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Power, Perception, and Prejudice: Jane Elliott Lecture By Sherry Cannon

Sherry-Cannon-photo1October 13 was a very introspective day for me. It started with me attending a lecture by Jane Elliott at 9:00 am and ended around 8:00 pm at a lecture by John W. Franklin, Director, Office of External Affairs, National Museum of African-American History and Culture. In between the two lectures I watched Michelle Obama on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, addressing a group in New Hampshire about the misogyny and assault Donald Trump has leveled against women.

The thing that connects all three of these events is, what people with power can and will do. White men have led this country for 400 years. They have destroyed, enslaved or killed anyone or anything that they deemed a threat.

Mrs. Elliott spoke to a crowd of about 200 people for about three hours. At eighty-three years of age she was completely unfiltered and funny, but her commitment to ending racism was clearly front and center. In her short stature and white skin, she embodied all the mothers, madeas, big mommas, and favorite aunts that helped to raise us baby boomers. She was tough, borderline rude, indignant at times, but smart, passionate, and full of compassion. She covered so much in the time she spoke; it was impossible to capture everything she shared.

One of the things that stood out to me was her observation, that when a white person comes into a new environment, they adjust the environment to fit their needs. On the other hand, when a person of color comes into a new environment, they will adjust their needs to fit the environment. This to me exemplifies the culture of white privilege that exists in this country.

When Elliott was asked what made her conduct the blue eye/brown eye experiment, she stated that it was in response to the assassination of Dr. King. She said that on April 4, 1968 not only was her heart-broken, but she believed hope was also killed that day.

She maintained that Dr. King wasn’t killed because of racism, but because of the direction he was moving into. King’s efforts to galvanize the country for poor people, not just black poor people, was more than those in power could take. She felt Dr. King and Malcolm X were close to joining forces and that potential alliance was the reason for Malcolm’s assassination three years earlier. In her opinion, Malcolm and Martin’s deaths along with the deaths of John and Bobby Kennedy allowed for the KKK to become more powerful. Elliott asserts if these men had lived the United States and the state of America would be completely different.

Mrs. Elliott wove an interesting story, taking many detours, but kept the entire room fully engaged. At one point she coerced former Police Chief John Stenson and Grayce Baird, the teenage daughter of Erica Baird to stand up front with her. She asked them both a series of questions, all the while teasing and cajoling them to stop lying.

Her objective was to get everyone in the room to the same place; that we need to stop judging each other by physical characteristics, i.e. age, gender, height or skin color, that we have no control over. She shared that there are over 2500 different skin colors and it is ridicules to think that is what determines ones’ race; that in fact there is only one race— the Human Race.

Mrs. Elliott said it is crazy to believe that less melanin makes you better. To the discomfort of some in the room, she proclaimed we are all descendants of the first black woman from Sub Saharan, Africa and all people, regardless of ethnicity have this woman’s DNA memory. In fact, we are all cousins.

Elliott believes white people are shackled by racism and that it limits their knowledge and experiences. At eighty-three she is offended by racism and believes every time someone abuses another person because of their skin color, they also offend God!

The latest census shows that in the next 30 years, white people will no longer be the majority in the United States. She believes it is that fear of being treated as they have treated people of color that has made a Donald Trump candidacy possible.

Mrs. Elliott stated that there is no denying the brilliance of people of color. She went through a litany of contributions and discoveries of people of color, from the Egyptians creation of paper and the alphabet, to the Native Americans discovery of the ingredients for pain medication, to Dr. Charles Drew, who pioneered methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. She shared that the basic tenet of all the major religions came from people of color.

On April 5, 1968, she ditched her prepared lesson plan, to give her third grade class a lesson on prejudice. She wanted to teach these children in this all white town of Riceville, IA why Dr. King had been murdered.

Elliott separated the children by their eye color. The first day of her experiment, she explained that the blue-eyed kids were better, smarter and cleaner. That group was moved to the front of the room, given five minutes extra for recess, and could drink from the water fountain.

The brown-eyed kids were given a cloth collar to wear. They were moved to the back of the room. They were not allowed to play with the blue-eyed kids and had to put their water in a paper cup.

She said before her eyes, these sweet innocent kids turned into nasty, vicious and discriminating people. One brown-eyed child said it was like being a “n*****”.

The next morning, Elliott flipped the script. The brown-eyed children became the better of the two groups. Mrs. Elliott was challenged by one of the kids because of her blue eyes, questioning how could she be the teacher. Another brown-eyed student retorted, because if she was brown-eyed she’d either be the principal or superintendent.

During the course of the day, she found her brown-eyed students achieving above their normal ability. At the same time the blue-eyed group, who had completed an exercise the day before in three minutes, completed that same exercise in 4.18 minutes, after being told they were not smart.

Elliott charges that the educational system has failed many children of color because of the low expectations expected of them. She believes many of these children are pushed out of school, rather than them dropping out.

Elliott went on to say that 80% of people in prison are dyslexic males, and believes if they had been properly evaluated and taught to read, would never had ended up incarcerated. She provided educators in the audience a number of resources to teach children how to read at or above grade level. She also admonished teachers, who she recognizes are overwhelmingly white women, to recognize that children of color remember what you say to them, remember your body language, and they remember how you treated them,

Elliott did an excellent job tying in how perception is a powerful catalyst to one’s success or failure; that judging someone on a physical characteristic, that no one has any control over is senseless, with both of these actions whether conscious or unconscious is always about power.

Passionate and adamant Elliott said we could eliminate racism if we all just made the commitment to do it… but the fact remains there is only one race — the Human Race.