, I taught so-called adults and am still doing that today.

Do you think much has changed since the day after Martin Luther King Jr. died and you first did your Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes exercise?

The only thing that has changed very much is the fact that now, those young black people feel that they have the right, the strength, and the power to stand up and be counted — if we would just listen. Frederick Douglas said, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where anyone is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be saved.” If white people aren’t going to change the situation they’ve created, they somebody else has to do it.

Now, young people of color have the power to stand up and say, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.” And they’re absolutely right. Last week, I did a speech for a group of college professors. At the beginning of my remarks I said, “Will every person in this room who considers herself and himself a member of the white race please stand.” Up jumped all those white folks. I said, “You can all sit down. I know now what I have to teach you.” I went ahead and told them about the fact that there’s only one race on Earth, we’re all members of the same race: Black is a color group, red is a color group, yellow, these all are color groups, not races. There’s only one race on the face of the Earth and we’re all members of it. At the end, I said, “Now, will every person in this room who considers himself or herself a member of the white race please stand?” Nobody stood.

I did a Skype with a group of sixth graders yesterday and I did the same thing. By the time I was done talking, when I asked them if every person who considers himself or herself a member of the white race to stand, nobody stood. It was beautiful. I did the same thing with a group of seventh graders this morning.

Was there ever a time when you doubted your path in activism?

There was never a time when I thought it wasn’t worth it. But there were two years when I didn’t do the exercise when I was teaching third grade because we had a new superintendent and the teachers association was constantly threatening to sue him for one thing or another and I thought, “I’m not going to do it this year because that’s what they’re going to use for their next lawsuit.” So I didn’t do it for two years. Those are the only years I regret. I regret I didn’t do it for those two years because I didn’t provide for those students a lesson that would help them to be better citizens of the world and the future. That was a mistake. If I could go back and redo that, that’s what I’d do.

What advice would you give to a young activist today?

Number one, how much have you got to lose? Number two, how willing are you to spend your life in isolation? Number three, how willing are you to step in front of a group of people that you know are going to hate what you say and take a chance of having someone attempt to take your life? Those are the things I consider very carefully, because we use force to shut people up. I’m amazed the Black Lives Matter people are all still alive. I think something good has happened that makes white people less inclined to take down a whole group of black students today as they would have when Martin Luther King Jr. was alive.

Incidentally, those people who are occupying government space in Oregon wouldn’t still be there if they were black and armed. If I were a black person, I’d think twice about doing this and if I were going to do it, I’d enlist the aid of a white person. If it’s a black female that wants to do this, I’d find a white male to stand up with her and do it. If it were a black male, I’d find a white female because we’ll listen to white people. We don’t listen to people of color, and if people of color can complain about this, we’ll say, “You’re pushing your own agenda.” It isn’t their agenda that they’re pushing. They’re pushing the agenda for all of us, to make this a better country in which to live.

In my opinion, black males in this country are suffering from traumatic stress disorder. Not post-traumatic stress disorder because it isn’t post; it is every day. It is now and it is in the future if we don’t do something about it. They’re suffering from traumatic stress disorder because they’re living in a war zone: a place in which you’re endangered every day just because of the ignorance of those around you. If you’re a young black boy and you’re walking down the street with a box in your hand, if a cop thinks it looks like that might be a gun, they can shoot you for it.

Imagine what it must be like to be the mother who sends black sons out into the world everyday. She has to prepare them for what could happen to them in ways that I never had to prepare my kids. I didn’t have to say to my kids, “Don’t act angry today, your life is in danger if you act angry.”

People in the media are spotlighting a man who says, “We have to keep these brown people from south of the United States out of this country.” Why is the media spotlighting all these ugly things that man is saying? You don’t cure racism by putting it on the news every 15 minutes during the day.

What do you think the answer is, moving forward?

The answer in the future is only hiring teachers who know what racism is: Know what it looks like, know what it feels like, and are determined to put a stop to it. I think the answer is teaching the truth instead of teaching the line. It’s time to do what people in Oregon are doing who are not celebrating Columbus Day, but American Day. You have to have teachers who know the truth, and in order to do that, you have to teach the teachers, and we aren’t doing that.

Has there ever been a time in your own career when you’ve feared for your safety?

Oh yeah, all the time. That’s part of the program. Three carloads of blacks took me out to Pennsylvania one night because the teachers that I had done the exercise with in a very informal way called the superintendent and said, “If you don’t get that bitch out of town, we’re going to shoot her.” Two days later, when I woke up all alone in a motel — the person who had been with me the day before in the next room had gone back to work for the civil rights department in Pennsylvania. I was to leave that building, alone. When I looked at the doors and windows above me in this motel, I thought, “Oh my God, behind one of those windows could be a person who was sent here to shoot me.” I closed the door, and I remembered saying to myself, “Now you have a choice to make. You could stand here and be paralyzed through fear for the rest of your life and never do this work again. Or you can get out of this room, go to the desk, and check out. What are you going to do?”

I had four kids at home depending on me, and a husband. I stiffened my shoulders — I guess I thought if my muscles were stiff enough, the bullets would bounce off — and I walked quickly. I didn’t run. I don’t think you run because you’re scared, I think you’re scared because you run. So I walked quickly to the desk, I checked out, and at that point I thought, “You damn dummy look at what you’ve done. You’ve allowed them to scare you to death.” From that moment on, I haven’t been scared.

Going to a college campus, there are always the three young men in the third row sitting there talking while I’m talking, sitting jabbing their fingers at me, obviously talking about me and what I’m saying. At that point I stop and say, “I know what you guys are thinking. I’m going to warn you, if you try to kill me because of what I’m doing, to try to decrease some of the racism in this country, you might make a martyr out of me and you might have to spend the rest of your days celebrating Jane Elliot once a year. Now do you want to do that?” And then they shake their heads; they don’t want that. I say, “See to it that nothing bad happens to me. Your university doesn’t want that reputation and you don’t want to celebrate my life for the rest of your lives.” If you want to go into this line of work, particularly now when everyone has the right to bear a gun, whether or not they are members of an organized militia, you’re taking your life into your hands. But at my age, I don’t care.

What’s been the most surprising part of your life path and the impact you’ve had?

I don’t think I’ve had an impact. I’ve been doing this for 48 years. Things have not changed anywhere near enough. I never thought that that exercise was going to get out of my classroom. It wouldn’t have gotten out of my classroom if my students, the first year I did it, hadn’t written four-paragraph essays about what they had gone through, who they felt Martin Luther King was, and what discrimination is. But they said I showed it to my mother, she shows it to a friend at the local paper, they put it in the paper. A friend of mine sent that article to the Johnny Carson show. From there, it exploded.

How do you think we solve the problem?

We educate students of all ages of the fact that there’s only one race. We are all members of the same race. All these color names that we have given to races are just that: color groups. They are not different races. There’s only one race on the face of this Earth. We’ve got to get rid of worlds like “multiracial children” or “biracial children.” There are no biracial children unless one of the parents is from outer space. It’s time to change our vocabulary.