Do you remember Jane Elliott? She was that terrifying teacher who divided her all-white class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed children to illustrate what it was like to be on the receiving end of racial discrimination. It was powerful stuff, almost unwatchable.
That famous progamme was made in Iowa in 1968. Amazingly, Elliott is still doing exactly the same thing forty years later. Last night Channel 4 featured her performing the exercise on a group of multi-ethnic British adults. Did it work in the modern context? No, it did not work, not at all. In an all-white class of Iowan schoolchildren, the eye colour divide would have been arbitrary; here it effectively put the whites (blue-eyed) in the oppressed role and the rest (brown-eyed) in the oppressor role, which made it look like some sort of revenge fantasy. And indeed it became clear that Elliott thinks that all whites are inherently racist, conditioned to feel superior from “even before they’re born”, and the purpose of the exercise was to make them see this and feel bad about it.
Time has not mellowed Elliott, it has made her madder (in both senses). The President of the United States is mixed race, but she doesn’t seem to think that the world has changed since Martin Luther King was murdered, or indeed, that there is such a thing as ‘mixed race’. She believes in reinforcing distinct racial categories: the pure whites and the rest. One chap in the brown-eyed group – himself mixed race - spoke about his concerns for his daughter (one-quarter black) if her schoolfriends found out about her ‘blackness’. Elliott made no comment about this, or whether the three-quarter white girl in question had been three-quarters conditioned to feel superior from even before she was born. Elliott’s vision of a post-racist world is one where the ‘whites’ are sufficiently racked with guilt and self-loathing that they’re basically too knackered to discriminate, rather than one where nobody gives a toss one way or the other about race because it has become unimportant as an identifier.
It was a sad thing to see. Elliott had one Big Idea in her life, which at the time was brave, brilliant and made her famous. She misunderstood her own Idea, and forty years later it has become a Very Bad Idea. But she’s still hammering away at it, hammering in the morning and in the evening and all over this land.
Talking of which, and on an otherwise completely unrelated note, read this humdinger of a Hoot.