A Simple Lesson by Jane Elliott

By Samantha McKenzie

Charleston. Cleveland. Baltimore. Staten Island. Sanford. McKinney.

I’d run out of pages if I attempted to list each and every city in America that has experienced some level of racism and injustice in recent times.

Since the fatal shooting of the nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., our nation is once again left in utter sadness. In the days that followed, we learned more of the victims who chose to spend their Wednesday evening at prayer meeting and about Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and its historical impact on this community.jane elliott photo courtesy of mediacatologue

We learned too of 21-year-old Dylann Roof, the lone gunman, who announced his intention and desire to kill black people. As I cringed in horror, I can’t say I was very shocked. “White Man Kills Blacks,” is a headline that’s been longstanding in American history. The messages of forgiveness and faith that followed were also familiar, a scene straight out of my childhood.

But I still wanted to do something. The pink elephant called American racism was sitting smack dab in all of our living rooms.

And then I stumbled upon Jane Elliott, an elementary school teacher from Iowa who conducted a social experiment with her third grade class on discrimination, the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The exercise, known as “blue eyes-brown-eyes” would later become a PBS, Frontline documentary which aired in 1970.

Elliott divided the nine-year-olds by eye color. On day one, she allowed the blue-eyed group special privileges and reassured them of their superiority over the brown-eyed students. She also scolded the brown-eyed group and used condescending language when she addressed them. Elliott watched her students become hateful, mean and divided. She also observed the low self-worth that immediately developed within the brown-eyed group. On day two, Elliott switched the test groups. This time, she treated the brown-eyed group as the superior group. The results were the same. Elliott ended her experiment on day three by teaching her students why we shouldn’t treat people differently because of their eye color or skin color for that matter. It was a moving lesson on discrimination.

Elliott’s lesson was the answer I had been searching for.

A national conversation about racism in America will happen. But it won’t trickle down from on high. This conversation will begin with you and I.

It can begin with my friends or co-workers. It can start at your local church or community center. It may even begin on social media. There will be no fanfare or media coverage. I can guarantee it will be a painful process, but I believe it has to happen and it will — with a few small steps from us.

I thank Jane Elliott – now 82 – for her courage to take action in a small classroom of third graders and for her life-long commitment to ending discrimination as an anti-racism activist, educator and diversity trainer.

Click A Class Divided to learn more about Elliott’s experiment. Also, please share your thoughts on racism in America in our comments section. What will you do?

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