My site will not let me lead with video, so the Jane Elliot video I intended is not the hook image. But just stay with me here. Planned this post for after What We're Up Against Part 2, but in response to the recent Trump claim that teaching children about racism is "child abuse", here goes.
Jane Elliott's career as a social justice crusader began with the 1968 assassination of The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. She was in the midst of ironing a TeePee for her next days lesson on Native Americans when the news flashed on the television. She remembers seeing a reporter shove a mic into the face of a local Black leader demanding, "When our leader (JFK) was killed several years ago, his widow held us together. Who's going to control your people?" At that moment, she remembered the Sioux prayer, "Oh great spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked in his moccasins." She decided to merge her MLK Hero of the Month lesson with the Sioux, and create an experience of walking in a "colored child's moccasins for a day".
The following morning, a 3rd grader arriving for her class in Riceville, Iowa asked, "Why'd they shoot that King?" When the entire all white class was assembled, she asked them, "How do you think it would feel to be a Negro boy or girl?" Then she suggested they couldn't know without experiencing it, and asked if they'd like to try an experiment. "Yeah!" they responded.
And so was birthed her Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes experiment, which if you are unfamiliar with, is worth reading about in detail. But essentially, she divided the class by eye color, designating the Brown Eyes as superior, giving them privileges denied the Blue Eyes, such as second helpings at lunch, longer recess, sitting in the front of the class, and lavish praise, while criticizing the Blue Eyes. She also prohibited the Blue Eyes from drinking at certain water fountains. At first, the minority Blue Eyed children objected, but Elliot told them the melanin in the Brown Eyes was linked to higher ability and intelligence, along with a few other invented attributes for both Brown and Blue Eyes. Their resistance faded.
The children's behavior changed: "Those who were deemed "superior" became arrogant, bossy, and otherwise unpleasant to their "inferior" classmates. Their grades on simple tests were better, and they completed mathematical and reading tasks that had seemed outside their ability before. The "inferior" classmates also transformed – into timid and subservient children who scored more poorly on tests, and even during recess isolated themselves, including those who had previously been dominant in the class. These children's academic performance suffered, even with tasks that had been simple before."
The following Monday, she flipped the roles. The Blue Eyes easily fell into the mantle of superiority, but were less taunting and unpleasant to the Brown Eyes. Elliot ended the experiment, and asked the children to write what they had learned. She shared the essays with her mother, who shared them with the editor of the local paper.
Their essays were published with the headline, "What Discrimination Feels Like." "Typical of their responses was that of Debbie Hughes, who reported that "the people in Mrs. Elliott's room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I have brown eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five minutes extra of recess." The next day when the tables were turned, "I felt like quitting school. . . . I felt mad. That's what it feels like when you're discriminated against."
Elliot was stunned at the effectiveness of the experiment. The AP picked up the story, and it exploded.
But Elliot was vilified. A typical response: "How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children? Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there's no way they could possibly understand it. It's cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage." (!) And some, no surprise, I suppose, proclaimed Elliot a n*****lover.
Though there are debates about informed consent and methodology, her work is now considered seminal, and a precursor to diversity training. As I said, worth reading about in detail, or watching one of the documentaries it inspired (Eye of the Storm and A Class Divided).
But consider for a moment: the experiment lasted 3 days!!! In that short interval, it generated attitude and behavior changes in the children. 3 days! And the entire community rose up in protest! The objections are so reminiscent of the white parents who fight discussions of race, insisting their children are too young to be exposed to those concepts. But do they or their children hesitate to discriminate against young children of color? From my own experience at Dalton School in NYC (where I began in the 3 year old class) and my sons experiences at Marin Montessori ( both boys attended from age 3), I can assure you, the answer is no.
Elliot's question at the top, and the parental reaction cited above dispel one myth: that if people understood what Black people suffer, they would change their attitudes and behavior.
