I never thought I could be called a racist. In fact, I saw myself as one of the least racist people you could meet.
That was until I went and listened to retired teacher Jane Elliot speak during the first annual Youth Community Congress on Race Relations.
When Elliot first walked on stage, I saw an elderly lady. I thought she would be quiet, boring and reserved. Much to my surprise, she was exactly the opposite. She was loud, blunt and rude. Despite my original impulse to tune out, or even get up and leave, I stayed and focused all of my attention on Elliot.
She began by talking about the famous “brown eyes, blue eyes” exercise she did in 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In an effort to help her students understand prejudice, Elliot described how she separated the brown-eyed and blue-eyed students in her third-grade class. She told them that the brown-eyed people were better. She told the brown-eyed people to treat the blue-eyed people differently. As you can imagine, in a predominately white town, this was bound to stir emotions. But few could imagine the effect it had. She was rejected by her co-workers, and despised by her friends. Her husband lost his job, and parents called and asked that their children not be put in her class.
After telling her story, Elliot asked two previously chosen students to come forward, and she introduced them. One was an African American teenage girl, the other a white teenage boy. Elliot then asked us to point out the differences between the two students. The first thing that came to my mind was the obvious color difference; but I didn’t want to come off as racist or judgmental, so I kept quiet. People shouted out several responses. “She is short.” “He has blond hair.” “She has long hair.”
Elliot said we all knew the difference she wanted. There were a few murmurs of agreement followed by a welcomed silence.
After that, Elliot asked the girl a question that I will remember forever. “Do you ever have to think about your color?”
At first, the girl quickly said, “No.” Elliot then said, “When you go into stores, or try to get a job, you never have to think about the fact that you are black?”
Once again, there was silence. Then she said, “I guess I do.”
Elliot then turned to the young man and asked him the same question. Of course, he said “No.” As I kept thinking about what Elliot said, I realized that we live in a world filled with discrimination.
So, what can teenagers do to change that? I could write several articles, attend countless training sessions and preach my heart out. But the only way that anything is going to change is for us to decide on our own to change the way we live, change the way we act, and change the things we think and say.
Of all the things I learned, the one that made the biggest impact is that people of different races have to think about their skin color. To some degree, I know what it feels like to have to think about your appearance before you go somewhere. I get treated differently because of my size, and it hurts. I had never realized that my weight caused me to be discriminated against. I always knew that people thought of me as different and lazy, but I never considered it discrimination. When Elliot picked me out of a crowd and told me that I’m judged because of my weight, I realized she was right.
Elliot might have been rude. She might have offended thousands of people during her lifetime — including me. But the effect she had on my life will stay with me forever. I will never forget the questions that she asked and the awareness that she raised. She showed incredible prejudice against white males. She also made it clear that even a famous motivational speaker who promotes awareness and diversity can also stereotype and judge people based on superficial things. She isn’t perfect.
I don’t think that people realize you don’t have to be a different color or a different religion or even a different size to face discrimination. Later, I told the African American girl who Elliot called to the stage about how sad I felt when judged by my appearance. Her response shook me to the core.
“Now you know how I feel,” she said.
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