Just minutes into her Nov. 10 Unity Month keynote presentation,
Jane Elliott-- standing in front of the stage in WHSCAB Auditorium,
microphone in hand, no podium anywhere close--set the tone for the
next two hours.
going to offend every person in this room," she said to the several
hundred attendees, most of whom were students. "And I don't give
exactly the most unifying sentiment.
with profanity and some ruthless barbs (many aimed at "big, pink
men"), the program wasn't for the super-sensitive, but for those
who brought an open mind, the former elementary school teacher
from Iowa was a revelation.
didn't come here to teach you anything," she said. "I came here
to give you my conclusions based on my experiences."
she offered those conclusions with a fearless delivery, sharp wit
and impeccable timing, the sum of which made for a thought-provoking,
entertaining and--in many ways--unifying evening.
who came just to listen were in for a big surprise. Elliott made
the event a participatory activity. She brought up a tall, white
male student from the audience to the front, along with a shorter,
black female student, for a lesson in the distribution of power.
as an example of religious tolerance (as well as a commentary to
people who oppose abortion on religious grounds), Elliott had everybody
stand who had ever eaten pork. "As a Muslim and a Jew, you have
offended my religious beliefs," she said.
didn't stop there. Next to stand were women whose heads were not
covered. Elliott repeated her "offense" statement, applying it
just to Muslims. Next up was anybody with buttons or zippers on
their clothes. Elliott took on the role of an offended Amish person.
Finally it was people who kill flies and bugs--Elliott now was a
Buddhist and Hindu.
now everyone in the auditorium was on his or her feet. As a final
shot, she asked all males who had lusted after a woman who was
not their wife to bend over. This lust, she said, offended her
beliefs as a Christian. The conclusion was that all in attendance
were condemned to hell.
after describing herself as "Being In Total Control, Honey" (key
to the phrase is its acronym), Elliott began riffing on the "diminished" John
Wayne Bobbitt, asking the audience if they knew who he was. Already
snickering somewhat, many raised their hands. "And how many of
you know the names of the four women beaten to death the day John
Wayne Bobbitt lost a piece of his anatomy?" Elliott asked, quoting
governmental statistics, silencing everyone.
then revealed that she has a granddaughter who had been raped and
permanently changed by the crime. "I'm extremely angry, and I want
something done," she said.
responsibility is the best way to fight abortions ("If you are
a male opposed to abortion, don't do anything to contribute to
one. If we act responsibly, we could do away with abortion. I don't
know of anyone who has wanted to have one," Elliott said.); if
a heterosexual person was ordained to be attracted to people of
the opposite sex at birth, then the same must be true for men and
women attracted to the same sex; and if women want equal rights
as men, they should take on equal responsibility, such as registering
for selective service. Elliott touched on all these sentiments
and more, but perhaps her most cogent theme was race.
am a racist," she said. "I was born into a racist society to racist
parents and educated in a racist school system. I was not born
a racist, but I was carefully trained to be racist.
to your left and your right," Elliott instructed the audience. "If
the person you see was educated in the American school system,
they have been conditioned to the myth of white superiority."
shot holes in common political correctness: "How many of you have
heard someone say, 'I don't see black or brown; I see people as
people.' How many of you hear someone say that about a white person?"
didn't offer any easy answers but did break down racism into seemingly
solvable pieces. "We are all members of the same race--the human
race," she said. "Human beings created racism, where we treat each
other differently based on the amount of melanin in your skin.
You shouldn't have to be a big, pink man in this world to succeed."
internationally known lecturer and educator, Elliott first achieved
notoriety in the 1980s when the PBS show Frontline ran
the special "A Class Divided," which featured her third-grade class
in Riceville, Iowa. After the assassination of Martin Luther King
Jr. in 1968, Elliott introduced in her class a lesson that came
to be known as "blue eyes/brown eyes," in which the brown-eyed
children were treated better. The intent was to illustrate the
impact of race on American culture.
said it was King's murder that changed her approach to teaching
and to life. In one of her final stories, she related a discussion
she had with several teachers the day after King's death. She quoted
one of the senior staff members as saying, "'It's about time someone
shot that S.O.B.'"
said everyone else in the room either nodded or smiled. "It was then
I decided that no one would ever be able to make a statement like
that again and leave my presence without being challenged. If you're
going to make a difference, you have to be willing to stand up and
be counted. You are not born a racist. You learn it. And everything
you learn can be unlearned."