Racism’s only place is in the past, acclaimed educator says

By Simone Ebongo Bayehe
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

In a stirring, three-and-a-half-hour event at Towson University Wednesday evening, acclaimed diversity educator and social activist Jane Elliot issued a warning against racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and ethnocentrism in our daily lives.

Famously known for her 1968 “brown eyes-blue eyes” social experiment, Elliot said society must attack the problems of racism and inequality so that American society can move beyond the problems of the past and accept people of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

Jane Elliot issued a warning against racism and other forms of discrimination during a speech at Towson University Wednesday. Photo by Christopher Katz.

Jane Elliot. Photo by Christopher Katz.

“It makes me angry as hell that this [racism] is still a thing,” Elliot said in her speech at SECU Arena.   “Every aspect of our living is affected by racism, and it’s time to fix it.”

She added: “We need to stop teaching students numbers and facts to pass their standardized tests. We need to start leading them out of ignorance.”

Elliot’s foray into diversity education began after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968.

She recalled watching television news reports of King’s murder and thinking that the only way to prevent the spread of hate was through education.

“We have been indoctrinated – all of us. And the education system has perpetuated it,” Elliot said. “You can’t fix stupid, but you can fix ignorance with education.”

Elliot said King’s assassination led to a two-day experiment in which she split her mostly White third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa, into blue-eyed and brown-eyed students. On the first day, she treated the brown-eyed students better, and on the next day, she treated the blue-eyed students better.

She said she noticed that the group that was treated as superior was naturally mistreating the “inferior” group. After both groups were mistreated, however, she said the students concluded that they should treat others equally because they had learned from experience what it was like to be discriminated against for reasons out of their control.

The experiment has been repeated hundreds of times and was featured in the 1979 documentary Eye of the Storm.

“There is one and only one race on this entire planet and that is the human race,” Elliot said.

Elliot talks with members of the audience at Towson Wednesday. Photo by Christopher Katz.

Elliot talks with members of the audience at Towson Wednesday. Photo by Christopher Katz.

A self-proclaimed “bitch” – a term she  affectionately defines as “being in control honey” – Elliot said that as an educator she always preached  the Golden Rule of treating others as you would want them to treat you.

But she said she also tried to dispel the myth that America is a melting pot, a concept, she said, that falsely perpetuates the idea that we are all the same.

“The pledge of allegiance states that this is ‘the land of the free, and the home of the brave,’” Elliot said. “But only some of us are free, and some of us have to be brave.”

Today, Elliot said she stresses the importance of the “Platinum Rule”: do unto others as they want you to do unto them. She said she also describes America as a stir fry – made up of unique individuals with different characteristics that should be celebrated.

Though Elliot’s career as an educator has extended past the 8-year-old students she once taught in Iowa, she emphasized that children are the ones who hold the key to changing the future. It is them, she said, that society should teach about quelling racism in the United States.

“Racism is a learned response –  it is taught,” Elliot said. “I showed my father that video [Eye of the Storm] and he looked at me crying and said, ‘Jane, I wish someone would’ve taught me that when I was nine.  I would’ve lived my life differently.’”

Elliot said she knows that the  social injustice  ingrained in the nation’s core cannot be fixed overnight, adding that there are some people (including two who were seated in the audience)  who would rather maintain the status quo. But she said change could come through education and holding everyone up to high expectations of behavior.

“Hitler worked because people were taught to act insanely by those in power as a response to insanity,” Elliot said. “Just stop it [racism]! Stop it now, while you can, because in 20 years when White people are the minority, I hope people of color don’t treat you like we did them.”

Christopher Katz contributed to this report.

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