"Wake Up" Lecture by Jane Elliot for Black History Month

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Auburn University’s Black Student Union had a guest speaker, Jane Elliot, give a talk on racism for Black History Month. The Foy Auditorium was packed with students and faculty standing even outside of the auditorium doors in order to hear the talk, which was titled "Wake Up." Jane Elliot is a well-known lecturer, an anti-racism activist, a feminist and LGBT supporter. She has been accredited the National Mental Heath Association Award for Excellence in Education and has appeared on numerous television shows.

Jane Elliot was a third-grade teacher during the period when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Afterward, she began conducting a lesson in her classroom that led to much controversy. Her lesson was a “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment. At the end of her talk, she played a video that documented this classroom lesson she had given years ago. In the lesson, children were separated based on their eye color, giving one eye color dominance over the other eye color. What could be observed from this experiment was astounding. Third-grade children, in a matter of hours, were already forming prejudices against each other. It demonstrated how prejudice is learned, and that young, malleable children are very susceptible to these harmful ideals.

Jane Elliot received much backlash from this experiment, but she steadfastly defended it and explained how beneficial it was to the children, and even some of the parents, to see racism put into perspective. Many parents and students reacted positively to this lesson.

During her talk, Jane Elliot addressed the issue of American education not crediting achievements by minorities, and how this systematic racism has impacted communities today. She mentioned that if American school systems had taught this history to begin with, there would be no need for Black History Month. She also discussed how we inevitably all came from Africa, and are essentially all part African.

She suggested books to read in order to broaden one’s understanding of racism in society today. These included:

  • “Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail” by Jonathan Chait
  • “The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea” by Robert W. Sussman
  • “The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People in Free Countries Don’t Have Enough Babies?” by Ben J. Wattenberg (this book takes a stance that Jane Elliot does NOT support; she simply suggested it as an example of a detrimental ideal in society)
  • “The Racial Conditioning of Our Children: Ending Psychological Genocide in Schools” by Nathan Rutstein
  • “Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization: Exploding the Myths” by Anthony T. Browder.

One question was asked by a member of the audience regarding “white privilege” and how a white American can do more in efforts to end racism. Jane Elliot handled this question in an interesting manner, by first rejecting the idea of “white privilege.” She explained that the reason any group of people has more than another group of people is due to ignorance. She explained that people don’t have “privileges,” they have just lived in a history and society of ignorance. She noted that “prejudice is an emotional commitment to ignorance.” As far as what a white person can do to combat racism, Jane Elliot mentioned avoiding harmful phrases that are common to white people. These included “I’m not prejudice, I have black friends,” “what a young, well-spoken black woman,” and more.

This lecture was a beneficial discussion, for all races, and presented by Jane Elliot in a refreshing, candid manner. She often used expletives and was comfortable speaking honestly. Her raw, real presentation was appropriate for a college setting and her messages probably reached many students. I, myself, learned a lot from what she had to say and was grateful for the experience. 

For more information on Jane Elliot, or information regarding her “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise, you can visit her website or search for “Jane Elliot’s Blue Eyes Brown Eyes Exercise.”

More information on Auburn University’s Black Student Union can be found on AUinvolve