“You are happily ignorant,” Jane Elliot, recipient of the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education said. “I used to be happily ignorant.” Elliot, most famous for her discrimination exercise, Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes, was the keynote speaker at the 20th annual Weber State University Diversity Conference.
She implemented her experiment in her 3rd grade class in “all-white, all-Christian,” rural Iowa, the day after Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated.
In her simulation, she told her students that people with brown eyes were inherently smarter, faster-learning, more civilized and more component than everyone else. Blue-eyed people, on the other hand, she said tended to be animalistic, unteachable and uncivilized. She wanted to teach her students, firsthand, the effects of racism.
Elliot spoke about her exercise in today’s world and her views on how we can put an end to it. She argued that it is the ignorance of white people that creates racial problems and discrimination today.
Elliot held no misconceptions about how brutal her accusations of racism can sound, but maintained that racism is a topic that cannot be discussed gently. She warned at the beginning of her keynote, “Do not applaud the speaker before the speaker speaks.”
She continued to say that many people would end up feeling uncomfortable.
“I don’t care if you learn or not, that’s not my responsibility. My responsibility is to bring you some education,” she said.
Elliot said her husband warned her that she could get fired for implementing such an experiment in a children’s classroom, to which she responded, “well then, I don’t want to teach in Riceville anyway.”
Elliot did not anticipate how it would affect lives outside of the classroom. Her father lost all his friends, her four children were harassed by peers and teachers and no one would speak to her husband. Had she known these would be the results of her experiment, Elliott said she would not have done it.
Brown-eyed students were cruel to their blue-eyed counterparts. Because of this, Elliott wanted to end the experiment early, but after a discussion with fellow teachers where one had said she thought it was about time someone shot King, Elliott decided she could not allow her students to continue on with their inherited prejudices.
Elliot believes King to be the greatest dream we ever killed. Every time she said his name, she did so with great emotion.
“We killed a dream,” she said. “I remember as clearly now as if it happened yesterday. He was an inspiration, not just for people of color. All the joke was over. He had a dream to free all of us from the shackles of racism.”
When King was killed, Elliot said it was an absolutely different level of tragedy than other high-profile assassinations, such as John F Kennedy’s.
Elliot expressed frustration with the racism of reporters after the tragedy. She recalled some saying that it wasn’t such a bad thing King was killed.
“I thought blacks were my people,” she said. “ I thought they were citizens of this country.”
When discussing how she separated her class by eye color, comparisons to the Holocaust and current policing towards African-Americans ensued.
One of the ways an individual was sent to the gas chamber during the Holocaust was if they had brown eyes, because they might be trying to pass as German, according to Elliott. She compared the act to shooting young black men because of the color of their skin.
“How many of you think we are so much superior to Nazi Germany?” Elliott asked the crowd. Attendees stayed silent as Elliott answered her own question, saying that we are currently no better than it and citing the proposed Muslim travel ban.
When discussing racism, topics like sexism, ageism, homophobia and ethnocentrism must be brought up as well, according to Elliott.
Elliott, speaking particularly to the white people in the room, said that it was everyone’s responsibility to get educated and to combat any form of discrimination. She spoke to white people in particular because of the privilege they carry.
“It’s a huge opportunity for those who have privilege to educate others with privilege. I think it makes a difference. Their voices are heard differently than those who are underprivileged,” WSU junior Nailah Wilson said of the importance of a speaker like Elliott.
This was WSU’s 20th annual Diversity Conference, and some students said they hope the need to highlight diversity is not a thing within the next 20 years.
“In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to have conferences to teach people how to be diverse,” Wilson said. “I would hope that in 20 years that it won’t be necessary to sit down and have these conversations with people because people will have changed by then.”
Elliott said people are denying racism in their midst to this day. America is not blameless when it comes to the unfairness and inequality minorities have and continue to face, she said.
Elliot had the crowd stand as she asked “Do you identity with _______ Race?” She asked white, black, brown and yellow — she discounted red because she thinks the portrayal of Native Americans as red is wildly inappropriate. At the point where almost everyone had stood, she said, “Now sit if you identify as part of the Human Race.”
She then explained it is irrational to believe it is fully possible to be two races. Therefore, Elliot argued, we are all the same race: Human. We are simply different color groups. She said until this concept of a raceless world is commonly accepted, we will never get rid of racism.
“Skin color is not an indication of worth or intelligence,” Elliot concluded. “Decide to not tolerate the intolerable.”
In recognition for her work, Elliot has been a guest on The Today Show, Tonight with Johnny Carson and the Oprah Show to talk about her passion against racism. Documentaries such as “The Eye of the Storm,” “A Class Divided,” “The Eye of the Beholder” and “The Angry Eye” have all been dedicated to her work simulating racism and discrimination with eye color, instead of skin.