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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Jane Elliott: Moving beyond black and white

Jane Elliott

To dismantle the “myth of race” requires the power of words to make all people emotionally invested in the pursuit of equality.
“We have awakened a sleeping giant called people of color,” said Jane Elliott during a keynote address at the 14th Annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast at Texas A&M University. The need for individuals to speak out against racist division and violence is at a “fever pitch,” said the veteran advocate for equality. The conversation with Elliott was moderated by Michael Collins, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Texas A&M Department of English, and hosted virtually over Facebook and Instagram livestream by the MSC Carter G. Woodson Black Awareness Committee on Thursday.
Commenters on the livestream were generally positive, although multiple times the public commentary included insults calling Elliott a “second-rate academic” and claims that white people are the real “victims” in modern society.
Elliott has worked to change racist mentalities for 53 years, and is famous for her “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experience. She first created the experience in the all-white 3rd-grade classroom where she was teaching the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Elliott said she divided the room hierarchically into children with blue eyes and those with brown eyes — into in-groups and out-groups — to demonstrate inequality in a way that got people’s attention. She has continued to use the model with adults to emphasize the importance of language and rhetoric on how race is conceptualized.
“I intend to get them emotionally involved,” said Elliott, noting white people do not have to think about race and privileges in everyday life. Black people, she explained, know racism and discrimination firsthand through lived experience.
In the early days of her teaching anti-racism in classrooms, she said she routinely experienced death threats and violence.
“I’ve been socially distanced for 53 years,” joked Elliott. She described times she had to leave town because of death threats from white parents and teachers. Not deterred by the backlash, Elliott said people only listen to her because of the “whiteness” she benefits from. “Shooting her,” she noted, would only have made her a martyr.
It was when the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. roused effective direct action toward equality that he was assassinated, Elliott explained.
“They killed the man, not the dream,” said Elliott.
Elliott said she has become more frightened recently seeing further division based on skin color and citizenship, especially under the former Trump administration and with the rise of white nationalist groups.
“Don’t stop protesting,” said Elliott. “I’m not about peace, I’m about upheaval until we get a situation where we get what we are guaranteed under the constitution: equal treatment under the law.”
The first step for young people to make a difference, said Elliott, is “becoming educated,” especially about discrimination, a process that involves “unlearning” what is taught in school and reading books about racism. Elliott described the “three R’s of American education – reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic” – as outdated. What is needed, she said, are “rights, respect and responsibility” to make progress as a nation.
“Words are the most powerful weapon devised by humankind,” said Elliott, who cited the practice of Adolf Hitler when he divided people by eye color to determine who lived and who died. It became the basis for her “Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” exercise. Growing up during World War II taught her firsthand the power language can wield, said Elliott.
Elliott refuses to engage with the racial terms “Black” or “white” to describe people, a process she said reduces race to arbitrary physical details. Elliott argued that eurocentric and race-based worldviews must change, because people of color led civilization for millennia.
Within a few decades, people of color are projected to be a majority in America, Elliott noted. It is one more reason to accelerate anti-racism education, Elliott said, which emphasizes the shared common humanity among all people.
“We have one race, and that is the human race,” Elliott said.

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