Anti-Racism Activist Jane Elliott Will Never Stop Fighting
Anti-racism activist and former teacher Jane Elliott is the subject of a feature in the fifth edition of SUITED, a biannual fashion and art mag dedicated to showcasing “those who have found what they are well-suited for.” We’re big fans of the independent publication, so we’re showcasing Christelle de Castro’s interview with and photos of Elliott, along with words from Mariana Nannarone.
Jane Elliott was teaching elementary school in Riceville, Iowa, in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. In thinking about how to convey the enormity of what happened and why to her all-white class of third graders, she put together a lesson that would help students understand the killing—and the virulent and systemic racism behind it—on a personal level.
That exercise, which came to be known as “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes,” earned Elliott worldwide attention as she traveled the globe to train others in her methods, but at home, she and her family were ostracized. Other teachers refused to talk to her, and her children were harassed—even assaulted. Yet these reactions only reinforced Elliott’s belief that she was in a position of privilege: as a white person in America, she faced exclusion because of the work she did, not because of who she was.
Photographer and activist Christelle de Castro met with Elliott at her Iowa home to capture a woman who would not be silenced, who refused to stop questioning, and who has dedicated her life to educating those who condemned her. Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s death and that first lesson in what it means to be powerless, Elliott reflects on a life’s work that is needed now more than ever.
Christelle de Castro: What catapulted you to want to create the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise?
Jane Elliott: I didn’t want to create it, and I didn’t create it. I knew that one of the ways they decided who went into the gas chamber during what has come to be called the Holocaust, was eye color.