Posted on December 28, 2006

Jane Elliott And Her Blue-Eyed Devil Children

Carl F. Horowitz,, December 28, 2006

Why does racial diversity training, whose deleterious effects have been chronicled in these pages more than once, seem like a children’s group exercise, a sadist’s version of “patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man?” There’s a good reason: It is a children’s exercise. At least that’s how it began and operated for many years until the pillars of our society became convinced of its necessity. We have a retired school teacher named Jane Elliott to thank for the leftward infantilizing of the American mind.

Elliott, born in 1933, is one of those second-tier celebrities who invariably invite the comment, “I know I’ve heard that name before.” You probably have. She’s been on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” at least five times. She’s 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’s lectured at more than 350 colleges and universities. She’s been the subject of television documentaries. A Disney made-for-TV movie about her life reportedly has been in the works since 2003. Textbook publisher McGraw-Hill has listed her on a timeline of key educators of history, right up there with Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Horace Mann, Booker T. Washington, Maria Montessori and nearly two dozen others.[i]

Jane Elliott is our nation’s long-reigning Dominatrix of Diversity. For nearly 40 years this native of rural Iowa has been engaged in a Torquemada-style quest to eradicate racism, real or imagined, from every nook and cranny of American life. She casts a mighty long shadow. Every time a corporation forces new employees — at least Caucasian ones — to endure intensive and prolonged anti-bias training, it is ratifying the legacy of Jane Elliott. Every time a college requires incoming white freshmen to be “cured” of racial, ethnic and religious prejudices presumably lurking within, it is fulfilling Elliott’s vision.

Jane 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. It’s the one about eye color, in which 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. Ideally, participants aren’t initially aware of this. They soon will be. 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.

The exercise should strike most people as manipulative and sadistic. But to Elliott and fellow trainers, everyone is better off for having undergone it, for their subjects now appreciate the suffering that blacks in this country are forced to undergo each day. Replicated countless times in a variety of settings, this exercise — she is averse to calling it an experiment — has been the linchpin of the now-huge diversity training industry. Its main premise, that whites require remedial measures to expunge their inherent racial bias, has won converts throughout the top echelons of corporate life. Top officials such as Steve Reinemund (PepsiCo), Patrick Stokes (Anheuser-Busch), H. Lee Scott (Wal-Mart) and Richard Syron (Freddie Mac) have embraced mandatory multiracial diversity with evangelical zeal. The “blue eyes-brown eyes” exercise, and its underlying thinking, is also the coin of the realm among leaders in government, philanthropy and higher education. Even skeptics among them (assuming they still exist) have learned for the most part to put aside their misgivings and play along, lest they invite a reputation for racial insensitivity and maybe a lawsuit.

Whether the trainees are children or childlike adults, the premise is the same: All white individuals must be emotionally rewired to overcome their racism. Nobody wins unless everybody wins. And Jane Elliott plays to win.

Making Whites Pay: Anatomy of an Exercise

It was April 5, 1968, and the nation was in a parlous condition. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. Black rioting had broken out in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and other cities. The small community of Riceville, Iowa seemed far removed from the urban racial tinderbox. But a local school teacher, Jane Elliott, sought to unite the two worlds. She was white and ashamed. It was time to make her fellow whites feel ashamed as well.

Elliott was convinced King’s murder was the product of the white racism thoroughly permeating our 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.[ii] 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 clearly 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 (some no doubt really did have blue or brown eyes, making her job easier). Then the fun began. 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. Eureka! Here was the key to racial healing, proof that black underachievement was purely a product of white-dominated constructions of reality. Turn the tables on whites, and they, too, will 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,” she proudly recalled to a campus audience many years later.[iii]

To Elliott, this was empathy-building, not brainwashing. And it was sweet payback. Whites were learning to live life as blacks (later amended to “people of color”) experience it daily. Whites were teachable, and hence not inherently evil. But they required guidance to realize their potential goodness. In Jane Elliott’s jaundiced 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 denounced whites as conditioning people here and abroad to believe otherwise. “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,” she said. “White people think it isn’t happening because it isn’t happening to them.”[iv]

In Elliott’s race-obsessed 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.

At any rate, about a month after Elliott unveiled her exercise, fate intervened. Johnny Carson, ever on the lookout for Everyman guests with a human-interest angle, got wind of her exploits (the local Riceville newspaper had reprinted student essays on the experience). He asked her if she’d like to appear on “The Tonight Show.” She said yes, and flew to the show’s NBC studio in New York City. On the set, following some obligatory tension-relieving small talk, Elliott briefly discussed her exercise. And then it was time to go. Her presentation, however, left quite an impression on the nation. “The Tonight Show” staff found itself blitzed by hundreds of angry letters. “How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children,” one letter read.


