Interviews - GENERAL

Jane Elliot

Jane Elliott is an American educator best known for her Blue Eyed/Brown Eyed workshops, in which she facilitates the experience of racism for participants. She was recently in Australia and Webƒronds was lucky enough to be invited to her press conference.

E.L Docotorow said: "It is the job of the author to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted". And I afflict the comfortable on a daily basis. The problem of racism is a white problem. White people invented it, based on colour, white people have perpetuated it, white people have depended on it, and white people have united. If white people can get over the myth they've created about superiority, we'll do away with racism.

Jane Elliot Now some of you are thinking what about people of colour, they don't like us either, they're racist too. People of colour don't dislike me because of the colour of my skin. They're not relating to that. They're relating to a history of abuse for people of colour by those who look like me.

That's the first thing I learned when I did the exercise with my third graders the first time. There's a big difference between racism and angry reactions to racist behaviours. My all white all Christian third graders in Iowa knew every negative stereotype you have ever heard about any group of people of colour. They had never been around people of colour. Yet they knew all these stereotypes. Where did they learn them? They learned them from people like me. They dislike people, they judge people, based on the amount of a chemical in their skin.

People of colour do not judge me by the colour of my skin. They are basing their opinion of me on what they have experienced at the hands of people like me. My third graders had never had an experience with a person of colour. So the two things are very different. Angry reaction to racist behaviour is very, very different from racism.

Now. I'm in the business of educating. I am not in the business of schooling. Most of you are well schooled and poorly educated. Maybe that's not true in this country but I think it is. Schooling is very different from education. Schooling teaches us how to behave in the school situation. The word educate comes from the word duce which means lead, and the prefix 'e' which means out. To educate someone then, in fact means to lead them out of ignorance. I don't think that education systems in your country or mine lead children out of ignorance where racism is concerned. I think we perpetuate racism with our education systems. And we'd like to pretend that we don't.

You need to realise that what we're teaching in the schools is about whiteness. And the closer you come to being white, the closer you'll come to being right. Deny it until hell freezes over, it is still happening. That is not education, that is conditioning. If we were in a communist country doing it, we'd call it brainwashing. It is conditioning people to the myth of white superiority. We need to get over it.

My students knew practically nothing of the truth of the contributions of people of colour to the history of humankind. Because what we teach in our schools are the contributions, for the most part, made by white people, mainly by white males. If I asked you to name ten aboriginals who made valuable contributions to the history of this country, how many of you could do it? If I asked you to name ten white males who made valuable contributions to the history of this country, how many of you could do it? That's called racism, people. It's called denying or ignoring what other people have contributed.

You're all sitting here writing in a language that white people didn't come up with. You're all sitting here writing on paper that white people didn't invent. Most of you are wearing clothes made out of cloth that white people didn't come up with. We stole those ideas from other people. If you're a Christian, you're believing in a philosophy that came to us from people of colour. Those things we manage to ignore in our teaching. Absolutely ignore. That's called racist teaching. And until we stop doing that, we will not stop racism.

Now one of the things that white people are absolutely convinced of, is that racism is genetic.It's just human nature to dislike people on the basis of difference. No people, it's not genetic. There's no gene for racism. You were not born a racist. You were born into a racist society. You were taught in a racist education system, which denies that it is racist.

You watch racist television. I've watched your television, it looks just like ours - most of it is ours! If you want to turn a child into a racist in my country, all you have to do is put him in front of a television set for several hours every day. And at the end of three months you will have a child who believes in the myth of white male superiority. Make no mistake about that. Right now, if you want to watch Larry King Live, have a look at the map behind him and you'll see a white man's map.

Now if you don't understand that, get a copy of the Mercator Projection Map and then get a copy of the Peters Projection Map, and compare the two. In our country if you want to watch Dan Rather, behind him, on his new set, is a map - the white man's map - in which the equator is two thirds of the way down the map, the white countries of the world take up the top half of the map and the countries in which people of colour predominate take up about a third of the map. Does anybody find anything wrong with that? That's not the way it is, people, in reality. Take a look at the globe. But the maps that you use in teaching children, in your country and mine, don't teach the truth. They teach white superiority. We are actively involved in teaching racism. It starts in kindergarten. It starts when you walk into the room and there's the mercator projection map on the wall. And is says, according to the Mercator Projection Map, Germany is half way down the middle of this map. In fact, Germany is in the northernmost quarter of the earth. It shows Greenland as this great huge glob hanging down here, bigger than Australia, bigger than South America, when in fact, South America's nine times larger than Greenland. Now these are all things that you're thinking, this isn't important. If it isn't important why don't we do away with it? I think it is important. I think it perpetuates the myth of white superiority. It perpetuates the party line and we need to do something about it. My purpose here is to make people aware of how they are being conditioned, what the conditioning has done to them, and how you can change that. You can reject that conditioning.

