Posted on March 26, 2009

Thanking Her for Opening My Eyes

Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2009

Jane Elliott has blue eyes.

The years have turned her once-brown hair a bright snowy white, and at 75 years old she’s rounder, maybe shorter, than she used to be. But eye color doesn’t change.

Elliott, an Iowa teacher, made deliberate use of that in 1968 when she created a now-famous exercise for her classroom of white third-graders. It was the day after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and she was struggling to explain the concept of racism.

She hit upon an idea: For an entire day, she conducted her class as if the brown-eyed children were superior to those with blue eyes. Elliott eventually made headlines, appeared on “The Tonight Show” and became the subject of multiple documentaries.

Three decades later, my high school sociology teacher played us snippets of a news program about the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise. For a 16-year-old Korean adoptee growing up in Iowa, the most fascinating aspect was this: Elliott had made history in Riceville, two hours from my hometown.

The daughter of white parents, I grew up in a predominantly white city, attended an overwhelmingly white school and interacted mostly with white friends. The subject of race in my community was hidden, buried under rhetoric that insisted we remain “colorblind.”

Elliott was the first white person I ever heard who admitted to the privileges of whites, acknowledging that visible differences affect how the world perceives us. Her words sparked a hunger in me for more.

My first year in college, I took courses on race and ethnicity and Asian American history. Race, I learned, permeated everything, and it was OK to say so. I found myself with strong opinions and a circle of outspoken black and Asian friends with whom to share. The world felt bigger, and I felt empowered.

Much of my decision to move to Los Angeles eight years ago was to answer a longing to live somewhere diverse. {snip}


It is late October, five days before the United States elects its first black president, and Elliott is in a dither. Her Iowa absentee ballot in favor of Barack Obama was mailed in weeks ago, although she worries about what he’s up against.


This is how Elliott has made a living. She retired from teaching 20 years ago and lectures a few times a month, primarily at colleges or companies in need of diversity training. She won’t say how much she charges, but it’s said to be about $7,000–higher if she’s asked to conduct her famous exercise. {snip}

With King shot just the day before in Memphis, Elliott encouraged her third-graders to discuss how something so horrible could happen.

“I finally said, ‘Do you kids have any idea how it feels to be something other than white in this country?’ ”

The children shook their heads and said they wanted to learn, so Elliott set the rules. Blue-eyed children must use a cup to drink from the fountain. Blue-eyed children must leave late to lunch and to recess. Blue-eyed children were not to speak to brown-eyed children. Blue-eyed children were troublemakers and slow learners.

Within 15 minutes, Elliott says, she observed her brown-eyed students morph into youthful supremacists and blue-eyed children become uncertain and intimidated.

Brown-eyed children “became domineering and arrogant and judgmental and cool,” she says. “And smart! Smart! All of a sudden, disabled readers were reading. I thought, ‘This is not possible, this is my imagination.’ And I watched bright, blue-eyed kids become stupid and frightened and frustrated and angry and resentful and distrustful. It was absolutely the strangest thing I’d ever experienced.”


“When they were saying and doing those things to one another, they were being their preachers, their parents, people on television–they were practicing what they had learned. I learned you don’t have to have people of color in a community to have racism. My third-graders knew every negative stereotype they’d ever heard about blacks, and there were no blacks in Riceville, Iowa.”

Elliott is an enigma to me, not only because she is a white woman who believes God is black and detests phrases like “reverse racism,” but because she comes from a city I know well.


{snip} But as I grew older and more self-conscious, Riceville became yet another small town where it felt as though residents stared extra long at an Asian face.

(“Did you ever think it was because you’re new in town?” a well-meaning aunt once chided after I expressed my frustration.)

Race was not something we discussed in my family. My adopted Korean brother and I were different, yes, but we focused on similarities. Besides, “Asian” was thought of merely in cultural terms, mentioned in connection to food or dress or dance, but forgotten in a black-white paradigm. Racism was acknowledged only when it appeared on the news, linked to such symbols as burning crosses or hooded Klansmen.


Elliott says her eyes began to open to issues of race and discrimination when she went to the University of Northern Iowa and met black students who were smarter and more talented than she was. Somebody’s been lying to me, she thought.


After that appearance [on “The Tonight Show”], Elliott returned home to find that she and her family had been blacklisted.

Customers stopped patronizing the hotel her parents managed. Passersby called her names and shouted insults. The bowling team that she had long played for replaced her, and she was no longer invited to play bridge. Her children were spat on and knocked down, their belongings defaced.