Born in rural Iowa in 1933, Jane Elliott is a retired school teacher who has personally led diversity-training sessions for General Electric, Exxon, AT&T, IBM, and other major corporations, plus federal agencies such as the Department of Education and the U.S. Navy. She has lectured at more than 350 colleges and universities; has been the subject of television documentaries; appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” at least five times; and has been included by textbook publisher McGraw-Hill on a timeline of key educators of history.
Elliott’s calling card is a role-playing exercise she devised in the late Sixties for her third-grade class to help encounter and conquer racial prejudice. In this exercise, a teacher or “trainer” requests that everyone in the room divide themselves into two groups and pretend to have either blue or brown eyes. “Blue-eyed” is a racial proxy for Caucasian; “brown-eyed” is a proxy for black. The trainer proceeds to subject “blue-eyed” participants to a barrage of insults and taunts, while giving “brown-eyed” participants favored treatment, including the right to join in the punishment. Then, preferably on the following day, the trainer reverses the roles, so it is the brown-eyed subjects who receive verbal abuse – but with an important difference: The blue-eyed subjects, now familiar with being tormented, prove rather tepid tormentors.
Replicated countless times in a variety of settings, the stated goal of this exercise is to make the subjects appreciate the suffering that blacks in this country are forced to undergo each day.
Making Whites Pay: Anatomy of an Exercise
It was April 5, 1968, and riots had broken out in numerous cities in reaction to the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Elliott was convinced that King’s murder was the product of the white racism thoroughly permeating American society. The lynch mob and the burning cross merely were outward manifestations of the sickness. Elliott would make no exceptions for seemingly tolerant, fair-minded liberals. All whites would have to recognize their destructive prejudices. Children, their innocent minds not yet poisoned by the larger society, offered the greatest hope for change.
Opportunity beckoned. A student walked into Mrs. Elliott’s class, slung his books on his desk, and asked: “Hey, Mrs. Elliott. They shot that King yesterday. Why’d they shoot that King?” Once her all-white class was fully assembled, she asked them, “How do you think it would feel to be a Negro boy or girl?” She continued: “It would be hard to know, wouldn’t it, unless we actually experienced discrimination ourselves. Would you like to find out?” A chorus of “Yeahs” went up. Mrs. Elliott had planned for this moment.
She asked her students to form two separate groups. The first would pretend to have blue eyes; the second would pretend to have brown eyes. The “blue-eyed” students were berated and taunted at every turn by Mrs. Elliott and the “brown-eyed” students. The following Monday it was the “brown-eyed” students’ turn to suffer. But Elliott noticed the abuse this time was less pronounced. She reasoned that the kids in the role of “blue eyes,” having been sensitized to abuse, were less willing to inflict it on others. She reasoned, therefore, that subjecting white students to this type of choreographed abuse could be a key to racial healing. She also concluded that black underachievement was purely a product of white-dominated constructions of reality; that if the proverbial tables were turned on whites, they, too, would perform poorly. “We had one (brown-eyed) girl with a mind like a steel trap who never misspelled a word until we told her that brown eyes were bad,” Elliott proudly recalled to a campus audience many years later.
To Elliott, this was empathy-building, not brainwashing. And it was sweet payback. Whites were learning to live life as blacks experienced it daily. Whites were teachable, and hence not inherently evil. But they required guidance to realize their potential goodness. In Elliott’s eyes, white bigotry is a universal condition unaffected by region, nation, personal situation or even the passage of time. In a Web-exclusive interview for PBS on December 19, 2002, Elliott said: “We are constantly being told that we don’t have racism in this country anymore, but most of the people who are saying that are white. White people think it isn’t happening because it isn’t happening to them.”
In Elliott’s view of the human psyche, whites need to experience intensive collective guilt. Blacks, however, are off the hook. Whatever the injustices blacks inflict upon whites, they are justifiable reactions to far worse injustices inflicted upon them by whites. Sensitivity training has to be a one-way street.
Elliott became increasingly convinced that whites were in need of redemption. Replicating her exercise would become her life’s mission. Accordingly, her reputation grew. In 1970, ABC television produced a half-hour documentary, “Eye of the Storm,” showing her applying her experiment to her class. That same year, she demonstrated it for educators at a White House Conference on Children and Youth. PBS in 1985 aired its own Jane Elliott documentary, “A Class Divided.”
Taking It to the Top
Jane Elliott retired from teaching in the mid 1980s to take on bigger game: the working world. Part of the reason was money, as she commanded fees of some $6,000 per day from companies and governmental institutions.
