Social justice demands more now than we’re used to giving, and it isn’t only the responsibility of people of color to demand change. These White people are not just checking their privilege, they’re also leveraging it to bring about justice.
The morning after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, Jane Elliott tried something new in her Iowa classroom. “I exposed 26 third-grade students to an exercise in discrimination based on the color of their eyes,” she says. This became known as the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, and has been demonstrated as an effective tool to teach children about racism. Racism could be learned, she realized, and therefore could be unlearned.
Her work faced significant resistance. Angry White parents pulled their kids out of her classroom. She was insulted with epithets, assaulted, and, once in the 1970s, received death threats from teachers in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. “I had four children and a lovely husband at home,” Elliott says. “I didn’t want to die.”
Now 86, she has traveled the country visiting schools and colleges, giving talks and appearing on TV, including on The Oprah Winfrey Show and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk. Elliott says the need for deep personal inventory is only increasing. “The anger some White people are experiencing [right now],” she says, is in response to having “a Black man in the White House for eight years.”
Consultant, trainer, and former professor of education, Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” in a 2011 academic paper to define the “defensiveness that surfaces for so many White people when our racial perspectives, positions, and advantages are named or questioned.”