On Wednesday, Sept. 26, I attended a lecture by Jane Elliott at Monmouth College. Jane Elliott is a former elementary school educator who is famous for her blue-eyed vs. brown-eyed experiment in teaching racial oppression and tolerance to her students. Jane Elliott is a white woman who is greatly celebrated for her radical, anti-racist progressivism. Her positive public image made me even more excited to meet her and listen to her. However, almost as soon as her lecture started, I knew that Jane Elliott needed to do better.
Elliott started her lecture by expressing her disappointment of the current news cycle around Kavanaugh. She called abusive men (including the President) “boys,” completely negating the fact that toxic masculinity rewards men for being abusive. There is nothing more manly than playing right into the patriarchy. Calling abusive men boys, lets boys be boys. It also wrongfully states that “mature” adult men are somehow incapable of abuse. She continued by calling for the women in the audience to “stop playing defense and start playing offense.” Elliott went as far as to say that women needed to stop letting men abuse them. Using classic sexism, Elliott indirectly singled out every single survivor in the audience and placed the blame and burden of their assault on them. She moved on with an attempt to empower the women in the audience. She said that women were special and could do things men could never do. “Have you ever seen a man give birth?” she asked. A student said, “Yes, a trans man.” Elliott looked at the responder and sighed, “I said man, not a female,” she continued, “That man was a female first.” In under 30 minutes, Jane Elliott had managed to victim-blame and be transphobic. Later on she kept making ableist “jokes” and calling the president “handicapped.” For someone who sure loves to talk about empathy, learning and acceptance, Elliott did not have any for queer folk, disabled people or survivors of abuse/assault.
Besides all of the problematic behaviors for which she refused to stand accountable, once Elliott dove into the conversation of race, it became obvious that her ignorance was much deeper than the use of questionable exclamations. A big part of Elliott’s advocacy for racial equality rested on her thoughts about the origins of humans. There is no doubt that human life originated from Africa and specifically Black people. However, to want to go back to this concept as the defining unifier of human beings today, ignored the atrocities that white people have committed against everyone else. It ignores the current struggles of people of color, specifically Black folk, by implying that if we are all from Africa, then white people can somehow understand the struggles of Black people. Elliott said we are all a part of the only race, the human race. Following that, she told us the story of the African origins of human life and added that we are all a part of one race, the black race. We are all African. We are all Black. Or at least that is what Jane Elliott told an audience without clarifying how these claims enable white entitlement and privilege while erasing the struggles of people of color.
On the socialization of race, Elliott said that no child is born a racist and that white children are socialized to become racists in their early teenhood. This is inaccurate at best. White people are born and raised in a society that favors whiteness. Whether they like or know it, white people have subconscious biases on race. They are not socialized in their teens; they are socialized their whole lives.
Elliott also perpetuated some very common forms of anti-Blackness. At one point, she called on the white people in the audience to “get over it.” With the thinning of the ozone layer, Jane mentioned that “whites should marry blacks” if they want to have strong offspring with lower risk of skin cancer. White people have historically objectified bodies of color, especially Black bodies, for their “superior physique.” On top of that, mixed-race children are highly sexualized in today’s world and Elliott fell right into that gear.
I want to be fair. Perhaps 50 years ago, Jane Elliott’s ideas were groundbreaking for her small white town. And for 50 years, Elliott has been playing and replaying the same exact script. And we have loved her for it. Elliott stayed in the safety of her privilege, while getting immense recognition for doing way less than many leaders and educators of color did way before her. Jane Elliott is the embodiment of white people getting praised for doing the bare minimum rather terribly. Elliott has not grown through and within her work and her age is not an excuse. There are plenty of older thinkers who learn and adapt every single day. The public praise of Elliott has done her a disservice by telling her that what she is doing worked 50 years ago so it must work now. In her lecture, Elliott mocked white people who claim to not be racist because they “have Black friends” yet she failed to recognize how ironic it is that she gets a pass — or gives herself one — for her transphobia, victim-blaming, ableism and outdated racial “progressivism” just because she would not have minded having Black friends 50 years ago.