West Chester University students and faculty filled the 1,200 seats of Asplundh Concert Hall last Wednesday night, to hear one woman’s views on the current state of racial divide in AmericaJane Elliott, a former grade school teacher whose 1968 “blue eyes/brown eyes” experiment educated students about the unfairness of being a minority race in segregated America, addressed the sold out concert hall on how the issue of racism is still very much alive in the modern day United States. In her presentation, which lasted about an hour, she professed the idea that the main problem with race today stems from society’s inability to recognize and accept the differences between them.
Although education today raises young white minds to look past color in the form of messages like “under the skin we are all the same,” Elliott made it a point throughout her lecture that this approach is not the answer to racist sentiment.
“I’m tired of racism. We [Americans] can put a man on the moon but we can’t have a conversation with our neighbor if they’re different then us,” she stated.
To illustrate the differences which still exist in society, she invited two students to come up and answer some questions. The students were of different gender, race and height, and Elliott explained how possessing these characteristics in today’s America work to their benefit or downfall.
For Elliott, the answer is not to be tolerant of other’s differences but rather to accept and cherish them. She compared America not to a “melting pot” but rather to a “stir-fry.” Much like “the parts are good individually in a stir-fry” so is it that “diversity makes this country interesting.”
However, the more controversial aspect of Elliott’s presentation was found in her discussion of the barrier to that understanding.
“Nobody is born a racist. Like most things, it [racism] is something you have to be taught,” she explained.
Elliott made it clear that white citizens are still reared with the “myth” that they are superior to people of color. She explained that this is reflected in such things as their insensitivity and use of racial jokes as well as the way some of them behave around people of the opposite race. She posed a question to the African-American males in attendance: How many of you know that white women are scared to death of you?
“If you were born white in America, you are looking at someone who was born into the myth of white superiority.” She said.
Elliott tied this modern day “myth” with the same one she faced as an educator in 1968. Days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and disturbed by the attitudes taken by her co-workers, she said she decided to conduct a study using her all white, third-grade class. The study involved judging the children by their eye color to show them what it was like to be an African-American in segregated society. Those children with brown eyes were given special classroom privileges and rites based solely on the idea that she told the class: “brown-eyed people are better, superior and smarter than blue-eyed people.”
The study showed that the children acted in accordance with what they were told. The brown-eyed children ridiculed and harassed the blue-eyed children and acted superior, while the blue-eyed children took the punishment and acted as inferior. The children’s academic performance also reflected how they were being treated by their peers. Elliott said she was shocked with the results, concluding that “the kids were raised to be racists.”
Elliott also commented on several other issues in America today, including the war in Iraq, the possibility of a draft, affirmative action, religious sentiments in public schools as well as power differences in society. She used the events after Hurricane Katrina to clarify her idea of how the issue of racism is by no means dead.
Elliott encouraged the young people in attendance saying that they are “the ones who can change this situation.” She also voiced her support for those who are studying education here at WCU, saying that is only through education of future minds that “we can give up the myth” and “lead students out of the emotional ignorance that is prejudice.”
Ryan Kulesza, a senior elementary education major, said he was empowered by these words and found the program intriguing.
“It was very eye opening,” he said, “It made you examine yourself and prejudices you hold that you’re not even aware of.”
Yet with such controversy over some things that Elliott said, some students didn’t take too kindly to her views. One usher in Aspludh told The Quad that a white girl came out in tears while one African-American male left in disgust.
Perhaps recognizing that some white students might not agree with her logic or even feel that “the shoe is on the other foot,” Elliott asked the audience to do the following.
“If you’re white and you want to spend the rest of your life being treated the way we are treating black citizens, please stand up.”
Everyone remained seated. Elliott told the quiet audience, “This is how you know the problem is real.”
Elliott has traveled the United States and other countries conducting her experiment and diversity training. She has been the recipient of the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education. Her last visit to WCU was in the spring of 2006. This past week’s lecture was presented by Student Services Incorporated as well as other student organizations on campus.