Diversity training hits raw nerves

Jane Elliott stirred emotions across the country when she divided children into groups to teach them about racial prejudice in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Decades later, she is a woman still dedicated to bridging gaps.
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Jane Elliott

Jane Elliott stirred emotions across the country when she divided children into groups to teach them about racial prejudice in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Decades later, she is a woman still dedicated to bridging gaps.

Jane Elliott is dynamic, aggressive, and daring, as she confronts a big task: reconstructing the minds of people in a society where racism tends to be ingrained. 

Elliott, who launched a movement, a well-known diversity exercise called “Blue-eyes/Brown-eyes”, was the center of interest during a rare appearance at the Clover Park Technical College last year for its Multicultural Club and guests.

Elliott views racism in society as part of a cultural fabric, and she believes just about every white person is a racist. In her workshops, she assigns participants, to superior and inferior groups based on eye color. It is an approach that is sometimes controversial and uncomfortable, but it has become a teaching tool in many institutions of higher education, organizations, and businesses worldwide.

Though her methods are controversial to some, they have gained respect from others.

Kathleen Cook, an associate professor of psychology at Seattle University, feels that Elliott's exercise is extremely valuable. "With everything from politics to our online social networking, I see our society creating more divisions of 'us' and 'them' and creating fewer instances of unity and community," she said in an email response to questions.

Cook said her students found a PBS Frontline presentation about Elliott's work very powerful.

Elliott's work stretches back decades, and she is in many ways a leader in training students and others for the more day-to-day aspects of living in a diverse society, where skin color does not define who we are.

In separating her students on the basis of eye color, Elliott's goal was to teach her students how it felt to walk in the shoes of blacks. After being on top for a time, a group of the blue-eyed superiors would switch places to experience walking in the shoes of the brown-eyed inferiors, allowing the brown-eyed inferiors to experience the superior group’s treatment. Under her method, the supposedly superior group is praised and treated well, given extra privileges, and encouraged to talk with one another rather than members of the inferior group.  Most important among the students and adults is the opportunity to discover what it is like to live as a minority, and how necessary it is to change their attitudes about race. Elliott has said, “If you want to see a decrease of racism in our society, the first thing you have to do is let white people be on the receiving end of racism.”

The appearance at Clover Park was a rare one these days.

The straight-forward, critically acclaimed radical shared her views on racism today, and the exercise that emerged after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. After King's death, Elliott has been determined to shed light on the injustices suffered by minorities, even at the cost of losing family, friends, and, she says, being widely shunned in her Iowa hometown for being a lover of the blacks.

There is a point to the confrontational approach, which makes people think about issues they avoid most of the time. Laura Ledet, vice president of the Clover Park Multicultural Club, said, “I think the fact that she is so in your face makes people think. She is fantastic and I am so happy she came."

In a follow-up phone interview, Elliott said, "I do not give training exercises any more because it is often a black person or a white woman who requests me, and they usually get fired after I come. White people are not appreciative of what I tell them. I do not want to contribute to a black person or white woman losing their job."

And Elliott, like many of her training participants, finds the exercise difficult. "I enjoy lectures, but not doing training exercises," she said. "I do not enjoy abusing people and that is what happens during a training exercise."

At Clover Park, Elliott spoke of her career and her experiences. The audience watched her first documentary, Eye of the Storm, which aired on ABC in 1970 while the exercise was still new. Before King's assassination, Elliott was already studying with her third grade class the Sioux Indian prayer, “Oh, Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”

 After the horror she experienced following the assassination (the shooting of “that King,” as a student referred to him at the time), she incorporated the idea of the prayer, mixed with the evil reality of prejudice dramatically seen in Adolf Hitler's strategy of separating the Jews during the Holocaust, which was sometimes carried out partly based on eye color.

Most interesting was her view on how whites would live if they wanted to be racist, stating, “If you want to be racist, you have to give up everything.” She pointed out the inventions and contributions of blacks, and what a white racist would have to go without — living uncomfortably. “You need to walk barefoot through a street, and refuse a hospital visit because blacks created the car, left and right shoes, stoplights, and blood transfusion." She also noted, “Your meals would not be as exciting with[out] rice coming from Asia, pasta from China, and peanut butter from a black man.”

Elliott recalls meeting a white woman who thanked God for her skin color, as if God had favored her by making her white, and how disgusted she was after this encounter. This inspired her to do a demonstration she uses at many of her appearances, including Clover Park. Elliott had a white man and a black woman stand on either side of her and she asked them both questions about their height, gender, and physical qualities, and if those gave them any power, concluding that the tall, white male was, by society's standards, superior to the short, black woman. Her point: You cannot control your physical characteristics and you cannot control your race. Blacks cannot control how they were created, but others can control how they treat them.

One white woman approached Elliott once the Clover Park event was over and thanked her for opening her eyes. Elliott looked at me standing beside her, and said to the woman, "This black girl goes through racism every day." I smiled and gave the white lady a hug. Whites are either shocked by the training exercise, joyous, or thankful, expressing gratitude to Elliott, as this woman did.

Duke White, who helped bring Elliott as Director of the Clover Park Multicultural Club (disclosure: White is a relative), said, “When I first saw Elliott on TV as a child, I was intrigued. When this opportunity presented itself to have a guest speaker at Clover Park, I knew I had to invite her to our school. I appreciate how she showed compassion and commitment to MLK's death and was open about how it affected her. She shared injustices and the vulnerability for people of color.”

More than 40 years after first using the exercise, Elliott is still surprised by the irrationality of prejudice. "The myth is that whites are more intelligent so I tell them to get over the myth," she said, adding that the presence or absence of melanin determines skin color but has nothing to do with a person's intellect.

With her confrontational approach, Elliott is also inclined to wear that thought on her sleeve, more or less. "Sometimes," she told me, "I wear a sweatshirt to trainings that says, 'Prejudice is an emotional commitment to ignorance.' "

She encounters criticism sometimes among academics who question whether the exercise has the potential for doing more harm than good, or if it is unethical. At least one study found that students in Riceville, Iowa, who had taken her class were less racist than other white students at the same school who had not taken her class. But her assertive approach doesn't leave people comfortable, and it clearly is not meant to.

When asked about Elliott's influence, Seattle University's Cook said: "I’m afraid Elliott’s exercise has not been as widely applied as it could be. We have plenty of evidence, that as a culture, we would like to think that people do what they do because of the kind of people they are, and not because of the situations people are in. And certainly, we are uncomfortable dealing with prejudice, especially in ourselves. I also surmise that parents do not want their children to go through the unpleasantness of being 'on the bottom' for even a day, despite the fact that many children experience 'the bottom' daily."

I was amazed in my initial research of Elliott's work, excited that I would have the chance to meet and interview her, and still a year later, I feel honored at having experienced this rare gift: an interaction with someone with a profound purpose and life mission, a woman who became an international diversity trainer working to reconstruct the minds of Americans with a simple exercise, though it caused such great difficultly in her life. She experienced rejection, and abandonment in her hometown, but she never relinquished or conformed — she never stopped the work of this necessary cause, seeking justice for a community facing injustices, a community that she was not part of.

A mighty woman of valor I admire.


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