A Korean Adoptee reflects on a legendary “teacher”

From the LA Times

Jane Elliot, the woman who made (controversial) history by creating an exercise in her 3rd grade classroom to teach her classroom of all-white students about race following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. is featured in this article by former managing editor of KoreAm Journal, Corina Knoll. I first met Knoll many years ago when she was a student at a local college in my state at an adult Korean adoptee event.

I sometimes teach a class titled "Racial and Ethnic Comparative Analysis" for a social work BSW program in Minnesota, and the film "The Eye of the Storm" that documents this exercise is one of the films I have the students watch in my class.

In this article, Knoll talks about the impact Elliot made on her own life.

Jane Elliott has blue eyes.

The years have turned her
once-brown hair a bright snowy white, and at 75 years old she's
rounder, maybe shorter, than she used to be. But eye color doesn't

Elliott, an Iowa teacher, made deliberate use of that in 1968 when she
created a now-famous exercise for her classroom of white third-graders.
It was the day after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr., and she was struggling to explain the concept of racism.

hit upon an idea: For an entire day, she conducted her class as if the
brown-eyed children were superior to those with blue eyes. Elliott
eventually made headlines, appeared on "The Tonight Show" and became
the subject of multiple documentaries.

Three decades later, my high school sociology teacher played us snippets of a news program
about the "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes" exercise. For a 16-year-old Korean
adoptee growing up in Iowa, the most fascinating aspect was this:
Elliott had made history in Riceville, two hours from my hometown.

daughter of white parents, I grew up in a predominantly white city,
attended an overwhelmingly white school and interacted mostly with
white friends. The subject of race in my community was hidden, buried
under rhetoric that insisted we remain "colorblind."

Elliott was
the first white person I ever heard who admitted to the privileges of
whites, acknowledging that visible differences affect how the world
perceives us. Her words sparked a hunger in me for more.

This part of the article really touched me.

I think about a Midwestern girl who wasted years yearning to be white,
who believed life would be easier, happier, better, if her brown eyes
were not almond-shaped, who wavered between feeling insecure and
invisible, and whose heart leaped upon learning of the blue-eyed woman
who spoke of white privilege and institutionalized racism.

Jane Elliott's work make a difference to me? Yes, so much so that I
felt the need to seek her out just to let her know. Elliott listens,
then turns away and sighs. "Yeah," she says softly. "It was worth it."

suddenly, we are two Iowans, remembering the pain of a connected past,
one of us fulfilled to have met the woman who pointed the way toward a
brighter future.

Please read the whole article.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

5 thoughts

  1. Funny, I was going to send you that article. I found it really moving, especially what the author wrote about growing up in supposedly color-blind Iowa.

  2. thanks so much for sharing this article. i think that it is important for people to understand the fall out that comes with actively teaching anti-racist ideals–that Elliott was blacklisted in her town and still has family members who don’t talk to her. And yet, “Was it worth it?” “Yes.”

  3. Wow. My homeroom teacher attempted that “experiment” for about 3 hours during the afternoon, except she did “brown hair” vs “blonde hair.”
    The “blonde hair” group got candy and seating privileges and their recess and no homework, stuff like that.
    Guess what group I ended up in? -_-
    It was not fun.

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