02 Jul Jane Elliott
Photo courtesy of Jane Elliott
Anti-racism activist, educator, recipient of the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education, and internationally known for her Blue eyes–Brown eyes exercise, Mrs. Jane Elliott, has spent her entire life denouncing bigotry, prejudice, and social inequality. Mrs. Elliott is a true hero and a light of hope for all who dream that one day, no one will be judged based on their skin color or differences.
By Victoria Adelaide | July 2nd. 2018
Victoria Adelaide: What started your interest in mankind?
Jane Elliott: My father said, “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. If it hasn’t happened to you, don’t criticize somebody for responding the way they do to something that never happened to you.” He also said, “Never judge a book by its cover; open it up and look at it first. You want to understand it first before you start complaining. You don’t know what the hell that person has lived through and, until you know how that person has lived, you don’t have the right to judge her.” He also said his mother forced him to go to Sunday school until he was 15, at which point he refused to ever go back. He learned that “You judge not, lest you be judged.” He used to spout Bible verses to us and we thought, “Well you don’t go to church, what’s your problem?” Then I realized that what he was doing was telling us how to live a moral life. That was about as far as he was concerned.
VA: The day that followed the death of Martin Luther King Jr., you experimented with your Blue eyes–Brown eyes exercise for the first time in your classroom with your students. Looking back, how did it impact your life?
JE: It absolutely changed the way I see myself and my fellow human beings. After the exercise, I began to realize they were my fellow human beings. We are all cousins. There’s only one race on the face of the earth and when you abuse one of my cousins, you’re going to have to tangle with me. I found out that the kids who went along with that did so because if they were on the top, by not going along this feels good. If they were at the bottom, I didn’t dare to speak up because, at homeroom, the rest of those people would be on my back. So, people went along to get along. I will never do that again. I’ll do the exercise over and over and over, but I would never go along to get along again. When something is wrong, I will step up and say, “This is wrong!” And if it is unacceptable for me, it is unacceptable for them. You must not treat people unfairly. Not in front of me. I am my brother’s keeper. But I do not intend to keep him in his place.
VA: A man who was at your first experiment with the Blue eyes–Brown eyes exercise said that he never forgot how it made him feel. So, if a few minutes of this exercise made a lifetime impact on this man, how can we expect to improve the situation when the Black community has a history of hundreds of years of slavery?
JE: Here’s what we have to do: we have to change the educators in this country because they have been miseducated just as we are miseducating. You can’t teach what you don’t know. The educators in this country have been in the business, not of education but of indoctrination. The indoctrination starts at the age of three until the age of 18. It takes us that many years to condition people to the myth of white superiority. Those people, after 18 years of being conditioned, go to college and get four more years of indoctrination in the idea and myth of white superiority. Then they go into classrooms and they teach what they have learned, which is the myth of white superiority. Therefore, what we have to do is to start in pre-school, teaching that there is only one race— the human race. We are all cousins and if something is unbearable for my cousins, it is unbearable for me. We have to start teaching the truth. We have to stop indoctrinating and start educating. I’m an educator. The word educator comes from the root “duc,” which means “lead,” the prefix “e,” which means “out,” the subject “ate,” which means “the act of,” and the subject “or,” which means “one who does.” An educator is the one who is engaged in the act of leading people out of ignorance. Now, you can’t do that if you continue to miseducate people by teaching white superiority, and that’s what we are doing every day all over the world. We have managed to spread our stereotypical thinking worldwide. Television and instant communication have made it even easier to convince people of the rightness of whiteness. It is a lie. Anybody who doesn’t believe that needs to read Robert Wald Sussman’s book, The Myth of Race. They have to read it. Educators, and future educators, must be required to read that book. We cannot continue to miseducate the population of these schools because we’re going to end up with a situation that is even worse than it was in the 50s. We are in a position right now of taking drastic steps backward; we’re going back to the 50s. “Make America Great Again”—what he means is “make America hate again.” We have to teach students that when somebody is saying to you, “We need to go back to the good old days,” it is probably a white man who is saying it. The good old days, the 50s, were good for white males; they weren’t worth a dime for the rest of us. We must not educate in such a way that we go forward into the past. We must not take steps backward. It has to stop! The only way it will stop is if we reeducate the educators. As long as the educators believe what they’re teaching is the truth, that’s how long they’ll teach it because it agrees with what they learned and what they want to be true. Whether it’s true is not the point; the point is that they learned how to teach it, they learned how to say it, they believe it, and it’s a lie. There is only one race on the face of the earth and you and I are members of it. You are one of my cousins. If we made every educator get a DNA test, we would find that in their DNA are genes from Africa. Every one of them came from a country in Africa. So, if we could just convince educators of that and say, “You’re just like all these little kids.” All human beings come in different sizes, shapes, colors, genders, gender orientations, and believe different things but they are all members of the same race. You can have numerous faiths, but only one race. There are different faces but they aren’t different races. If we could just tattoo that on the forearm of every person going into education: “There are many different faces but no different races.”
