Her participants walk in and from the door are separated based on eye colour into two groups of brown eyes and none brown eyes then meet her again in a designated room as she introduces herself as “Bitch For The Day”. Jane Elliot’s Brown Eyes Blue Eyes Exercise forces everyone in the room to come face to face with the subtle, overt and covert nuances of racism. The idea was sparked by the death of Martin Luther King during which time she was a school teacher and a day after his shooting she conducted this experiment in her primary school with an all-white classroom. She has since conducted the experiment many more times with adult groups with astounding effect on participants and observers like me.
Here are some of the (few) critical things that I learned from Jane Elliot’s Experiment
“I don’t see colour I just see you” is a racist cop out
People who refuse to see anything about you are essentially saying it is some kind of anomaly and in order for them to relate to you they have to ignore it. Like ignore your skin colour its blackness, its rich pigmentation in order for you to be a relatable human being. Tell me something, if you are a black man and you identify as such would it make sense for anyone to ignore the very things that make you a black man in order for you to be relatable? Does it make sense for someone to ignore that you are black and that you are a man in order to see that you are human? I’ll wait.
I love the way Jane made her point here because it exposes a subtle racist give away that most of us have come to accept as a compliment. Where we accept and relish that we fit in (as black people) with white people and other races because our blackness can be ignored. The irony blew my mind.
White people and people of colour are different
This lesson is an add-on to the previous point and another subtle racist apologist way of trying to rectify their racist notions. How often have you heard or seen “At the end of the day we’re all people”? Now let me ask you this; why must people be reminded that at the end of the day we are all people? I’ll wait.
Truth is we are different and racism and pretty much every social segregation concept out there aims to make us see our differences as a problem that we have to fight each other about. Not the case beloveds. Our differences are what allow us to practise traits that separate us from the (wild) animal kingdom; tolerance, acceptance, kindness, empathy, sympathy because in order to experience, enjoy and learn from each other’s very difference lived human experience we first and foremost have to understand that even as humans we are different.
Jane makes this point brilliantly when she asks a black male participant to stand next to her and she asks the rest of the group to identify differences between them. The group quickly and eagerly say height, age, gender, the presence and absence of reading glasses and the thing that she almost has to force the group to mention is colour. We are different and each one of our differences matter, because those differences are what make us human at the end of the day, my dear.
Colour does matter to people of colour
For what I hope is the obvious reason that people of colour have colour, pigmentation on their skin, colour does matter to people of colour. Anyone who believes otherwise please see the first two lessons. It’s not a bad thing, it’s not something to be ashamed of nor is it okay for someone to discourage you from emphasising when you have to; the colour of your skin matters. It matters as much as your gender, your sexual orientation, your upbringing and any aspect of what makes you the amazing life worthy human being that you are. You know which hashtag stresses this and let it be known that any dispute is void.
Colour would matter comfortably to any and all other races as well if they stopped seeing pigment, a physical trait that determines something we can’t control, as an anomaly. For a lot of reasons we can’t seem to escape, our colour does matter; when we’re applying for school, applying for a government job, applying for a bank account, insurance, buying a house, for all of those things your colour, your race matters. Why must we dodge its importance when we are socializing? Colour should be important to everyone in so far as it (at best) being seen, acknowledged and accepted so that anything that directly relates to experiences that are determined by colour can be seen for the validity they hold. Colour matters to people of colour because it’s what fuels a lot of our attempts for social justice, a valid (and deserved) place in society along with every other human being.
Dear beautiful black man, woman and child
Do not let anyone ignore your magical black skin in an attempt to see you, “accept” you or reduce the importance of your beautifully hued skin. You will always matter the way you are.
Jane Elliot’s work continues to open eyes across the world and her original workshops can be found here www.janeelliot.com
Acclaim for the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise.
“It won’t help much to be prepared to face Jane Elliott. This elderly woman will tear down any shield. Even we, the spectators in BLUE EYED, can’t get rid of this feeling of uneasiness, embarrassment, anxiety and utterly helpless hatred when she starts keeping people down, humiliating them, deriding them, incapacitating them. No doubt about this: for three quarters of the time in this documentation Jane Elliott is the meanest, the lowest, the most detestful, the most hypocritical human being hell has ever spit back on earth. But she should be an example for all of us”. – Stuttgarter Zeitung
This blog post can also be found on the Madison Jay website