BAE OF THE WEEK: Jane Elliot

I don’t know about you but I’ve always thought, ‘what is it that makes a good teacher?’ I can easily give a definitive list of my favourite teachers and why I consider them with such high esteem, yet I can never answer that question. The reasons behind my choices vary quite dramatically but the overarching theme has always been the positive impact they have had on my life. They’ve taught me, by way of planned lessons or by way of being, something new, necessary, and life changing.

It’s rare consider in a list of favourite teachers one you’ve have never met, but Jane Elliot is a necessary and welcome outlier on mine. I first learnt of her when I watched the documentary ‘How racist are you?’ where she brought her famous Blue-Eyes-Brown-Eyes exercise to the UK. In it Jane Elliot divides individuals into groups based on the colour of their eyes, and then subjects them to the kind of unnecessarily and often abhorrent treatment people receive based on arbitrary difference that we see, or many fail to see, in the world we live in today. She teaches a necessary lesson in learned prejudice, how it comes about and what it’s like to be on either the privileged or unfortunate side of it.

In the context of increased racially and religiously fuelled violence globally, Jane Elliot’s message and work is unfortunately ever pertinent. She recently did a radio interview with Ebro on popular US radio station Hot97, that I strongly encourage you to listen to. It was listening to this that actually prompted me to suggest her for our BAE of the week. Adamant that racism is a solvable issue if we choose for it to be, she gives me well-meaning goosebumps and lights a fire under my belly.

Jane Elliot calls into Ebro in the morning!

The jury is divided on how effective her exercise is in making positive change in the attitudes of individuals over the long term. Furthermore, in the course of her exercises she has been criticised for scaring people, accused of humiliating children, being domineering, angry and brainwashing… Sounds like the environment of institutionalised racism that she is trying to teach people about to me. Strict, unapologetic, and definitely intimidating – but the kind that, I imagine if she were my teacher she would make me want to do better and impress, rather than simply cower in the corner – she refuses to let anyone cut corners, and insists that they feel the weight of the experiment. This is how people learn – through emotion and experience. Through feeling it!  

She reminds me of the The Boiling Frog analogy**– as a people a lot of us have just been sitting in warming waters of hatred, prejudice and discrimination, confused and bewildered by why and how people are dying around us. Elliot dunks her pupils in the uncomfortable scorching hot waters of racism, forcing you to jump out and question ‘WTF?!’. Hot water is scolding. Racism is scolding. But this woman, I think, does a wonderful job of showing us all our latent racism, the role we all play in it and is working hard to snap us out of it!

Her commitment to educating people (been in the biz for 40+ years), her fearlessness in expressing her opinion, and her gumption (love that word) are remarkable.

Jane Elliot, I thank and salute you!

** The Boiling Frog Analogy: The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that occur gradually. 


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