VA: I need to ask you something. As a mixed-race person, I…
JE: Don’t say one more word. You are not a mixed-race person. You are a mosaic. A mosaic is something new, composed of many different elements and beautiful. You are not mixed race because there is only one race.
VA: When we speak about discrimination, we rarely speak about the situation of mosaic people. (smiles) Many can experience discrimination coming from all communities. Where do we stand, us, mosaic people?
JE: You stand in a position they haven’t reached yet. You’re standing there, knowing they’re thinking in a way in which they have been trained to think, which is non-thinking. They have been trained not to investigate, not to question, not to argue, but to accept their place. You are not going to do that anymore. You are not going to have somebody say to you, “Well, you’re mixed race ain’t you?” Because you are going to reply, “No, both of my parents came from this planet.” The only way you can be bi-racial or multi-racial is if one of your parents came from another planet because there is only one race on the face of the earth. So, you’re going to start today, to refuse to accept the terms that we have used when race is concerned. We’ve used these terms in the past; we’re not going to use them in the future. Words are important. You can change a society by forcing members of that society to speak correctly. For us to continue to use words like bi-racial and multi-racial is to accept and reinforce the idea of a number of different races. So, even with your very good friends who are proud of what they are, you need to say, “That’s fine, it’s a good thing to be proud of your differentness. Absolutely! But we are all the same race.” So, let’s talk about the differences as they really exist. There are 2500 different skin colors on the face of the earth. Can you think of 2500 different names for races? Because if you can’t, you’d better start saying “mosaic.”
JE: Also, people weren’t enslaved over 500 years ago because of color; they were enslaved because of who ruled and it depended on their tribal customs, religion, and things like that. It wasn’t based on color. It has only been based on color since the Spanish Inquisition. And the only reason it happened after the Spanish Inquisition is because the people who ran the Spanish Inquisition found out that they killed the wrong people. Then they decided they couldn’t base it on religion because they couldn’t tell what someone’s religion was by looking at them. So, they decided to base it on skin color. Hitler decided to base it on eye color and that’s how I decided to use eye color in my classroom. It’s because one of the ways they decided who would enter the gas chamber was eye color. If you had a good German name but had brown eyes, they’d send you into the gas chamber because they thought you might be a Jewish person who was trying to pass. So, these mistakes have been made all over the last 500 years and it’s time to stop making these mistakes. It’s time to stop basing our attitudes and our behaviors toward others on the amount of melanin in their skin because we all have melanin in our skin. If somebody says, “Well, I’m a white person,” then you get a piece of paper, hold it up to their arm, then you tell them, “If your skin isn’t this color, don’t tell me you’re white because you aren’t. You’re just another shade of brown.” There are no white people. There are some people who are black. But I’ve never met anyone who is white. Not even those who produce no melanin; they still have a pink tinge to their skin because their blood vessels show through. So, nobody’s white. Everybody is a descendant of black women—period.
