November 30, 1933
Riceville, Iowa, U.S.
|Occupation||Anti-racism activist, diversity educator|
|Known for||"Blue eyes/Brown eyes" exercise|
(m. 1955; died 2013)
Jane Elliott (née Jennison; born November 30, 1933) is an American diversity educator. As a schoolteacher, she became known for her "Blue eyes/Brown eyes" exercise, which she first conducted for her class on April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. When her local newspaper published compositions that the children had written about the experience, the reactions (both positive and negative) formed the basis for her career as a public speaker against discrimination.
Elliott's classroom exercise was filmed the third time she held it with her third-graders in 1970, becoming the documentary The Eye of the Storm. This in turn inspired a retrospective that reunited the 1970 class members with their teacher fifteen years later in "A Class Divided", an episode of the PBS series Frontline. After leaving her school, Elliott became a full-time diversity educator. She still holds the exercise and gives lectures about its effects all over the U.S. as well as in several locations overseas. She has conducted the exercise with college students, as seen in the 2001 documentary The Angry Eye.
Early life and career
Elliott was born in 1933 to Lloyd and Margaret (Benson) Jennison on her family's farm in or near Riceville, Iowa. Her father, who delivered her, was Irish-American. She was the fourth of several children.
In 1952, after graduating from high school, Elliott attended the Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa), where she attained an emergency elementary teaching certificate in five quarters. In 1953, she began her teaching career in a one-room school in Randall.
Motivation to teach about racism's effects
On the evening of April 4, 1968, Elliott turned on her television and learned of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She says that she vividly remembers a scene in which a white reporter pointed his microphone toward a local black leader and asked things like "When our leader [John F. Kennedy] was killed several years ago, his widow held us together. Who's going to control your people?" She then decided to combine a lesson that she had planned about Native Americans with a lesson that she had planned about Martin Luther King Jr. for February's Hero of the Month project. At the moment she was watching the news of King's death, Elliott says she was ironing a teepee for use in a lesson unit about Native Americans. To tie the two lessons together, she used the Sioux prayer "Oh great spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked in his moccasins. [sic]" She wanted to give her small-town, all-white students the experience of walking in a "colored child's moccasins for a day".
First exercise involving eye color and brown collars
Steven Armstrong was the first child to arrive in Elliott's classroom; (referring to Martin Luther King Jr.) he asked "Why'd they shoot that King?" After the rest of the class arrived, Elliott asked them how they think it feels to be a black boy or girl. She suggested to the class that it would be hard for them to understand discrimination without experiencing it themselves and then asked the children if they would like to find out. The children agreed with a chorus of "yeah". She decided to base the exercise on eye color rather than skin color to show the children what racial segregation would be like.
At first, there was resistance among the students in the minority group to the idea that brown-eyed children were better than blue-eyed children. To counter this, Elliott lied to the children by stating that melanin was linked to their higher intelligence and learning ability. Shortly thereafter, this initial resistance fell away. Those who were deemed "superior" became arrogant, bossy, and otherwise unpleasant to their "inferior" classmates. Their grades on simple tests were better, and they completed mathematical and reading tasks that had seemed outside their ability before. The "inferior" classmates also transformed – into timid and subservient children who scored more poorly on tests, and even during recess isolated themselves, including those who had previously been dominant in the class. These children's academic performance suffered, even with tasks that had been simple before.
The next Monday, Elliott reversed the exercise, making the blue-eyed children superior. While the blue-eyed children did taunt the brown-eyed children in ways similar to what had occurred the previous day, Elliott reports it was much less intense. At 2:30 on that Wednesday, Elliott told the brown-eyed children to take off their collars. To reflect on the experience, she asked the children to write down what they had learned.
Reactions and public attention
The compositions that the children wrote about the experience were printed in the Riceville Recorder on page 4 on April 18, 1968, under the headline "How Discrimination Feels", and the story was picked up by the Associated Press. As a result of the Associated Press article, Elliott was invited to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. After she spoke about her exercise in a short interview segment, the audience reaction was instant as hundreds of calls came into the show's telephone switchboard, much of it negative. An often-quoted letter stated, "How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children? Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there's no way they could possibly understand it. It's cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage."
The publicity that Elliott was getting did not make her popular in Riceville. When she walked into the teachers' lounge the day after her Tonight Show appearance, several other teachers walked out. When she went downtown to do errands, she heard whispers. When her oldest daughter went to the girls' bathroom in junior high, she came out of a stall to see a hateful message scrawled in red lipstick for her on the mirror.
Of all her coworkers, Elliott states that only one of them, Ruth Setka, continued to speak to her after her exercise went public. Setka said that she realized she was the only one who kept speaking to her. Setka believed that the reason Eliott's exercise got so much backlash was because the students were very young and that the exercise should have been done on at least junior high school-aged students. In a 2003 interview, Elliot said that about 20% of the Riceville community were still furious with her over what she did on April 4, and some still called her "nigger lover", but she was grateful for the other 80%.
