by Ernst Lamothe Jr.
SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (October 27, 2018) – In a room filled with community members, students and legislators, two acclaimed speakers talked to a crowd of more than 320 about unconscious and conscious bias on Friday, October 19. Presented by the Thornton Township Human Relations Commission, the “Race and Bias” event held at South Suburban College featured Dr. Lawrence James Jr. and Jane Elliott.
Dr. James, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, spoke first. “When we do unconscious bias training, we talk about this awareness piece—it’s one step,” he said. “And that’s typically where corporations stop. They’ll tell you, ‘Hey, we did some training and we made all of our people aware that they are, well, kind of biased and, well, kind of racist.’ And we expect that to be enough and that they’re going to do something differently. Awareness training without skill building and without behavioral intervention to continue to grow one’s capabilities to be less racist and less biased is the only way that you can create change. Period.”
“We decided to bring Jane Elliott to Thornton Township because she is a dynamic woman who brings an interesting perspective that people need to hear,” said Dr. Jerry Weems, Director of Youth and Family Services at Thornton Township. “The community has responded well to us bringing global speakers like Jane.”
A former third-grade teacher, Elliott has spent most of her life as an anti-racism activist and educator.
“If you want to be a racist, you go ahead and be a racist. But if you bring it to me, you will learn very, very shortly that your problem is ignorance,” said Elliott. “It is not skin color but your ignorance about skin color, and I will not tolerate it.”
Elliott is known for the “Blue eyes–Brown eyes” exercise she conducted with her third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. She divided the class based on eye color and told them the blue-eyed children were superior. She gave the blue-eyed children extra privileges and had them sit in the front of the classroom, while the brown-eyed children were relegated to the back rows. Elliott segregated the children further by telling the blue-eyed children to play only with other blue-eyed children and by not allowing blue-eyed children and brown-eyed children to drink from the same water fountain. The brown-eyed students were scolded when they made mistakes or did not follow the rules. The following week, Elliott told the class she had made a mistake, and the brown-eyed children were actually superior.
After the experiment ended, the students wrote compositions about their experience. These compositions were reprinted in the local newspaper with the headline, “How Discrimination Feels.” When the Associated Press picked up the story, the news went national.
Elliott began responding to requests for interviews, training, and television appearances. As demand grew, she gave up classroom teaching and began working full-time as a diversity trainer for corporations.
Thornton Township Supervisor Frank M. Zuccarelli was proud to host Jane Elliott and Dr. James. He hopes to have them return again and resume the conversation.