Meeting Jane Elliot

The University of Central Florida will often have guests come talk to students. On this day, Jane Elliot was our guest speaker. If you don’t know who Jane Elliot is, you might know her blue eyes-brown eyes exercise and documentary The Eye of the Storm (1970), where she divides her class into two categories, making one the superior group and then switching, to teach the effects of racism.
Although extremely controversial, it’s undeniable that her exercise started a necessary conversation about how students learn hatred, society’s acceptance of discrimination, and civil rights. She is now a diversity educator and travels to give lectures at different universities.

Early in the day, while on break between classes, a woman going in the opposite direction looked at me and said “good morning”. As I stood there for a second to process, I realized who I had just spoken to. To make sure I wasn’t imagining it, I looked Elliot up online, and there she was, wearing the same white crewneck sweater.
Her talk began with an introduction and her acknowledging that many people don’t like her. She knows she’s often called a bitch. To her, this means “being in total control, honey”. She knows this is because she made her lecture interactive, by asking attendees to stand up multiple times or raise their hands depending on what they identify as and what their opinions were. She had two people come up to the front of the Pegasus Ballroom with her. The first one, a tall white male student, and the second person, a shorter darker-skinned adult woman. By putting them in the spotlight and asking specific questions, she emphasized their differences. One was more likely to be seen as powerful (because of his height) and feel safe in most environments.
This was all to make the point that some people naturally have characteristics that give them advantages over others, but we are all still people of one race, “the human race…Everyone is a homosapian, except for Trump. He may be Neanderthal.”
While I appreciate her many jokes at Trump’s expense, her overall point reminds me of all the POC I’ve consistently heard oppose her main argument. We are all one race: the human race. I understand why she says this. She wants to bring societal injustice to light, and she is using her advantages as a white woman to do so. She tells her audience, “We are back to 1939. You have to realize that.” She references recent shootings and the increase in hate crimes and persecution of people of color, especially since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. My uneasiness sets in, not because of her overall point, because of the people who argue against it. Some say it’s dismissive and suggests being “colorblind”, which contradicts her saying her heroes are black women and that “instead of a melting pot, we want a stir fry” which conserves all the elements and cultures that make up this country. I agree that it was incredibly dismissive. I could see the people of color in the crowd shaking their heads the more she spoke, and the furrowed eyebrows the more she called on people to compare them and insisted there was only “the human race”.

After plenty of time to think about this lecture, I was still not completely sure where I stood. I had only come to the conclusion that it made me uncomfortable, which could be progress. I left her lecture feeling inspired to be more outspoken about my views, regardless of my beliefs on politics, but firm in my initial response of disapproval to some of the things she said.
I’m not oblivious to the changes in our culture in recent years, but I realize there is much I don’t know about the inner workings of the systems that favor white men and women. “Getting educated is the answer to ignorance”, she says, which seems obvious, but only encourages me to research more. Regardless of what we think about the politicians in office, it would do all of us some good to research how our country works, think a bit more critically about how and why we interact with others, and work to correct our faults. We have a lot of them, and we can’t be afraid to acknowledge them.
And yes, I did actually meet her (even though I don’t have the photo to prove it). If you have the chance to hear her speak, I recommended it, even if just to experience the atmosphere she creates.
Image Sources: 1, 2