Jane-Elliot Class

From Eye Color To Equity: Addressing Racial Hierarchies In Our Community

Giving Voice Spring 2024: Granting Matters

The day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, third grade teacher Jane Elliott began an experiment in her class. She set out to teach about race and racism using eye color as a metaphor.

She began by telling the children that people with blue eyes were better than people with brown eyes, and she treated them accordingly, giving the children with blue eyes perks like extra playground time and earlier dismissal. She also pointed out behavior that she said exemplified the superiority of having blue eyes. The children followed suit. Those with blue eyes believed they were superior and began bullying the children with brown eyes.

A new social order had been created, until Elliott flipped the script by saying that the children with brown eyes were now superior to those with blue eyes. What came next was “payback” and “retaliation” of the children with blue eyes, as Elliot had anticipated.

There are many lessons to be learned here about how racial differences, racial hierarchies and other social orders are created and maintained, but perhaps the most salient to us today is how Elliott replaced equity with inequity. To achieve true equity, eye color should not matter. It should not predict the outcomes and quality of one’s life any more than race, gender, disability or sexuality identity.

This is a lesson that is deeply embedded in our organization’s strategic plan goals — that these personal identity characteristics should not predict who is able to access and utilize our programs, services and grant monies. To attain greater equity, we have committed to addressing racial equity within the critical roles that a community foundation plays in its region.

The powerful narrative of Jane Elliott’s experiment underscores the critical importance of addressing inequity and dismantling racial hierarchies. We believe that equity is imperative to our work because restructuring systems formed through conscious and unconscious bias will make our community investments more impactful and effective. Through strategic grantmaking, collaboration and advocacy, we aim to create a more inclusive and just society where individual identity characteristics no longer dictate life outcomes.

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