By Nafeesah Allen
When asked about her work in 2020, Jane Elliott put it simply: “I separate groups of [white] people according to the color of their eyes in order to give them some idea of how it feels to be treated unfairly on the basis of a physical characteristic over which you have no control.” Now 87 years old, Elliott has been debunking the “myth of the rightness of whiteness” since the day after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968. Then, she divided her all-white third grade classroom into two groups: blue eyes and brown eyes. The former group was demeaned and degraded; the latter quickly ascended with aggression. The experiment was used to show just how quickly a power structure of discrimination can be taught and adopted, even when the claims that support it are baseless. These days, she’s adapted the experiment for adults around the world. Over 50 years of advocacy have made her the very definition of an anti-racist, long before the term was coined. Moreover, in light of “Karen” culture, which is best summarized by social media as white women’s policing of Brown and Black people, Elliott offers a fearless example of sustained allyship. A review of her work offers four main takeaways for today’s allies:
Claiming colorblindness is extremely racist: Although she wants people to understand that we are all one race, the human race, Elliott does not advocate for colorblindness. In fact, she advises white people to never say such things because it sends the wrong message. The great offense in saying “I don’t see color” is that it shows undeniable privilege in reducing systemic racism to a personal choice, either to affirm or negate another person’s lived experience. Denying recognition of the largest organ on a person’s body is senseless, she believes. “If you can’t see my skin, you can’t see me,” she reminds, underscoring that to respect a person is to see their full humanity, without privileging any particular physical attribute. In this vein, her website has an exercise about what well-meaning allies should not say.
White fragility is a form of white supremacy: Elliott’s methodology is a practicum that divides groups of adults into two groups, making the blue-eyed group the lesser. By virtue of the designation, white people are in both the blue-eyed and brown-eyed group, but people who identify as non-white are grouped together in the brown-eyed group. What her 2009 experiment in the UK showed is that white people banded together, denying the need for the experiment at all and trying to dissuade others that racism, as Elliott portrays it, even exists. Unable to bear seeing other white people villainized or suffering, white fragility shows up in both groups. Either claiming that “not all white people are racist” or calling her tactics bullying, some participants walked out. Elliott highlighted the privilege of such an intervention by reminding participants that not being able to watch as a race-mate experiences discrimination for two hours is no reason to derail a larger experiment meant to educate a bigger group about systemic racism writ-large. She also reminded participants that people of color can’t simply walk away when they’re made to feel uncomfortable. Even when her experiments “fail,” they still succeed in exposing this seemingly benevolent tendency, which some say is less about anti-bullying and more about protecting whiteness.
Be careful with education: Although Elliott was a teacher, she now says that schools in most multi-racial societies deliver a heavy dose of indoctrination in racist logics. She points to colorblind educators and over-disciplined Black and Brown kids as tell-tale signs. Therefore, she suggests that every adult actively unlearn racism. Whether it is reading books or going out of one’s way to hear the experiences (and advice) of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), she is clear that self-education is extremely valuable to dial back racism. Personal responsibility is a major goal of Elliott’s extensive approach.
Being on the right side of history might take a long time: Elliott believed all along that anti-racism put her on the right side of history, but her stance cost her family dearly. She recounted that her parents’ business closed, her kids were bullied, and she was ostracized for being “a N- lover.” Over the years, she’s grown a tough skin, rejecting the notion that she should care what people think of her. Instead, she’s focused on doing the work. Yet, her example cautions that allies should prepare for a long and thankless road ahead, with many more criticizers than cheerleaders. To avoid becoming a “Karen,” prepare to play the long game. Jane’s decades’ long career has shown that giving up, being silent, or becoming complacent in the face of personal sacrifice is simply not an option.
Nafeesah is a freelance writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in race, literature, gender identity, and African and Indian diasporas in the global South. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram @theblaxpat.