After learning about Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise in world cultures class, Westwood Middle School seventh-grader Dylan Schofield was inspired.
So, he called her up.
Dylan pulled out his iPad at lunch and looked up Elliott’s phone number.
He called twice: no answer. But on the third time, fresh out of the shower, Elliott, now 80, picked up the phone.
“At first, I was like, that’s got to be her intern or something,” Dylan said, but it was Elliott herself.
Elliott is famous for her anti-racism activism.
When she was a school teacher working in Iowa, she conducted her first “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was the first of hundreds of exercises Elliott ran, everywhere from schools to corporate workplaces to the White House Conference on Children and Youth.
She divided students by eye color: blue eyes and brown eyes. One group was given preferential treatment, and the other was forced to sit in the back of the room, drink out of a different water fountain, etc., many things black people were commonly forced to do in that era.
Elliott compares the exercise to a vaccine. “It is an inoculation of the live virus of racism,” she said. Students might feel sick for a little while, but long-term, racism can be prevented.
On the phone, Dylan told her how interesting and “motivational” he found her exercise, which his class studied as part of a unit on anthropology.
She asked him some questions about what he was learning, but soon the two were chatting about everyday topics, the chilly January weather in Minnesota and more.
“It was kind of like talking to my grandmother,” he said.
After he got off of the phone, Dylan told his world cultures teacher, Tricia Miller, about the call.
“He came back, and I totally didn’t believe him,” Miller said.
Soon the story was all over the school. It didn’t take long to discover that Dylan was telling the truth.
Miller emailed Elliott to ask if she would be willing to call the class over Skype so the entire class of seventh graders could question her.
Elliott’s normal fee is $500 for a Skype session, but she agreed to cut the cost in half. Later, she agreed to speak with Miller’s class free of charge.
The class prepared a string of questions for Elliott, some personal, but most about her study.
The opportunity to ask Elliott about her work face to face came Feb. 3 when the class spoke with her over Skype for 45 minutes.
Dylan kicked off the questioning and before giving another classmate a chance to address Elliott, he told her it was nice to meet her.
“It’s nice to be meeting you, too, troublemaker,” Elliott said with a smirk.
Students asked question after question: Do you feel like you overstepped a boundary? Do you think it’s possible to completely eliminate racism in the world? Who would you like perform the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise on today?
Over the years, Elliott took some heat for her methods. Fellow teachers would leave the room if she entered. People hit her, pulled a knife on her and sent her numerous death threats. Her mother disowned her. Still, she speaks passionately about her work as an activist. If you’re lucky, your work will be something worth living for, Elliott told the students. “If you’re extremely lucky, you find something worth dying for,” she said.
She emphasized that racism is a learned behavior. Teachers model racist behavior for students, often inadvertently.
For instance, teachers lead students to study Christopher Columbus, known by many as the white man who discovered America, Elliott said. “You can’t discover a place where people are already living,” she said.
She asked students to name his three ships. When they could only come up with the Santa Maria, Elliott praised them instead of chastising them. They had a good education because they hadn’t studied Columbus very much, she said.
Elliott thinks sixth graders in every school should go through the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise, though not every teacher would be able to successfully carry out the exercise.
Miller thought about trying it with her class, but “I don’t quite know if I could,” she said. She recalls Elliott saying that “a teacher could really screw up their kids if they do it wrong.”
To close the conversation Monday, Elliott directed students to a quote from author Nathan Rutstein, displayed on her sweatshirt: “Prejudice is an emotional commitment to ignorance.”
She encouraged students to hang that quotation in their classroom somewhere, or better yet, make shirts.
The class immediately started brainstorming ideas for t-shirts.
Miller thinks the class can turn making t-shirts into an educational experience, unpacking the quote and working together to create a meaningful design.
Since Dylan called Elliott, Miller has become more of a “facilitator” and a “guide” in her classroom, she said. The kids are taking ownership of their own learning.
“It was cool talking to her on the phone, but … seeing her face was just wild,” Dylan said, visibly excited about Elliott and her work.
Olivia Koester is at firstname.lastname@example.org