VA: What was the feedback when you did your Blue eyes—Brown eyes exercise, outside of the United States?
JE: The reactions were the same because humans are the same. If you tell somebody whose self-image and whose ego depend on the size, the shape, the color, or the performance of their skin that they are bad because of one of those things, they are going to react exactly the way blue-eyed white folks react in this country on being told that they are inferior because of the color of their eyes. They all react the same way. Nobody wants to be accused of being inferior because of a physical characteristic over which they have no control. Particularly if, for years, that physical characteristic has proven to them that they are superior to all others. As long as you’re talking to human beings, we all have the same frailties, the same desires, and the same need to be accepted as we are. Not to have to fit somebody else’s description of what is right, or strong, or powerful, or smart.
VA: What would be your message to the young generation of black people in the world?
JE: I would tell black people what I tell people all over, to all kinds of people, that blacks were here first. The first modern human beings evolved in sub-Saharan Africa. Those bright, capable, curious, adventurous, brave individuals, managed over three hundred thousand years to populate every land mass on the face of the earth. Near the equator, their bodies produced a lot of melanin because they were exposed to a lot of sunlight but, as they moved farther and farther from the equator, their bodies produced less and less melanin. That’s the only reason we have people who have light skin. So, when black people are encouraged to feel bad about themselves, what they need to realize is they were here first. If you put a picture of a Native-American chief beside the picture of a black man, Native Americans may say they crawled up out of the ground, but they didn’t. Native Americans are the result of black people inhabiting every land mass on the face of the earth. We have to start seeing reality instead of seeing the picture that we idiot white people have produced to make us feel better about ourselves. When you realize that blacks in Africa were doing eye cataract surgery with metal instruments before there was such a thing in the UK or in Europe, all of a sudden it will occur to you that there were 4000 years of history before the birth of Jesus Christ. Yes! And we do not talk about that in history because it wasn’t written down in English or in French. If you learn this then pass it on, you aren’t going to be beloved, but you’re going to be happy. (smiles) It’s time for us to pass on the truth instead of just continuing to perpetuate the lie. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” The truth is that we are all black. There’s black in the DNA of every human being on the face of the earth. Get over it!
VA: How should we react when we discover that a good friend may have racist prejudices?
JE: Your mission is to refuse to allow ignorance to prevail in your conversations. As a fellow human being on planet Earth, you are required to treat other fellow human beings as well as they wish to be treated. You need to tell your friend that you don’t believe in the golden rule because the golden rule says, “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” I know that no young man wants to be treated the way this old white woman does. I know I don’t dare treat young white men the way I want to be treated. If I get on an airplane and the young man ahead of me has a big piece of luggage to put in the overhead rack, I know he doesn’t want me to say, “Hey son, can I help you with that?” He would be offended. But you see the golden rule was originally found in Chinese philosophy and it said, “Do unto others as others would have you do unto them.” Now, for me to treat somebody the way they want to be treated, I have to ask them how they want to be treated, I have to listen to their answer, and I have to do what they ask. That’s called establishing communication with your fellow human beings. My daughter married a Saudi Arabian and I wasn’t more than five minutes in the presence of her mother-in-law before I realized that her Saudi-Arabian mother-in-law didn’t want to be treated the way I wanted to be treated. I had to change my behavior when I was with her because she has the right to be treated the way she wants to be treated and she has the responsibility to treat me the way I want to be treated. We had to recognize one another’s humanness. It didn’t matter what our religion was but we had to recognize one another’s need to be treated as we choose to be treated. If you treat others the way you want them to treat you, it’s wrong. I don’t have the right to do that. I have to treat others the way they want to be treated.
VA: Do you think we can ever end racism?
