On April 5, 1968, the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, a white school teacher in Iowa named Jane Elliott felt compelled to teach her third grade classroom about the evils of racism.
She conducted what has become known as the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise”—an exercise that labeled the students as either inferior or superior based solely on the color of their eyes. Over the next several days, Ms. Elliott exposed her students to how it feels to experience unjust discrimination. News of her groundbreaking, controversial exercise quickly spread through newspapers, documentaries, and guest appearances on television. By 1985, she had left teaching to become a full-time anti-racist activist and diversity educator, conducting her “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise” the world over.
Here is an excerpt from one of her adult workshops:
“I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our citizens—our black citizens… If you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand.
(no one stands)
You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated in the way blacks are in this society, stand.
(still no one stands)
Nobody’s standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening, you know you don’t want it for you… I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen to others.”
“Being Black” by Jane Elliott
Now I do not know where Ms. Elliott is when it comes to Christianity. But I think what she said so poignantly harkens back to what Jesus said—something we were taught as children and referred to as the golden rule:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
This is what Jesus meant when He said we should love our neighbors as ourselves. He knew that as human beings, we always show preferential treatment to ourselves. There is no one we think about more or care about better than ourselves. That is why He used this as the standard for how to love other people. He didn’t give us a long list of hundreds of rules and regulations to cover every possible situation, explaining exactly how we should love other people. He simply said, love as you would want to be loved. It is as if we each carry around with us at all times a “rule book for how to love others” right in our own hearts.
In light of the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the ongoing pattern of racial injustice in our nation, I find myself haunted by Ms. Elliott’s question. In what ways am I accepting and allowing things to happen to others that I would never want to happen to me? To what degree am I failing to do to others what I would have them do to me?
How would I feel if it were me and my family that was always unfairly discriminated against? What if I was always suspected of shoplifting every time I walked into a mall? What if I couldn’t live anywhere I wanted to just because of my race? What if I was always stopped for looking like I didn’t belong somewhere? What if I always had to worry that a routine traffic stop would escalate into “an incident”—harassment or arrest or worse? What if I was always assumed guilty before being proven innocent? What if my husband or son or grandson was always believed to be dangerous and could be killed because of it? What if my loved one’s murderers were always exonerated?
What would it mean for me, a white woman in 2020, to love my brothers and sisters of color as I love myself? What would it mean for me to stop accepting and allowing things to happen to my brothers and sisters of color that I would never want to happen to me? How can I show genuine understanding, support, and solidarity with my brothers and sisters of color in their pain and suffering? What could I do to help them not feel so alone in this battle?
Systemic racism in America has been going on for centuries and can seem too deep and too pervasive a problem for any of us to be able to fix. The great Mother Teresa, who served the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India, once said in response to the overwhelming needs she saw daily everywhere around her, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”
On Friday, May 29, another great servant of the Lord, Dr. Charles Montgomery, led us in morning devotions and left us with a simple charge:
- Start where you are
- Use what you have
- Do what you can
Interestingly, Mother Teresa said something similar: “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
It’s time for me, a white woman, to stand up and stop accepting and allowing things to happen to my brothers and sisters of color that I would never want to happen to me. It’s time for me to practice the golden rule, obey Jesus, and do to others what I would have them do to me. I can’t fix it all, but I can do something. It’s time we stand up! Will you join me?
Habakkuk 3:2-3; 17-19
2 Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy.
17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.