Blacks have been discriminated against since we arrived on these shores in 1619. Add 400 years - slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration- to what we know about epigenetics, and the wonder is that we as a people have survived and thrived. But we have. Yes, because of our history here, our bodies show the evidence of the stress and discrimination to which we are subject: shorter life expectancies, higher rates of cancer, hypertension, diabetes, asthma, obesity, poverty and incarceration. But we have used those same stresses to develop heart and soul. Empathy. A sense of justice and injustice. To become a people; creative, improvisational, passionate.
So, in this summer of hyperawareness of systemic racism, three events last week struck me.
Fox News Host Tucker Carlson told his audience, the largest in cable news, that America "must defeat" the Black Lives Matter movement "if we're going to survive as a country." He is calling for nothing short of preservation of systemic racism: police brutality, mass incarceration, redlining and all the policies that have caused the health care, education, housing and wealth discrepancies that are worse now than in the 1970's. Interestingly, he was also in the vanguard of Fox News personalities attacking Kamala Harris, daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants as "not really Black. She isn't descended from slaves," he said, as if he has both the authority to determine Blackness, and to judge anyone on their racial identification.
Then at the first game of the season, the Kansas City Football team (which yet to be renamed) and opposing NFL players link arms and ask for a “a moment of silence dedicated to the ongoing fight for equality in our country”, and the fans boo!
(NFL will not let me imbed video) No kneeling, no fists, no anthem, no flag, a simple request for a moment of silence for the fight for equality as members of opposing teams link arms. The reaction undermines all that insistence that the objection to kneeling was about "disrespecting the flag," or "patriotism". The objection was and is to Blacks asserting themselves. Essentially the booing fans are saying, "Shut up and play. I don't care about your social justice. Just do your job and entertain me." Reminds me that our National attitude towards MLK has become a lot more reverent in the years since he was martyred, not only an amnesia of how he was regarded contemporaneously, but a recognition that as his dreams have not been fulfilled, the voices of change have become more strident.
The third incident is from one of the Woodward-Trump interview tapes. Woodward asks about systemic racism and privilege: "...And do you have any sense that that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave, to a certain extent, as it put me – and I think lots of White, privileged people – in a cave and that we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain, particularly, Black people feel in this country? Do you see?"
"No," the president said. "You, you really drank the Kool-Aid, didn't you? Just listen to you, wow. No, I don't feel that at all."
Many, many people of goodwill, white and non-white, have spent the time since George Floyd's murder educating themselves about the history omitted from our standard educations, looking to hear the voices that have been silenced. And many are working within their spheres to change their policies to address some aspects of what has been so ingrained it is difficult for many to see.
But it stuns, enrages and saddens me that in September 2020, after a summer marked by police violence and civilian protests, civic dialogue and self-education, some have clearly chosen to dig in, supporting the status quo, not to even attempting to be woke, defending white supremacy.
Back to Jane Elliot. I am not happy to be treated as a second class citizen. I am not happy that many who lack the educational, class, gender and color privileges I have are treated far, far worse. But I am grateful to have been born Black. To have occupied a rung on a ladder that gave me a much clearer eye on America, and a heart more open than the above perpetrators of injustice. The results of the 2017 election surprised, dismayed and saddened me, but sadly, mainly confirmed the deep current of racism I had always sensed.
"But I don't see you as Black." "But you're not like them." "You're so articulate." "But surely you couldn't have experienced racism." "Oh my gosh, I didn't realize you Black people have black skin, but your palms are still white." "You have beautiful teeth. So white. But you know they wouldn't look so white if you weren't black." "Diane? Diane Barnes? Is that you? I wouldn't have recognized you if you hadn't called me by name. I didn't think I knew anyone so black!" (A professor, on my return from a 10 day Jamaican vacation.) "The bed pan is over there," said my new patient at Yale Med School when I walked into her room. And yes, I was wearing my white coat and stethoscope. On the first morning of my radiology residency at Stanford, still on crutches from a slowly healing ski injury to my knee, I entered the small conference room where the six of us were to assemble. One of my future colleagues exclaimed, "Oh, look a two-fer! They hit 2 quotas when they took you." Three of the assembled laughed.