White people in the United States of America are quite certain that the damage is being done only to people of colour. They don't realise, and haven't really caught on to the fact that the demographics of the United States of America say, by the year 2000, over 80% of the new people coming into the work force are going to be women, people of colour, and immigrants. By the year 2000, people in the workplace are going to have to be relating positively to those who are other than tall white males. It's causing great discomfort among people in the United States of America. We wouldn't have to have that discomfort if we would teach the truth. And if we would teach awareness, and acceptance, and appreciation of those who are other than white, we would have a lot fewer problems.

A government agency asked me to do seven speeches to that government agency. Now you must know and understand that the people in that government agency are 98% tall white males with college degrees and military backgrounds. And they asked me to come in and do the three hour presentation to them. The man who called me said "We don't have this problem. We don't have a problem with racism. But, we are getting a lot more women and coloured people now, and they don't know how to relate to a white male dominated group."
I said, "Where are you finding these people, Tom?"
He said, "What do you mean?"
I said, "Are these American citizens?"
He said, "Well you can't be in [the agency] if you're not an American citizen."
I said, "Well Tom, I would suggest that these folks know how to work in a white male dominated group! - if they've lived in the United States of America all their life."

Well he went on and on and he was trying to convince himself, over the telephone, to have me come in. I finally said, "Look Tom, the demographics of this country say that by the year 2000, over 80% of the new people coming into the work force are going to be women, people of colour, and immigrants. That means about 15% of those available for [the agency] are going to be white males. What does that tell you?"
And these are his exact words: "That tells me that we're going to be in a lot of competition for those few good candidates."
And I waited. And I waited. And I waited. And he said: "I guess I said the wrong thing there didn't I Jane?"
And I said, "What should you have said Tom?"
He said, "I guess I should have said that we're going to have to see those people as good candidates."
At the end of our conversation he said, "Well Jane, I think I found out something about you that you don't want everybody to know."
I said, "What's that Tom?"
He said, "You're not as tough a cookie as you want people to think you are."
And I waited. And I waited. And I waited. And he said, "I did it again didn't I Jane?"
I said, "Yeah. Sure did Tom. There are a whole lot of us women who don't want to be called cookies, or donuts, or honey, or baby, or sweetie, or chick!"
And he said, "Jane, why do I feel like a third grader in your classroom?"
I said, "maybe it's because you've got so damn much to learn."

Here began our question period...

What do you recommend teachers do...

Read. You don't walk up to the nearest person of colour and say, "what's it like to be black?" And I've had white women do that in front of me. And I've had white women walk up to the nearest black person and say, "when I see you, I don't see you black. We do this sort of thing all the time. Number one, the first thing you do is get this material from Judith Katz and Peggy Macintosh. Peggy MacIntosh has a list of white privileges that we whites carry around and don't even recognise we're doing it. My white privilege is that I can get up and say these things and you won't say, you're pushing your own agenda - you won't say to me, well you're saying that because of your race. You can't say that to me because I'm saying these things as a white person.

White teachers need to educate themselves. They need to do is to get a job of Peters Projection Map and see how long they have been teaching the wrong image. The shapes on that map are distorted, the sizes are right. The shapes and the sizes on the Mercator Projection Map are distorted. They're wrong. They're flat out wrong. You need to know that.

Teachers need to read things like The Psychology of Blacks, they need to read things like Peggy MacIntosh's paper about white privilege. They need to read things like Judith Katz's book about white awareness. They need to read Andrew Hacker's book, Two Nations. They need to read Hannaford's book about how we became a race, how we came up with the concept of race, and how racism got started. They need to read those things. They need to read A Country of Strangers, even though it's written about the United States. It's written by a man named David Shipler, who also wrote Arabs and Jews in the Promised Land. They need to read Arabs and Jews in the Promised Land because your future is going to depend on your ability to get cheap energy. And if you don't know about Arabs and Jews in the Promised Land hang it up. There are some things you need to know. Teachers need to read A Country of Strangers because what happens in the United States filters to practically every country in the world eventually. And because of things like the internet, it gets there quicker now than it ever did before. You don't read them for that information, you read them as a cautionary tale - here's what's happening there, let's see to it that it doesn't happen here.

