Englert Theatre — Monday, Sept. 18 at 7 p.m., Free
Illustration by Cheryl Graham
Jane Elliott, 85, has spoken out against racism since April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Elliott worked as a third grade teacher in an all-white classroom in Riceville, Iowa. She had considered performing the experiment before, but decided she needed to enact it that Tuesday. She divided her class into two groups, treating them differently based on the color of their eyes —
the birth of her famous Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise.
“The first time I did the exercise, I told my dad about it. He said, ‘Are you sure you’re right?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Then by God, go ahead,’” Elliott recounted, her clear blue eyes shining.
Elliott’s father influenced her life tremendously. After she graduated high school, she said, her dad told her she could choose to “make a dollar or make a difference.” Again and again, Elliott decided to make a difference.
She’s performed the exercise on The Oprah Winfrey Show and been featured in major ABC and PBS documentaries; companies have invited her to diversity trainings all over the country. At the same time, she has also received criticism, especially from those in her hometown.
Elliott hosted this interview at her home in Osage, Iowa — 17 miles from Riceville. She moved there several years after beginning the annual classroom demonstration to protect her own children.
“If you do something different that works, the people doing the wrong thing aren’t going to like you. My philosophy will keep me from being accepted anywhere I go,” she said. “It is not my aim in life to be loved.”
Around her neck, on a long, thin golden chain, swayed a nazar — a pendant shaped like a blue eye — that her daughter bought her while visiting in-laws in Saudi Arabia. Blue eyes are rare among Saudis, Elliott said, and when carried as a talisman, they ward off evil. Elliott wears it regularly, including to her speaking events, where she said her audacity often attracts death threats.
Still from the Frontline/PBS film ‘A Class Divided.’
“It’s worked so far,” she said.
The blue marble rolled from one corner of the golden eyelid to the opposite as she brought her hand to her forehead in mock despair. She laughed at the foolishness of the snickering students she encounters during talks at college campuses. She confronts them, warning that if they make her a martyr, they’ll have to celebrate “Jane Elliott Day.”
After nearly 50 years of fighting racism, she was deeply disappointed though not surprised by the recent neo-Nazi gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia. Instead, she said that Charlottesville was a tiny bump on the long road of racism.
“We have never lived in a post-racial society,” she said.
Elliott said the United States is a fairly young country and the fact a man with childish tendencies has taken the presidency seems fitting, in a comic but mostly tragic way. She criticized Trump using another of her father’s turns of phrase: “a boy grown tall.”
Elliott blames the current education system, which presents history from a white-centric, racist perspective, she said. She said teachers reinforce what she calls colorism or pigmentocracy, creating “educated idiots.”
“The longer you stay in school, the more bigoted you become,” she said.
As a former teacher, Elliott holds a steadfast belief in the importance of education, but disagrees with the current system, based on indoctrination of white superiority instead of a realistic understanding of history.
Despite the current political climate and education system, Elliott retains some sense of hope racism will be defeated one day. She said progress tends to move in a pattern: two steps forward and one step back.
She remains unsure when this better future will arrive but is confident it will.
Something that needs to change in order for this to happen, Elliott said, is the discussion of white privilege — because while privilege cannot be changed, ignorance can.
She holds a belief, also from her father, that a day without learning something new is a day wasted. She said she reads two to three books every week and has an extensive list of recommended reading on her website. (Elliott is currently reading The Myth of Race by Robert W. Sussman and Insults and Comebacks for All Occasions.) Elliott believes that there is no excuse for ignorance past the age of 12, so long as a person can read.
“Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come,” she said, paraphrasing writer Victor Hugo. “The idea of one race — the human race — is an idea whose time has come. Nothing is going to be able to stop it. Make no mistake, I will push that idea for as long as I live.”
Elliott believes that a good person leaves the world a better place than they found it, no matter how small their impact. She doesn’t believe any major change happened as a result of of her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise but is content with the difference she’s made during her lifetime.
At this point, her biggest dream, she said, would be for Trump to rename the White House, calling it instead the President’s Residence.
“Now that would be a plus for him in history,” Elliott said.
Carly Matthew recently graduated from The University of Iowa and is a freelance writer for Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 227.