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Elliott Gives Lecture On Race, Prejudice

By Jessica Zaman


Human rights activist Jane Elliott addressed the MIT community in room 10-250 last night on the topic of racism and other forms of discrimination.

Elliott emphasized that even today, discrimination is still a large problem, and used an exercise with MIT students to demonstrate.

Elliott has become famous for her “blue-eyed, brown-eyed” behavioral study on discrimination she performed in her third grade classroom.

Brown-eyed people better

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Elliott, then a grammar school teacher in a small town in Iowa, was frustrated by the nation’s response and by living in a society full of racism and discrimination. She decided to teach her students what it meant to feel discrimination.

The morning after the assassination, Elliott asked her class if they wanted to learn what discrimination was really like. When the class responded enthusiastically, Elliott declared that for the day, brown-eyed people were better that blue-eyed people.

The results of the experiment surprised Elliott. “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes,” Elliott said in The Angry Eye, a documentary about her study.

The anatomy of prejudice

“The anatomy of prejudice is that you pick out a group of people based on a characteristic over which they have no control,” she said. “You then treat them negatively.” She insisted that racism is about behavior. “It is something we can stop. People aren’t born racists. They are taught racism.”

American society, Elliott said, is conditioned to consider particular races and particular genders superior to others.

“How many of you have heard the phrase ‘We’re all the same inside?’” Elliott asked. “The truth is, we’re not.” Elliott emphasized that a black person is different from a white person, a woman is different from a man, and a young person different from an older person.

An exercise for MIT

“I came here to share my experiences, not to argue,” she said. She allowed the audience to have an experience of its own by using two MIT students to demonstrate. The two students had distinctly unique profiles -- one was a tall, white blue-eyed male and the other was a black female of normal stature.

Elliott asked audience members to list physical differences that distinguished each student. Height, color, and gender were mentioned. When asked about his height, the male student replied that he liked it. “It gives me a sense of power.”

Elliott responded that studies have proven height does indeed convey a credible sense of power.

Elliott went on to ask the students several questions about their appearance. “Do you think about your color?” Elliott asked both students.

“I never have to think about it,” replied the male student.

“He never has to think about it. Is that freedom? Yes, and a lot of power,” Elliot said.

The female student, however, responded very differently. “I think about it all the time,” she said.

When asked about her race, the female student responded she was African-American.

“That’s a geographical origin,” said Elliott. “You belong to the human race.”

Race and politics

Politics was a recurring topic in Elliott’s talk. She discussed a variety of areas including abortion, affirmative action, women’s rights and the draft.

“Do you think American politics have anything to do with race?” she asked.

“We’re in dangerous times,” she said. “Democrats don’t want to be accused of being un-American. They don’t want to argue with the president in times of war. Edmund Burke said, ‘All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing,’” she said, repeating an apocryphal quotation but a powerful aphorism.

Elliott criticized the analogy of America to a melting pot. “We’re more like a stir fry,” she said. “How many of you take your carrots, broccoli, and snow peas and put them in the blender? We want people to keep their identity. We want to live in a society where people’s differences are recognized, appreciated, and cherished.”

Elliott emphasized racism is not inherent within human beings, but something we learn. “Anything you learn, you can unlearn,” she said.

“It was a good reminder, “ said Alexandra F. Awai ’04. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on today. Things have recently taken a turn for the worse. I think it reinforced some basic principles about racism.”