Teachers need to educate themselves before they can educate their children. And colleges of education do not teach you about racism. You'll have a multicultural class, and what cultures will you study? Do you study the European culture a lot? You do the wars? That's part of white culture isn't it?

When we have multicultural diversity training, one of the first things they have is a dinner at they serve foods from all different lands. Except white. We don't study white culture 'cause that's the right culture. We already know white culture. We don't call it white culture, we call it reality.

When you say that teachers should read, I agree that's perfectly valid, but given how busy most teachers are with all the different things they have to absorb - what can they do if they simply can't find the time?

The first thing they can do is not do the exercise.

Not do it ever?

Not do the exercise. Unless they have tenure to go with their job. Unless they've been teaching for a good long time and are master teachers, and really know children, and really, really, respect and appreciate children, and should not do the exercise unless they're doing it for the right reason. If they're doing it to get their names in the paper, don't do it. It's easier to get in the obituary column. That's not nearly as painful and doesn't last as long.

If they're going to do the exercise, they have to do it for the right reasons and in the right way. And they have to practise with their own children, if they have children, at home before they do that with a group of classroom children. Now, you see we have to do that because we're very, very careful of the white children in our classroom. However, they use the skin colour exercise on a daily basis with the children in their classrooms and nobody worries about the damage done to the children of colour... or to the white children, while you're doing the exercise on the basis of skin colour. And we do it all the time. Somebody has said "denial is not just a river in Egypt". We are into denial - probably in your country, and certainly in mine.

Every time you force my Saudi Arabian grandchild to stand up in Sugarland, Texas in the public school classroom - and this child is a Muslim - and say the pledge of the flag with the words 'under God' in it, which makes it into a little prayer, you are not giving her liberty and justice for all. She belongs to a religion that does not believe that males and females should pray together at the same time. So that is ethnocentric, whether you like it or not. And if she makes noises about it, and if her mother goes to the school and complains, then her mother is going to be seen as a troublemaker and the kid, a 'sand jockey' - that's what Arabs are called in Texas. And that name is going to apply to her if she begins to act like, or react like, or complain like someone who is other than white anglo-saxon Christian.

Now, as long as you allow those things to happen in your classroom, you are promoting racism. As long as you go along with those, you're in collusion. Edmund Burke said that "the only thing necessary for the perpetuation of evil is for good people to do nothing". Teachers who do nothing about those things give their approval to the students who are doing it.

This last winter, a fourth grade kid had a logic problem on a worksheet in Texas. There were three pictures at the top of little girls different kinds of little girls. The third logic problem said one of these children is blond, brilliant, and beautiful... now, the winner of this thing is blond, brilliant, and beautiful - a little black child took the paper home and said to his mother, does this mean that since I can't be blond, I can't be brilliant or beautiful? The mother went berserk, in a quiet way. She went to the teacher and the teacher said I see nothing wrong with that, your child is just a complainer. She went to the principal and the principal said I can see nothing wrong with that, you're just being the victim. She went to the Superintendent and the Superintendent said we'll change it. Something will be done about this. The teacher was then forced to apologise but wasn't forced to stop using the book from which that material was taken. The mother is angry. The mother has a right to be angry. The mother has a right to sue. In our country, everybody sues for everything. The mother has, not just the right but, the responsibility to go public with that.

Dennys, a fast food place in the United States, had to settle a law suit for $46 million because of racism. This week, a sixth grade class of black children went into a Dennys restaurant, and nobody would greet them, nobody would meet them, and nobody would take their orders. They stood there for an hour. And never go waited on. Dennys is going to go through another law suit. Racism is expensive. If you can't think of any other reason for getting rid of racism, think of it as a real money saver.

Freedom of speech is great. I'm for freedom of speech, 'cause when I stop being for it, I'm not going to be able to talk. So I enjoy freedom of speech. But, you need to understand, that if you're going to speak in hateful ways, you're going to live with the consequences of your speech. And that has not been the case up until recently. Say what you want to, but understand there are those of us who are going to come at you. I have to live with the consequences of the things I say, every single day. Sometimes they're extremely unpretty.

