November 17, 2003

Elliott brings edge to Unity keynote

By Eric Rangus

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.

"I'm 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 a damn."

Not exactly the most unifying sentiment.

Sprinkled 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.

"I didn't come here to teach you anything," she said. "I came here to give you my conclusions based on my experiences."

And 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.

Those 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.

Also, 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.

Elliott 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.

By 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.

Shortly 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.

Elliott 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.

Personal 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.

"I 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.

"Look 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."

She 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?"

Elliott 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."

An 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.

Elliott 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.'"

Elliott 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."