Years later, on the med school faculty at Stanford, I went to call a patient from the waiting room. After I introduced myself, the patient asked (without moving towards the exam room), "Where did you go to medical school?"
"Yale," I responded.
"Yale. In Conneticut." "They teach doctors in jail?" he asked.
These are fewer than 1% of the things said to me by well educated, mostly liberals with whom I have shared white spaces. Micro-aggressions, they have been called, but I'm not sure what makes them micro. We all have seen bronze and brass statues with shiny parts, the patina rubbed off, sometimes damaged beyond repair, one touch at a time. Taken cumulatively, there is nothing micro about them. (The macros, I'm not sharing now.)
Greyfriars Bobbie, Edinburgh
I am cis-gender, hetero and able-bodied, which means I probably have been insensitive and
made others uncomfortable, albeit inadvertently. But I do try to learn. Having been on the receiving end of so many careless and unkind remarks increases my sensitivity. Not to say empathy, sensitivity or understanding are the purview of any one race or set of experiences, or that one must have been on the receiving end to have a sense of shared humanity. Certainly, there are some Black people, perhaps because of internalized racism, who seem to lack humanity. But outsider status changes the view.
We Black people have been resisting, marching and struggling since we arrived on these shores over 400 years ago. And yet, in spite of the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the Civil Rights Era, and our brief experiment in Affirmative Action (benefiting mostly white women), power remains overwhelmingly in the hands of white men. The founding fathers, enslavers most, created a constitution to enshrine a government controlled by white male property owners (at a time when property ownership was the only form of wealth), still guiding us today.
But Elliot's question is really: what are you doing to help dismantle the systems that perpetuate anti- Black racism?
I am not pointing fingers. Just asking. I cannot imagine how it might feel to just be waking up to how Black people experience the world, though my best friend from 5th grade told me that is her experience, despite our closeness. I have another white classmate who says she cannot understand; she had a hard life, doesn't feel privileged, and is unable to look at her whiteness without feeling overwhelming shame and guilt she doesn't feel she deserves. Certainly, all do not benefit equally from privilege, and having white privilege in no way implies lack of hardship. But it is critical to know what Black citizens are up against.
Many have, like Elliot, made equality their life's mission. And many have been involved in groups devoted to examining privilege, in rewriting the contracts and missions of their organizations, etc. As a people, we certainly would not have come so far without incredible allies over the centuries, people who were woke long before that word came into use, from early colonialists, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Moses Brown (co-founder of Brown University) Quakers, including Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Lydia Maria Child, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thaddeus Stevens, to Harry Truman, and those like LBJ, who changed horses mid stream. And of course, most of our truth tellers, from Sojourner Truth, Frances E.W. Harper, Sarah Parker Redmond, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells to today's had white allies and patrons.
I told a theater loving friend about a Zoom Social Justice Community Meeting Berkeley Rep held early this summer. "I'm on it," he replied, but later texted back, "I checked out the program, but it was just talking about social justice, so I got off. I like plays that tell stories." Stunned that I needed to explain, I wrote back: before more of our stories hit the stage, serious reckonings with equity, representation, and seats at the table must occur. That Berkeley Reps meeting was an early step in their process of white spaces with white gatekeepers striving towards equity and representation.
We have a huge struggle ahead, but this summer has clearly drawn the lines. Once we know, once we understand, it is time for action, to change the entrenched policies that perpetuate inequity. Yes, it will require energy and sacrifice. And, yes, just as fair wages for front line workers may require reductions in CEO pay, for Black people to have a fair share requires those who have reaped outsized gains under the entrenched policies to relinquish some. We are a small minority in this country. We cannot prevail alone; we need you to take up the cause.
We might not reach the mountaintop in my lifetime. But together, we must try. Can we count on you?