When you did the exercise for the first time, how did you go about it?

I just went in and we talked about Martin Luther King Junior and his killing. And we talked about racism, and we talked about discrimination. We talked about segregation. And I could see that they weren't internalizing a thing. They were doing what white people do. When white people sit down to discuss racism what they are experiencing is shared ignorance. So that's what we're sharing is our own ignorance. We know nothing about racism because we haven't been there.

So I could see that they weren't internalizing anything. Our lesson plan for the day was to learn the Sioux Indian prayer that said "Oh great spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I've walked a mile in his moccasins." I decided to let them walk a mile in the moccasins of a child of colour for a day. And I split them according to the colour of their eyes. And I discriminated against the people who had the wrong colour eyes. And I treated then as we treat Hispanics, Chicanos, Latinos, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, women, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians in my country.

And what about the long term feedback from this?

Fantastic. To this day they say that they are different people than they would have been if they hadn't gone through the exercise.

Do teacher education colleges in the States use components of your program?

No. If you're controversial, you might hurt someone.

Would you like to see that, because there are so many agendas that teachers have to take on board now...

But they take on the easy ones. This is a hard one.

It's just that they have to know how to do it...

They all know how to do it. Bright women know how to do this. We do it all the time. But if we would just stop teaching the lies in the classroom, do you know how much time we would have to teach in an anti-racist way?

I know you don't want to talk about Pauline Hanson...

Pauline Hanson did you a big favour. Pauline Hanson let white folks see how people of colour see white folks. Because to a whole lot of people of colour, white folks look like Pauline Hanson.

How would you approach the problem in a highly multicultural school, as many in Australia now are, where the kids of similar backgrounds form groups (for example Asian groups and Lebanese groups) - all of whom often justifiably feel discriminated against but also discriminate against each other?

If you're in a society which wants to maintain white power, white superiority, you play divide and conquer among those groups who are other than white. And as long as you can keep them at one another's throats, at loggerheads with one another, then you can maintain power over them. It's easier to maintain power over people who are in conflict. And in my country that's what we do.

How do you do that in the schools?

We do that by teaching a white curriculum. And we do it by teaching that power lies in acting white. It's easier for the Asian kids to be accepted as close to white than it is for Lebanese at first. So you establish a hierarchy. The teacher establishes a hierarchy....

The teacher does that?

Oh yeah the teacher does that. Watch her language. Watch her body language. Watch who she chooses to take the note down to the principal's office. Watch who she calls on when their hand is raised first. It's going to be white boys first, unless the white boys have a learning problem, then it's going to be white girls. Watch who she pays the most attention to. Watch where the students are seated. Watch how she forms groups. Watch which groups she gives the most respect to. Do a Flandering.

Flanders was a man who put together an interaction analysis between students and their teachers. And you sit in a classroom for an hour and you just check how the teacher responds every five seconds. And then there's a set of criteria which you show to the teacher afterwards - here's what you did, and how you respond, and how often you respond, and the people you respond to, and what they look like..... It's just beautiful. And you can Flander a teacher and tell that teacher exactly what it is she is doing in that situation. Teachers not only perpetuate racism. In some classrooms, teachers create racism. And create divisiveness among our children. If there is that kind of separation in your classroom, somebody's helping it happen, somebody's in collusion. Because those same kids are very likely, if they live in the same neighbourhood, to go out and play together. They may go to one another's homes. But once they get in the classroom...

Studs Terkel wrote a book called Race . He goes out into the Chicago area and just questions people about race. He questioned a couple of recent Japanese immigrants to the United States and he said, "why do you hate blacks?" And they said, "we don't hate blacks, but we know that the quickest way to assimilate, to be accepted by the people in power is to express the attitudes and behaviours that will be acceptable to the people in power". And they said, in this country that's hatred of blacks.

You take that into a microcosm of society in a classroom. The power structure is the teacher. The person who's going to set the climate in that classroom is the teacher. If the teacher in that classroom sets a climate in which children are played off against one another and in which they have to vie for the teacher's attention, you've got a situation where it's guaranteed you are going to have segregation in that classroom.

To comment on the Jane Elliott interview or see what others had to say, go to the General discussion board.

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