Elliott and her allies developed a two-pronged strategy for selling her diversity training seminars to large organizations. First, there was the carrot. Elliott knew that to convince upper- and mid-level managers of the necessity of training employees, she would have to frame her appeal as a sound business model. Thus, a prejudice-free work force became crucial to morale and profitability, especially with corporations and government agencies increasingly run by blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other non-Caucasians (a process heavily driven heavily by affirmative action and mass immigration). Here was the perfect ounce of prevention. Diversity trainers spoke the upbeat language of modern business culture, their presentations frequently peppered with references to “teamwork,” “mutual learning,” and “winning together.”
Second, there was the stick. That is, businesses would have to be apprised of the negative consequences of not getting with the program – consequences such as bad publicity, boycotts, and expensive lawsuits. The legal climate encouraged this. The Supreme Court in 1986 ruled in Meritor that an employer could be held liable for damages if management had tolerated a hostile work environment affecting a particular class of employees, even in absence of any intent to harm. Moreover, the doctrine of disparate impact, established in the early Seventies in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., had become more entrenched than ever. An employer’s business practices, even if not intentionally discriminatory, could be liable for damages if they yielded unequal racial outcomes.Companies that ran afoul of civil-rights activists found out the high price tag of not instituting a zero-tolerance policy against racial bias. Over the years, egalitarian lawyers, backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, realized huge windfalls for themselves and their clients by forcing consent decrees upon companies such as Texaco, Denny’s, Abercrombie & Fitch. These cases resulted from highly questionable allegations of systematic discrimination against employees and/or customers. Punishment involved not only heavy fines, but also the institution of stringent and carefully-monitored company-wide diversity plans. Since corporations by nature disdain unwanted publicity, they learned that racial-tolerance training was a cheap way to head off far more expensive legal action in the future.
Thus, employer-sponsored diversity training, whether conducted by internal staff or outside consultants, became de rigeur. Moreover, Elliott’s training films became the preferred tools of diversity trainers nationwide. Among these films were “Eye of the Storm,” “A Class Divided,” “Blue-Eyed,” “The Angry Eye,” “The Stolen Eye,” and “The Essential Blue-Eyed.” The Washington-based National MultiCultural Institute has aggressively promoted her videos over the Web. So has the Encino, Calif.-based Business Training Media, Inc. (BTM), which sells “The Essential Blue-Eyed” for $299.99. BTM summarizes the film’s contents as follows: “Elliott divides a multiracial group of Midwesterners on the basis of eye color and then subjects the blue-eyed members to a withering regime of humiliation and contempt. In just a few hours, we watch grown professionals become distracted and despondent, stumbling over the simplest commands. People of color in the group express surprise that whites react so quickly to the kind of discrimination they face every day of their lives.” BTM adds that the film, through its “withering regime of humiliation and contempt,” can help trainers “reveal how even casual bias can have a devastating impact on personal performance, organization productivity, teamwork and morale.”
Government agencies likewise rely on Elliott’s methods to train employees. Diversity sessions at the Federal Aviation Administration, for example, have included segments in which dissenting, or potentially dissenting, employees were tormented by peers. At one point, white males were verbally abused by black co-workers and then forced to walk a gauntlet, aggressively fondled by female workers. Psychologist Edwin J. Nichols, who heads a Washington, D.C. training firm, has performed Jane Elliott-inspired seminars and full-scale cultural audits for at least a half-dozen cabinet-level departments, three branches of the armed services, the Federal Reserve Bank, the FBI, the IRS, NASA, the Goddard Space Center, plus any number of state and local government agencies. Nichols first came to prominence in 1990 at a University of Cincinnati training seminar to humiliate a blond, blue-eyed female professor whom he claimed belonged to “the privileged white elite.”
Higher education presents a seemingly limitless set of opportunities to apply Mrs. Elliott’s teachings. At Wake Forest University in the fall of 1999, one of the few campus events designated as mandatory was “Blue Eyed,” a racial-awareness workshop depicting whites on film being abused, ridiculed, made to fail, and taught helpless passivity so that they can identify with “a person of color for a day.” In the 2005-06 academic year, Johns Hopkins University suspended a student, Justin Park (an ethnic Korean), for a full year for posting racially “offensive” (to blacks) Halloween party invitations. The university mandated that he also attend a workshop on diversity and race relations and perform extensive community service.
In a 1998 interview with an Australian Internet magazine, Webfronds, Elliott stated: You’re all sitting here writing in a language [English] that white people didn’t come up with. You’re all sitting here writing on paper that white people didn’t invent. Most of you are wearing clothes made out of cloth that white people didn’t come up with. We stole these ideas from other people. If you’re a Christian, you’re believing in a philosophy that came to us from people of color.” White people, she added, “invented racism.”
This profile is adapted from the article “Jane Elliott and Her Blue-Eyed Devil Children,” written by Carl Horowitz and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on December 27, 2006.