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Jane Elliott Taught Kids Not To Be Prejudiced; Now She Sees Racism Growing

Jane Elliott, at left, and Rachelle Smith joined Monday's talk show.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

In April 1968, Jane Elliott was a third grade teacher in the small town of Riceville, Iowa. On the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she felt compelled to shift her lesson plans. She decided to teach her young white students about discrimination by telling the children that brown-eyed people were superior to their blue-eyed peers. She watched as the students turned on each other. Then, the next day, she reversed the script.

The exercise highlighted the arbitrary and irrational basis of prejudice, an issue that Americans continue to grapple with more than five decades later.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske explored that topic and others with Elliott ahead of the internationally known lecturer’s address at the Washington University Medical Campus on Monday evening. Joining the conversation was Rachelle D. Smith, a diversity, equity and inclusion leader for the School of Medicine.

Smith said the medical campus opted to bring Elliott into town to help kick off its Diversity Week because her work connects with the theme for the week: belonging.

“One of the things that we as an institution recognize is that belonging does not happen serendipitously,” Smith said. “Belonging has to be an intentional process. Belonging directly connects with the idea of inclusion and diversity and equity. And in order for this to take place, we have to talk about some of the myths that exist in society that are the complete antithesis of belonging.

One of those, Smith added, is race.

“And many people don’t recognize that race is a social concept,” she explained. “Race isn’t biological. Race does not run in our DNA. Race is how somebody somewhere hundreds of years ago decided to categorize the human race.”

Elliott, who has gained a following among many educators since her initial classroom exercise of 51 years ago, said she thinks there has been a big increase in racism in America over the past five years.

“We were making progress in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, even in the ’90s,” Elliott said, “and then a black man in the White House made a whole lot of white folks really, really angry, because that said plainly to everyone, ‘A black man can get there and do it, and do it well. Now if that’s true, then maybe my white skin doesn’t automatically make me superior.’ And it knocked the socks out from everyone who believes in the rightness of whiteness.

“And so we have to fix that. And we fixed it by electing someone who is as ignorant as you can possibly be about race and everything else.”

Elliott touched on President Donald Trump’s rhetoric around nationalism and immigration as indicative of where things are.

“No one would have been foolish enough to say there were good people on both sides of that [Charlottesville] riot,” she explained. “No one would be foolish enough to say we have to build a wall on the southern border of the United States in order to keep those people of color out because brown-skinned people reproduce too rapidly. No one with any sense would say those things. But this is a common statement that’s being made now, because white people realize that within 30 years they will have become a numerical minority in the United States of America. We have to stop fearing that.”

Elliott concluded on a more hopeful note, saying that individuals continue to have a responsibility and an ability to change things.

When Smith was asked about her own perspective on issues of race in America going forward, she paused for a moment and called it “a difficult question.”

“On the one hand, if I give up hope, then why am I doing this?” she said. “But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that I live in a society that makes it very difficult for people who look like me to wake up every day and put one foot in front of the other and to keep going. I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I pray for my four children every day, and I actually pray a very different type of prayer for my three sons that are African American.”

Related Event
What: Jane Elliott: The Anatomy of Prejudice
When: 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 9, 2019
Where: EPNEC Auditorium (320 S. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO 63110)
Note: Registration is full, but the event will be livestreamed on Facebook.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.