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Anti-racism activist Jane Elliott to speak Sept. 26

Duane Bonifer
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Renowned educator and activist Jane Elliott will bring her anti-racism message to Monmouth College.

Elliott will speak about “The Anatomy of Prejudice: Jane Elliott Public” at 6 p.m. Sept. 26 in the College’s Dahl Chapel and Auditorium. Her talk, which is sponsored by the Monmouth Office of Intercultural Life, is free and open to the public.

For more than half a century, Elliott has worked to eradicate racism. Her work burst onto the national scene in 1968 when she conducted her now-famous “Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes” exercise with the third-grade students she taught in rural Riceville, Iowa. The exercise – which she conducted on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated – separated students by eye color and placed greater value on students with blue eyes to illustrate the irrationality and banality of racism and the hate it fuels.

The exercise received international attention and became the subject of several books and films, including the 1970 ABC-produced documentary The Eye of the Storm. In 1985, A Class Divided was turned into an award-winning PBS documentary. The “Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes” exercise has been used by businesses to teach diversity to their employees.

“What I do when I do that exercise is create a microcosm of society in a classroom, in a boardroom, in a conference room or some other place,” said Elliott. “I pick people on the basis of physical characteristics in which they have no control. At first, it doesn’t occur to them that I’m copying in that exercise what we do to black children.”

Elliott, who turned 85 earlier this year, is as active in the fight against racism today as she was in 1968 when her work first received national attention.

“I’d have quit doing this a long time ago, but there’s no way to quit doing this as long as the illness of racism is so prevalent in society,” she said.

Elliott blames the U.S. education system as one of the institutions that allowed racism in the United States to persist into the 21st century.

“We think that being educated means you are educated,” she said. “In this country, what we call education is actually indoctrination. It takes us from the ages of 5 to 18 to educate people on the myth of white superiority, particularly white male superiority. … If we had true education instead of indoctrination in this country, we wouldn’t have racism.”

Elliott said that she would like to see teachers lead students rather than indoctrinate them.

“An educator is one who is engaged in the act of leading people out of ignorance,” she said. “You can’t lead people out of ignorance if you are continuing to teach that there is more than one race on the face of the Earth, because there isn’t. There are 2,500 different skin colors on the face of the Earth. If you can come up with 2,500 different names for races, you have too much time on your hands.”

Elliott recommends that teachers, as well as aspiring teachers, check out several titles that she says help smash myths about race, including: Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization (Exploding the Myths), by Anthony T. Browder; Racial Conditioning of our Children: Ending Psychological Genocide in Schools, by Nathan Rutstein; and The Myth of Race, by Robert Sussman.

She remains hopeful that education will become a force against racism.

“We give kids immunizations on the off chance that they might someday be exposed to somebody who has one of those diseases,” she said. “It’s a guarantee that kids will be exposed to a racist on a daily basis in this country. I consider this experience an inoculation against the disease of racism. I believe in God and I believe in God-created human beings. Human beings created racism. Anything you create, you can destroy. We could destroy racism if we chose to.”