Taking It to the Top

Jane Elliott retired from teaching in the mid 80s to take on bigger game: the working world. Part of the reason was money. Several years ago she admitted that her standard fee was $6,000 per day from “companies and governmental institutions.”[v] But more importantly was her exercise’s socially transformative powers. The challenge was how to “sell” it to large organizations. She and her allies developed a two-pronged strategy.

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.[vi] Moreover, the doctrine of disparate impact, established in the early Seventies in Griggs v. Duke Power Co.,[vii] 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, all the while smiling through clenched teeth about the importance of Diversity.

Thus, employer-sponsored diversity training, whether conducted by internal staff or outside consultants, has become de rigeur. Its champions haven’t forgotten about their original mentor. Rare indeed is the diversity specialist who doesn’t offer Elliott’s training films. And, boy, have they proliferated. In addition to “Eye of the Storm” and “A Class Divided,” the Elliott film library now includes four additional masterworks: “Blue-Eyed,” “The Angry Eye,” “The Stolen Eye,” and “The Essential Blue-Eyed.” National MultiCultural Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based diversity consultant, aggressively promotes her videos over the Web. So does the Encino, Calif.-based Business Training Media, Inc., which sells “The Essential Blue-Eyed” for $299.99. This video, jam-packed with 50 minutes of training, plus 36 minutes of debriefing, can help employers and employees alike recognize signs of stereotyping that hold back people of color. BTM excitedly summarizes its contents:[viii]

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.

Ah, nothing like “a withering regime of humiliation and contempt” to boost profits! “The Essential Blue-Eyed,” moreover, can help trainers “reveal how even casual bias can have a devastating impact on personal performance, organization productivity, teamwork and morale.” It also can “identify culturally biased codes of conduct within an organization which may be invisible to the majority.”

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.[ix] 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. Whites, he believes, are emotionally cold people, the result of their evolution since the Ice Age. He 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.”[x]

Higher education, of course, presents a seemingly limitless set of opportunities to apply Mrs. Elliott’s wit and wisdom. At Wake Forest University in the fall of 1999, one of the few campus events designated as mandatory in attendance 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 current academic year, Johns Hopkins University suspended a student, Justin Park (an ethnic Korean, no less), for a full year for posting racially “offensive” (to blacks) Halloween party invitations. With massive overkill, the university mandated that he also attend a workshop on diversity and race relations and perform extensive community service.[xi] University of Pennsylvania historian Alan Charles Kors argues that for sheer sadism, campus diversity training resembles Maoist Chinese re-education sessions.[xii] Anyone familiar with the dynamics of small group tyranny knows the parallel is apt.

The Road to Show Trials

In diversity role-playing, whites are guilty until proven innocent — and of course, they will never get to prove it. Its role-playing exercises are far removed from experiments observing behavior in an authoritarian environment, a la Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo.[xiii] There, participation was voluntary, conducted under tightly controlled settings, and did not proceed from assumptions about collective guilt. By contrast, diversity training, Jane Elliott-style, requires that everyone participate and confess.

Jane Elliott’s vision is being realized. To say that the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise is “kid stuff” is true enough. But more to the point, its role-playing reduces adults to the level of children — fearful, whimpering and apologetic for nonexistent offenses. Far from combating white resentment of nonwhites, such “training” actually creates it. School multicultural programs, Thomas Sowell observes, has produced “mounting evidence of increasing (italics author’s) animosities among students of different backgrounds.”[xiv] Apparently, that’s also true in the adult world. In Britain, where Elliott is virtually lionized by multiculturalists, a former government diversity specialist explained the effects of diversity training:[xv]

You cannot over-estimate the damage to race relations that “diversity awareness” training is causing in this country. It’s having the opposite effect to that intended, causing divisions, resentment, and an increase in judgments based on race, where previously such things were actually quite rare. How do I know this? I was involved in putting together a diversity “toolkit” for a government department, and saw first-hand the effect it had as it was rammed down the throats of staff.

If Jane Elliott and her diversity minions are going to be defeated, more people like this, here and abroad, are going to have to speak out, and at whatever risk to their careers.


White people, she added, “invented racism.” At least Susan Sontag, in her infamous diatribe of some 40 years ago likening the white race to “the cancer of human history,” credited whites with producing, among other things, Mozart, Kant, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare and parliamentary government.[xvii] Elliott credits whites with virtually nothing except oppression of people of color. Less a heartland Susan Sontag than a white Louis Farrakhan, Elliott is consumed with the need to force whites to experience shame and atonement. She’s in good company. As Ryan O’Donnell pointed out in these pages nearly four years ago, virtually all the early leaders of the diversity industry began as hard-Left activists in the Sixties.[xviii]