Diversity Educator Jane Elliott Tells Texas A&M Audience There’s ‘No Such Thing As Race’ In Fiery Address
Anti-racism activist, educator and diversity trainer Jane Elliott shared her no-nonsense approach to discussing prejudice and discrimination Thursday during a virtual keynote address to Texas A&M University during the 14th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast.
“Black is not a race. And white is not a race. There is only one race – it’s the human race and we are all members of it,” she said during the event, which was livestreamed to more than 3,100 viewers.
Elliott, an 87-year-old former elementary schoolteacher, is perhaps best known for her 1968 classroom exercise, “Blue Eyes–Brown Eyes,” which she first conducted in her third-grade classroom in Riceville, Iowa, on the day after King’s assassination. In the exercise, children in the class who had blue or green eyes were treated less favorably than children with brown eyes.
The exercise was designed to further the children’s understanding of what it feels like to be treated differently for having a physical attribute they can’t control. Elliott said she’s repeated the exercise countless times, for both children and adults, all over the world, in the 50-plus years since.
Black and white are color groups within the human race, Elliott told the audience, and the terminology is inaccurate and was designed to divide.
“Words are the most powerful weapon devised by humankind. We use them to divide and destroy people,” she said, noting the word “black” traditionally denotes evil, while “white” is associated with purity. And this was by no means coincidental, she said, noting it was in the 12th century that the words “Black” and “white” began to be used to describe people.
“Those names were given to us by Torquemada and company during the Spanish Inquisition,” she said. “They realized after they killed a bunch of people trying to turn them into Catholics that they had killed Christians, so they knew then that you can’t tell what a person’s religion is just by looking at them. So they had to find another way to decide who is not Christian. And they set upon skin color.”
The actual colors of black and white, Elliott said, are ridiculous to use to describe people, as we are all “shades of brown.” She suggested that teachers bring the Pantone color chart to classrooms and have children compare their skin colors to that in order to come up with names that better reflect reality.
Elliott’s keynote was moderated by Texas A&M Professor of English Michael Collins, who specializes in American literature and culture, as well as African American and African Diaspora literature.
When Collins asked Elliott what inspired her to create the Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes exercise, she said she didn’t invent the exercise, “Adolf Hitler did.” Noting that she was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany, she said she grew up watching and learning about the destruction wrought as the Nazis moved through Europe.
“One of the ways Hitler decided who went into the gas chamber was eye color,” she said. “If you had a good German name, but you had brown eyes, they threw you into the gas chamber because they thought you might be a Jewish person who was trying to pass. They killed hundreds of thousands of people based on eye color alone, that’s the reason I used eye color for my determining factor that day.”
Tiara Kinnebrew, a senior sociology major and special projects director for MSC WBAC, who provided opening remarks at the breakfast, said the event was fantastic.
“Jane Elliott really came and showed out — like many of our viewers said on Facebook,” Kinnebrew said. “Her input and conversation with Dr. Collins is so very much needed at this time.”
The MLK breakfast is the signature event of the university’s MSC Carter G. Woodson Black Awareness Committee (MSC WBAC), a student-led committee that provides educational programming, community-building and enriching experiences that enhance the understanding of the culture and contributions of people of African descent and their impact on society.
The MLK Breakfast was live-streamed on the WBAC Facebook and Instagram pages. Usually held in person, the event was moved to a virtual format due to the pandemic.
In addition to Elliott’s keynote, the event also featured Dustin Kemp ‘07, a program assistant at LAUNCH, who sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; spoken word poetry by Samuel Austin Evans ’20, ’22, a master’s student in educational administration; remarks by Daniel J. Pugh, Sr., vice president for student affairs and Matthew B. Francis Jr. ’22, vice chair of recruitment and retention for MSC WBAC; and closing remarks from Christiana Salone ’22, chair of MSC WBAC.
Elliott mentioned many authors during the talk, encouraging viewers to read the following books to learn more about the African American experience, prejudice and discrimination:
Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization: Exploding the Myths
by Tony Browder
The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It
By Robert B. Reich
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
by Richard Rothstein
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century and The Road to Unfreedom
by Timothy Snyder
The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea
by Robert Wald Sussman
Additionally, Elliott pointed to the bibliography on her website for more of her book recommendations, and encouraged the audience to watch the 2001 documentary “The Angry Eye,” in which she revises her original Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes exercise, replacing the group of children with young adults.