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kottke.org posts about Jane Elliott

A Powerful Lesson in Discrimination

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 05, 2020

Calling it one of their most requested videos, PBS’s Frontline has uploaded to YouTube their 1985 program on schoolteacher Jane Elliott’s powerful lesson in discrimination. The video shows how, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Elliott divided her third-grade class into those with blue eyes and those with non-blue eyes and then instructed the non-blue-eyed group to treat the blue-eyed group as inferior. The resulting behavior is fascinating, upsetting, and illuminating.

Elliott went on to become a noted antiracism activist and has done blue eyes/brown eyes workshops with groups of adults and teens. And she goes hard at them — see this video and this video for instance.

I’m trying to get the people who participate in this exercise the opportunity to find out how it feels like to be something other than white in this society. ‘Alright people, I’m Jane Elliott and I’m your resident bitch for the day and make no mistake about that, that is exactly what this is about.’ I do this in a mean, nasty way because racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, ethnocentrism are mean and nasty.

I would also highly recommend watching this brief clip of a talk by Elliott. In less than a minute, she deftly skewers the idea that racial discrimination doesn’t exist in America and calls out White Americans’ complicity in allowing it to persist.

I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our black citizens — if you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand.

[Nobody stands.]

You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand. Nobody’s standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening, you know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.

Freedom for some is not freedom.

Update: Alisha Haridasani Gupta recently interviewed Elliott for the NY Times. In it, she reveals that she doesn’t do her workshops anymore because people are increasingly close-minded.

I’ve been doing the exercise with adults for about 35 years. But in the last few years, I’ve only been doing speeches about it because we now live in a situation where people turn off immediately if they think they’re going to learn something counter to their beliefs, and I don’t want to be threatened with death anymore. I’m tired of receiving death threats.

Five Steps to Tyranny

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2016

In 2000, the BBC broadcast an hour-long documentary called Five Steps to Tyranny, a look at how ordinary people can do monstrous things in the presence of authority.

Horrific things happen in the world we live in. We would like to believe only evil people carry out atrocities. But tyrannies are created by ordinary people, like you and me.

[Colonel Bob Stewart:] “I’d never been to the former Yugoslavia before in my life, so what actually struck me about the country was how beautiful it was, how nice people were, and yet how ghastly they could behave.”

The five steps are:

  1. “us” and “them” (prejudice and the formation of a dominant group)
  2. obey orders (the tendency to follow orders, especially from those with authority)
  3. do “them” harm (obeying an authority who commands actions against our conscience)
  4. “stand up” or “stand by” (standing by as harm occurs)
  5. exterminate (the elimination of the “other”)

To illustrate each step, the program uses social psychology experiments and explorations like Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on discrimination, the Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo (who offers commentary throughout the program), and experiments by Stanley Milgram on obedience, including his famous shock experiment, in which a participant (the “teacher”) is directed to shock a “learner” for giving incorrect answers.

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger — severe shock).

The “learners” were in on the experiment and weren’t actually shocked but were told to react as if they were. The results?

65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.

The program also shows how real-life tyrannies have developed in places like Rwanda, Burma, and Bosnia. From a review of the show in The Guardian:

But there is no doubt about the programme’s bottom line: tyrannies happen because ordinary people are surprisingly willing to do tyranny’s dirty work.

Programmes like this can show such things with great vividness — and there is news footage from Bosnia, or from Rwanda, or from Burma to back it up with terrible clarity. It isn’t clear why the majority is so often compliant, but the implication is that democracy should always be grateful to the protesters, the members of the awkward squad, the people who challenge authority.

But don’t take it for granted that the awkward squad must be a force for good: in Germany, in the 1920s, Hitler was an outsider, a protester, a member of the awkward squad. When he came to power in 1932, he found that German medical professors and biologists had already installed a racial ideology for him, one which had already theorised about the elimination of sick or disabled German children, and the rejection of Jewish professionals as agents of pollution.

Zimbardo himself offers this final word in the program:

For me the bottom line message is that we could be led to do evil deeds. And what that means is to become sensitive to the conditions under which ordinary people can do these evil deeds — what we have been demonstrating throughout this program — and to take a position of resisting tyranny at the very first signs of its existence.

How Discrimination Feels

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2016

I posted a short video earlier today featuring Jane Elliott. She’s a noted anti-racism activist famous for her blue eyes/brown eyes exercise, featured in the video above.

White people’s number one freedom in the United States of America is the freedom to be totally ignorant about those who are other than white. And our number two freedom is the freedom to deny that we’re ignorant.

In the exercise, Elliott divides the class into two groups based on their eye color: those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. The brown eyed group is instructed to treat the blue eyed group as inferior because of their eye color — they are to be called “bluey” or “boy” or “honey” but not by their names.

At the beginning of the session (which starts at about 1:30 (but don’t skip the intro!)), Elliott calls herself “the resident bitch for the day” and does she mean it…she does not let up because, as she says in the video, society doesn’t let up on people of color either. (via @dunstan)

Update: The original video was taken down and I’ve replaced it with a different video of Elliott teaching a workshop.

Freedom For Some Is Not Freedom

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2016

Jane Elliott asks an audience a very simple question about being black in America. (via @carltonspeight who says “No BS, I wish every white person on Twitter could see this. Maybe it’ll help”)