I watched an amazing documentary on CBC last night featuring an anti-racism seminar by Jane Elliot. Her methods are pretty extreme. She divides the group of volunteers into people with brown eyes and people with blue eyes, and then proceeds to treat the Blue Eyes like a repressed minority group. She encourages the Brown Eyes to do the same. Brown Eyes are told that they are superior to Blue Eyes because the melatonin in their system makes them stronger and smarter. Her goal is to show how easily and quickly racism can be created, and prove that if it can be created, it can also be destroyed.
Her methods are controversial for sure. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe that these people had volunteered for the seminar. At first I thought they were people who were convicted of hate crimes, and were being forced to participate. She starts by establishing power over the Blue Eyes group, putting silly green collars on them, and locking them in a room with nothing to do for about an hour. There is a security guard at the door watching them. They sit around on the floor. Some of them slump against the wall and fall asleep. She calls this room “The Reserve.”
She then brings them into the seminar room, where the Brown Eyes are sitting in chairs. Before they come into the room, she tells the Brown Eyes, “Watch this. The first thing Blue Eyes do when they come into a space is try to mold it to suit their needs.” When they are brought in, some of the Blue Eyes are made to sit on the floor because there aren’t enough chairs for them. She abuses one of the older Blue Eyes because he complains about his bad back.
“You expect us to do something to deal with your personal problem? Yes or no?”
“I’d just like a chair.”
“These Blue Eyes are stupid, aren’t they? They can’t answer a yes or no question. You want us to put ourselves out of our way to help you with your personal problem? Yes or no?”
“It would be nice.”
“Blue Eyes really has a problem with understanding. That’s not a yes or no.”
She used similar techniques to convince the Blue Eyes that she was in total control of the situation, that they had no power, that they could not change anything about their environment, that no matter what they did, they were wrong (she kicked a Blue Eye out of the seminar for trying to bring the guy she was yelling at a garbage pail for his gum). It’s a situation that many minorities face on a daily basis, especially Native Americans. But within fifteen minutes, most of the Blue Eyes were totally beaten. The ones who still resisted got even more punishment.
One of them said, “I’m not racist. I don’t see them as being Indian.” The Brown Eyes were shaking their heads sadly.
“What do you see them as? White?” asked Jane. “That’s insulting. Imagine if one of them said to you, ‘I don’t see you as being white.’ How would that feel? Remember this: No matter how superior you feel, non-white people don’t want to be white.” At that point, you could feel a shift in the Blue Eye group as understanding began to set in.
I think the breaking point came a little later in the show when Jane asked one of the Blue Eye women how she was feeling. “I feel bad, but I still don’t feel intimidated by them,” she said, looking at the group of Brown Eyes who were watching impassively.
“What do you mean?” asked Jane.
“I mean, I could go to a reservation, and I still wouldn’t feel intimidated by them. They’re not intimidating like you are right now.”
“That’s because they’re not doing their job. Why aren’t you doing your job?” Jane asked the Brown Eyes.
One Native Indian woman put up her hand and said, “Because I know how it feels to be treated like an inferior. I don’t want to make anyone else feel like that.” The rest of them nodded. Another native man said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“So these people have put up with this kind of treatment for their whole lives, and now that they’re in the position to turn it around on your kind, they won’t do it because they don’t want anyone else to feel that way,” said Jane. The Blue Eye woman broke down and cried.
By the end of the seminar, most of the Blue Eyes understood what it was like to be a member of a minority. They seemed somehow cleansed. There were one or two who still clung to their previous beliefs, but they really looked stubborn and stupid at that point.
I think this documentary affected me more than anything I’ve seen in quite a long time. It brought me back to the way I felt when I was a kid, trying to fit into a white man’s world. One of the native men talked about how when he was a kid, it wasn’t his dream to be a famous hockey player or baseball player. His dream was just to be accepted. I remember feeling that way. Racism lowers your aspirations. It showed some of the prejudices built into our way of thinking, some of which I have to admit I’ve felt myself. It reinforced my distaste for the “Us vs. Them” mentality that seems to pervade everything in our world. It reminded me how proud I am that I hold onto my own culture and feel that it is compatible with those around me. It proved that racism can be entirely arbitrary, and that with some effort, it can be reversed.