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Thanking her for opening my eyes

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 change.

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.

She 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.

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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.

The 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.

My first year in college, I took courses on race and ethnicity and Asian American history. Race, I learned, permeated everything, and it was OK to say so. I found myself with strong opinions and a circle of outspoken black and Asian friends with whom to share. The world felt bigger, and I felt empowered.

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Much of my decision to move to Los Angeles eight years ago was to answer a longing to live somewhere diverse. When I discovered Elliott quietly living nearby, it seemed fortuitous that I had become a reporter. I could interview the woman who unknowingly sent me in a new direction.

Now 30 years old, I am standing in front of Elliott’s winter home in Sun City, shaking her hand and looking straight into her blue, blue eyes. It is a day to remember: a sea-colored canvas for a sky, streaming sunlight, whispering breeze. And it is one of those moments when fate flashes in your mind and you know you are exactly who and where you are supposed to be.

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We sit outside Elliott’s home in a gated retirement community. She and her husband, Darald, bought the property 10 years ago to be close to their daughter, who lives in nearby Murrieta. For six months each year, the couple call Riverside County home. The rest of their time is spent in Iowa.

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It is late October, five days before the United States elects its first black president, and Elliott is in a dither. Her Iowa absentee ballot in favor of Barack Obama was mailed in weeks ago, although she worries about what he’s up against.

“Whatever a black person does, he has to do twice as good as a white person to be thought of as half as good,” she says, her sharp voice rising.

Dressed in a pink cotton shirt, jeans and white tennis shoes, Elliott is the picture of a grandmotherly retiree, but her voice remains that of a stern teacher. Obama “mustn’t look angry because we have demonized black men,” she says. “He knows exactly how to get accepted. He’s a bargainer . . . and that’s OK if that’s what it takes to get white people to listen.”

This is how Elliott has made a living. She retired from teaching 20 years ago and lectures a few times a month, primarily at colleges or companies in need of diversity training. She won’t say how much she charges, but it’s said to be about $7,000 -- higher if she’s asked to conduct her famous exercise. The drill gives her a migraine, and she hates that she must be the proprietor of what she sees as a necessary evil, one that hasn’t changed since she first enacted it on April 5, 1968.

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With King shot just the day before in Memphis, Elliott encouraged her third-graders to discuss how something so horrible could happen.

“I finally said, ‘Do you kids have any idea how it feels to be something other than white in this country?’ ”

The children shook their heads and said they wanted to learn, so Elliott set the rules. Blue-eyed children must use a cup to drink from the fountain. Blue-eyed children must leave late to lunch and to recess. Blue-eyed children were not to speak to brown-eyed children. Blue-eyed children were troublemakers and slow learners.

Within 15 minutes, Elliott says, she observed her brown-eyed students morph into youthful supremacists and blue-eyed children become uncertain and intimidated.

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Brown-eyed children “became domineering and arrogant and judgmental and cool,” she says. “And smart! Smart! All of a sudden, disabled readers were reading. I thought, ‘This is not possible, this is my imagination.’ And I watched bright, blue-eyed kids become stupid and frightened and frustrated and angry and resentful and distrustful. It was absolutely the strangest thing I’d ever experienced.”

Elliott’s eyes flash at the memory.

“When they were saying and doing those things to one another, they were being their preachers, their parents, people on television -- they were practicing what they had learned. I learned you don’t have to have people of color in a community to have racism. My third-graders knew every negative stereotype they’d ever heard about blacks, and there were no blacks in Riceville, Iowa.”

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Elliott is an enigma to me, not only because she is a white woman who believes God is black and detests phrases like “reverse racism,” but because she comes from a city I know well.

My grandfather once served the Congregational church in Riceville as a student pastor and my mother graduated from Riceville High School. She and my father settled in Cedar Rapids, but every summer, we’d pack into our red station wagon and join cousins, aunts and uncles at Riceville’s Lake Hendricks for our annual family camp-out.

A place that had fewer than 1,000 people and a main street where elderly women sold Avon soap at sidewalk sales intrigued me -- at first. But as I grew older and more self-conscious, Riceville became yet another small town where it felt as though residents stared extra long at an Asian face.

(“Did you ever think it was because you’re new in town?” a well-meaning aunt once chided after I expressed my frustration.)

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Race was not something we discussed in my family. My adopted Korean brother and I were different, yes, but we focused on similarities. Besides, “Asian” was thought of merely in cultural terms, mentioned in connection to food or dress or dance, but forgotten in a black-white paradigm. Racism was acknowledged only when it appeared on the news, linked to such symbols as burning crosses or hooded Klansmen.

My parents were liberal Democrats who believed love transcended race and taught us to judge according to character. Good lessons, but they did nothing to combat the ache of growing up “foreign” and “exotic.”

But then, my junior year of high school, there was Riceville’s Elliott, a woman who did not know me, discussing race from a perspective that seemed to understand.

I wondered how a white woman from another generation who laughs like my grandmother, was raised in the same area as my mother and does not have two children of color was more willing and able to speak thoughtfully about race than my own family.

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Elliott was born during the Depression and raised on a 160-acre farm four miles northeast of Riceville. The middle child of seven, she was determined to be heard. “I had to fight a lot to get noticed,” she says. “I suppose some psychologist will read that and say, ‘She’s still fighting.’ ”

Her father was the first to teach her about equality.

“My dad used to say, ‘Never put a stone in another man’s path . . . ,’ ” Elliott says. “These things all sound like cliches until you grow up and you realize that, damn it all, he was right.”

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She enrolled at a teachers college in Cedar Falls, where she met and married Darald, an assistant manager of a supermarket in a mainly black area of town.

Elliott says her eyes began to open to issues of race and discrimination when she went to the University of Northern Iowa and met black students who were smarter and more talented than she was. Somebody’s been lying to me, she thought.

At the height of the civil rights movement, the couple decided to return to Riceville with their four children. Elliott took a job at the elementary school and discovered a community that did not acknowledge the changes occurring elsewhere -- or any need for them. But then King was killed, and something snapped in Elliott.

The first year of the exercise, the local paper printed essays that Elliott’s students had written about discrimination, but no one outside the classroom took much notice. The next year, however, a film crew from Canada followed her and she was invited to “The Tonight Show.”

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After that appearance, Elliott returned home to find that she and her family had been blacklisted.

Customers stopped patronizing the hotel her parents managed. Passersby called her names and shouted insults. The bowling team that she had long played for replaced her, and she was no longer invited to play bridge. Her children were spat on and knocked down, their belongings defaced.

When Darald got a job managing a supermarket in nearby Osage, the family was happy to move, although Elliott stayed on as a teacher in Riceville and continued to conduct the exercise. She still marvels that she wasn’t fired, believing it was because four generations of her family had lived in the community.

“And I’m white, so I have credibility,” she adds. “Every person of color in this country knows more about racism than I’ll ever know, because they have to live with it every day. But if [they] say the things I do, nobody’s gonna listen.”

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Elliott says she had many supporters in town, but they kept quiet because they didn’t want to be shunned as well. She did worry that her children would grow up to hate her. They didn’t.

Yet Elliott’s outspoken personality clearly continues to chafe on many. She says friends her age are hard to make, and over the years her relationships with her family deteriorated. Her mother and siblings asked her not to come around because she made them uncomfortable. Elliott’s mother died seven months ago; she did not attend the funeral.

I ask Elliott if the exercise and everything that came afterward was worth it. She looks at me oddly.

“Do you know what I did?” she finally asks, sounding piqued. “Did it make a difference to you when you heard about it?”

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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.

Did 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.”

And 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.

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corina.knoll@latimes.com


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