JE: Absolutely! Yes, we can. During the Second World War, we were taught to hate the Japanese, to hate the Germans, to hate the Italians. Then when the war was over, we all needed one another. It brought us all back together and we started to treat one another as human beings again. Nobody but a fool stumbles on something behind him. You have to get over the past, learn from the past, but make sure that you don’t repeat those things in the future. I don’t remember who told me that “Those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.” All present Presidents, or many of them, 1/3 of the people in the United States, don’t remember the Second World War, don’t remember Nazism, and don’t remember turning somebody into the “other,” mistreating them because they were the “other,” or discriminating against them because they were the “other” because some fool had told us to do that. These young people don’t remember that. Those of us who are older do. We know exactly how it works. It caused tremendous upheaval all over the world, from 1939 until 1945; we don’t have the right to have those same six years repeated now. But these young people don’t know about those six years; they didn’t experience them. So, they don’t see what happens when you identify , a person as “other” and then treat them as less than. Shall we teach people that there are no “others,” there are only people like us but of a different color, or a different religion, a different nationality? They are not the “other.” Until we get that done, we haven’t solved this problem. That’s why we have to start with the educators. We have to reeducate the educators. Pick out one person at a time and run the exercise on them. Take a white friend of yours and arrange with several people to treat them as those other people are being treated by a white person daily. Do it for 15 minutes; do it deliberately. Teach them what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that nonsense and explain to them: “I asked them to do that to you so that you would have some idea of what I go through every day. I don’t want you to think that as a result of that, that you can never trust me again because I have to trust you and you put me through that and others have put me through that my whole life. Now, if you can’t take it for 15 minutes, I want you to explain to me why you think I should be willing to take it for a lifetime and for it to go on.” We need to let those who are the doers of this crap find out what it’s like to be on the receiving end of it. The only way we can do that, unfortunately, is if people of color educate white folks; because they are not going to go after that education themselves. They don’t think they need it. They think they’re alright because they’re white. What you’re trying to develop in people is a spirit of empathy, not sympathy; I don’t want sympathy. I want people to know how it feels to walk in my shoes. The only way you can have that experience is for some person of color to let them have it. It’s called education and one ought not to consider one’s self-educated until one has had that kind of experience. You can’t talk about something or teach what you don’t know. We white folks don’t know how it feels to be on the receiving end of ugliness because of somebody else’s ignorance. We have no idea. And when it happens to us, we blame it on that other person’s skin color instead of saying to ourselves, “Oh my God, that person just treated me the way I treated people of color all my life. I’m going to change my behavior.”
JE: Do you have Christian friends?
VA: Yes, I do.
JE: Ok, get a box of Christmas cards with the holy family on them. Color them right and give them to your friends at Christmas time. It will drive them crazy. They’re convinced that baby Jesus looked like the little Pillsbury Doughboy. No, he didn’t. He had feet of bronze and kinky wooly hair. If we could just convince people of that one thing—that the blessed Virgin had dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes and baby Jesus, according to the Bible, had feet of bronze and kinky wooly hair. We white folks, when we enter a new environment, we immediately adjust the environment to fit our needs, even with religion. When people of color enter a new environment, they immediately adjust their needs to fit the environment. That’s a huge difference and white folks need to realize it. They need to realize that they’ve been brought up with a myth. It is as ignorant as the Greek myth that the sun was a God that went across the sky in a golden chariot every morning. For thousands of years, the Greeks believed that and they finally gave it up. We can all give up the myth of the rightness of whiteness if we chose to—today. All we have to do is say, “I’m not going to believe that crap anymore. It isn’t scientifically right, it isn’t historically right, and it doesn’t make any sense. I’m not going to believe it anymore.” Mary was Jewish. She was born in the Middle East. She had dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. There is no way on earth she could have produced a baby who was pink and white and blond-haired with light blue eyes. Get over it! It’s funny because we educate people to be ignorant; we educate to perpetuate ignorance. That’s exactly the opposite of educating.
...There are many different faces but no different races.``