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Jane Elliott, anti-racism teacher, slams efforts to limit how race is taught in classrooms

By Chandelis Duster, CNN

(CNN) — Jane Elliott will never forget her sister’s April 4, 1968, phone call telling her the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

Elliott, like many people across the US, was shocked. Talking about the news of Dr. King’s death makes her sick to her stomach even today.

“My whole body reacts to the horror that I felt when I realized that we had killed a man whose only aim was to make things better, not just for people that we call Black … but for people of all kinds on this Earth,” Elliott said.

The then 34-year-old third grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, knew her students would have questions after Dr. King’s assassination. Elliott decided to use the tragedy as a teaching opportunity: She would show them what discrimination felt like by separating them by their eye color.

“I wanted them to realize that the reason that man (Dr. King) was killed was ignorance and he wasn’t doing something against this country. He was doing something for this country,” she said.

Elliott spent decades performing the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise, even on The Oprah Winfrey Show, making her one of the country’s most respected anti-racism educators.

Now 90, Elliott said the recent push by some conservative lawmakers to ban or limit what can be taught about race and racism in US classrooms is not progress.

“This whole thing is an effort now to guarantee that White people do not lose their numerical majority,” Elliott said.

“The writings of … Jane Elliott are banned on college or university campuses and I think that’s the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid,” she said. “That’s the best way to convince me that what I’m doing is right.”

Since January 2021, more than 40 states have introduced bills or taken other actions to limit the discussion of racism and sexism in classrooms or limit teaching critical race theory, according to an analysis by Education Week.

The ‘Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes’ exercise

In rural Iowa in the late 1960s, Elliott knew she was taking a big risk teaching an all-White classroom about race and racism – her husband even warned her not to, she said.

In her classroom exercise, brown-eyed students were portrayed as superior and sat at the front of the room. Students with blue eyes were presented as inferior, given collars to wear and moved to the back of the room.

Elliott said throughout the exercise, she witnessed her students turn on each other.

“Within five minutes, I had changed that group of loving, kind, generous, thoughtful human beings into people who act the way people who are allowed to judge people unfairly on the basis of physical characteristics in this country do every day,” she said.

She initially planned to do the exercise only once, but after overhearing other educators making racist comments about Dr. King in the teachers’ lounge, she decided to extend the lesson for the rest of the day and the next school day.

Elliott also reversed the exercise by designating students with blue eyes as superior and students with brown eyes as inferior. After the exercise, students wrote essays about what they learned from the experience.

“I have brown eyes. I was happy. The brown eyed children were hot shots; I felt good inside. On Monday I felt mad because I was being discriminated against … I was sick,” one student wrote in an essay published in the Riceville Recorder newspaper.

Years later, some of her former students have praised the exercise for the positive impact it had on their lives. The exercise has also been praised by some psychologists.

Steven O. Roberts, a psychology professor at Stanford University whose research focuses on racism, told CNN that Elliott’s exercise was successful in highlighting how group dynamics can influence racism – and how it can be reversed.

The exercise does not teach that White children are racist but that “nobody is inherently racist,” Roberts said.

“What she shows is: It’s not the identity that makes anyone racist, it’s the position that they are in, the social position,” Roberts said.

Roberts said research shows it’s important for children to learn that inequality is caused and perpetuated by societies, hierarchies or external forces rather than just a few “racist bad individuals.”

Learning this “actually helps children understand that if they want to make the world more equitable, then they have to look at those outside structural forces and think about broader social changes as opposed to just punishing individuals,” Roberts said.

‘Education should make it impossible to accept the bigotry’

But today, teaching children about racism using that exercise or versions of it can be considered inappropriate for K-12 classrooms in several states.

Some states have banned the teaching of CRT and the concept of “structural racism” in public classrooms. More broadly across the US, state lawmakers and school districts have made efforts to restrict lessons on sexual identity, race and racism in K-12 classrooms.

In 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation banning certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. A bill that restricts education about gender identity and sexual orientation was also signed into law in Iowa in 2023.

Supporters of those efforts and some conservatives, including DeSantis, have argued that teaching children about race and gender identity amounts to “indoctrination” and can be harmful.

“No one should be instructed to feel as if they are not equal or shamed because of their race,” DeSantis said in a 2022 statement after the Stop Woke Act was signed into law. “There is no place for indoctrination or discrimination in Florida.”

But Elliott said the exercise and her anti-racism teachings are not aimed at making people feel guilty about the past. “I’m teaching them to feel responsible for what they do in the present to create the future,” she said.

“We indoctrinate children with racism on a daily basis in the schools in this country. We do not tell the truth in this country,” she said.

“And that’s the reason a whole lot of pale-skinned people are scared because their children might learn the truth and might start to act upon it … Education should make it impossible for you to accept the bigotry and the self-imposed ignorance of those around you.”

The backlash to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and anti-racism teaching in schools has led to a decrease in Elliott’s speaking engagements on college campuses, she said. But that won’t deter her from doing the work she began.

“I’m going to keep on talking and I’m going to keep on refusing to go along with what I know is wrong,” Elliott said. “It started in 1968 and it will not finish until after I’m long gone. Because what I’m teaching is going to live for a very long time … my being will cease to be but words live forever and ideas live forever.”

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