However, as news of her exercise spread, she appeared on more television shows and started to repeat the exercise in professional training days for adults. On December 15, 1970, Elliott staged the experience to adult educators at a White House Conference on Children and Youth.
In 1970, ABC produced a documentary about Elliott called The Eye of the Storm, which made her even more nationally known. Subsequently, William Peters wrote two books—A Class Divided and A Class Divided: Then and Now—about her and the exercise. A Class Divided was turned into a PBS Frontline documentary in 1985 and included a reunion of the schoolchildren featured in The Eye of the Storm, for which Elliott received The Hillman Prize. A televised edition of the exercise was shown on Channel 4 on October 29, 2009, entitled The Event: How Racist Are You? This documentary was intended, according to the producers in their agreement with Jane Elliott, to create an awareness of the effects of racist behavior. After the exercise, Elliott said that the result "wasn't as successful as I am accustomed to being", leaving journalist Andrew Anthony with the "nagging suspicion that she's more excited by white fear than she is by black success."
Elliott was featured by Peter Jennings on ABC as "Person of the Week" on April 24, 1992. She is listed on the timeline of 30 notable educators by textbook editor McGraw-Hill along with Confucius, Plato, Booker T. Washington, and Maria Montessori. She has been invited to speak at 350 colleges and universities and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show five times.
Origin of workplace diversity training
Elliott is considered to be the forerunner of diversity training, with the "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" exercise as the basis of much of what is now called diversity training. She has done such training for corporations such as General Electric, Exxon, AT&T, and IBM, as well as lectured to the FBI, IRS, US Navy, US Department of Education, and US Postal Service.
The Riceville school system granted Elliott unpaid leave to conduct workshops and training that were based on her exercise to organizations outside of her school system. However, the increasing demands to be away from the classroom eventually caused problems with her public school teaching career. Elliott left teaching in the mid-1980s to devote herself full-time to diversity training, redeveloping her classroom exercise for the corporate world. This was promoted positively as a way to promote teamwork, profits, and a "winning together" atmosphere. For this corporate exercise, Elliott divides a multiracial group based on the color of their eyes and then subjects the blue-eyed individuals to a withering regime of humiliation and contempt. In only a few hours, Elliott's treatment makes the blue-eyed workers become distracted and despondent, stumbling over the simplest commands.
Companies found the idea of offering such training attractive, not only because in the 1970s and 1980s there were increasing numbers of people of color in their organizations, but also because of U.S. court rulings and federal policies to promote multiculturalism brought about by pressure from civil rights groups during the same two decades.
Many companies at that time came to see diversity training as a way to ward off negative legal action and publicity. Elliott said, "If you can't think of any other reason for getting rid of racism, think of it as a real money saver." Elliott-inspired diversity training has been used outside the United States. When the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 passed in the United Kingdom, it listed 100 diversity training firms in the Diversity Directory. According to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 70% of those firms have diversity policies in which diversity training plays a major role. Many of these courses follow Elliott's model in regards to understanding the issues presented.
Legacy of the original exercise
Dean Weaver, who was superintendent of Riceville schools from 1972 to 1979, thought she was an outstanding teacher who did things differently and made other teachers envious of her success. Ex-principal Steve Harnack commented that she was excellent at teaching academics and suggested she would have had fewer problems with the community if she had involved parents. Elliott's former colleague Ruth Setka commented on Riceville's attitude on Elliott, "Everyone's tired of her. I'm tired of hearing about her and her experiment and how everyone here is a racist. That's not true. Let's just move on."
Academic research into Elliott's exercise shows moderate results in reducing long-term prejudice but is inconclusive on the question of whether the possible psychological harm outweighs the potential benefits. Two professors of education in England, Ivor Goodson and Pat Sikes, argue that what Elliott did was unethical, calling the exercise psychologically and emotionally damaging. They also stated ethical concerns pertaining to the fact that the children were not told of the purpose of the exercise beforehand.
Measured results of the diversity training for adults are moderate. The outcomes of a 1990 research study by the Utah State University were that virtually all the subjects reported that the experience was meaningful for them. However, the statistical evidence supporting the effectiveness of the activity for prejudice reduction was moderate; and virtually all the participants, as well as the simulation facilitator, reported stress from the simulation.
Another program evaluation in 2003, conducted by Tracie Stewart at the University of Georgia, showed that white college students had significantly more positive attitudes toward Asian-American and Latino individuals, but only marginally more positive attitudes toward African-American individuals. In some courses, participants can feel frustrated about "their inability to change" and instead begin to feel anger against the very groups to which they are supposed to be more sensitive. It can also lead to anxiety because people become hyper-sensitive about being offensive or being offended. There are not very good measures of effects on long-term outcomes of these training initiatives.
Elliott was married to Darald Elliott (1934–2013) from 1955 until his death, and has four children. They maintained residences in Osage, Iowa and Sun City, California. On May 24, 2019, Jane Elliott was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters by CSU Bakersfield.
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