Blue, brown, black, white—empathy in action
Updated: Jun 25
Lessons in antiracism from Jane Elliott and Jewish ethics.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik
January 14, 1994
Yesterday Mrs. Bates put us into 2 groups: the “blues” and the “browns.” She was going to teach us about discrimination. She pretended very seriously that the “browns” (my group) were the best in everything. She treated the “blues” like dirt. After gym she pretended that she found out that the “blues” were the best, and the “browns” got treated like dirt. Whenever you were on the “worst” side, Mrs. Bates called you “blue” or “brown.” It drove me CRAZY!
I was eight and a half years old when a single classroom exercise taught me the meaning of prejudice. And I have to hand it to Mrs. Bates: I always assumed she’d invented that exercise. I didn’t learn until very recently that it was actually invented 26 years earlier, in an all-white classroom in rural Iowa, by a teacher named Jane Elliott.
Until last week, I’d never heard of Jane Elliott. Then I noticed that a clip from one of her antiracism lectures had started popping up on social media. You might have seen it: it’s the one in which she tells her white audience members to stand up if they would be happy to be treated the way our society treats its black citizens. Tellingly, none of them rise. “You know you don’t want it for you,” Elliott admonishes. “I want to know why you’re so willing to allow it to happen for others.”
Later that same day, I watched Stephen Colbert interview rapper Killer Mike, who recommended that viewers go to YouTube and look up Jane Elliott. So I did. The first video that came up was a 1992 episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show: “Jane Elliott’s ‘Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes’ Anti-Racism Exercise.”
Twenty-six years fell away. I was seated at a faux-wood flip-top desk, staring at a giant blackboard. There were two lists of names written on it in piercing white chalk. My dark eyes had landed me on the list called “browns.”
There were 17 children in that third grade classroom. Most of us were white. That simple exercise allowed us to enter into an experience that our classmates of color must have understood at a cellular level from birth: what it was like to be discriminated against because of a physical characteristic beyond our control.
When the “browns” came back from gym and found that our status had changed, we were not, of course, treated like “dirt”—that was merely an eight-year-old budding writer’s penchant for hyperbole. We were, if I remember correctly, forced to sit at the back of the classroom. We were never called on when we raised our hands. We were told all the ways in which the “blues” were superior to us, and whenever a “brown” child did something wrong, Mrs. Bates belittled them. At the end of the day, when Mrs. Bates erased the lists on the board and explained the purpose of the exercise, we discussed what had happened. What we thought. How we felt. What we had learned.
“Give me a child at the age of eight,” Elliott told Oprah in 2014, “and let me do that exercise. And that child is changed forever.”
I was that child.
I never forgot the “blue eyes/brown eyes” exercise because it was emotional, not intellectual; it wasn’t rhetorical or theoretical, but real. It made me angry. It made me frustrated. It gave me an overwhelming sense of unfairness, of injustice, of offence. I soon worked out what Mrs. Bates was doing—that it was all pretend, that it was a lesson, that she didn’t really mean it—but the experience was so visceral, and so unlike any other lesson I’d ever been taught, that it stuck to me like the residue of a peeled-off label.
It was a lesson in empathy.
Throughout my childhood, I learned similar lessons from the ethical traditions of Judaism, in which I was raised. There’s a running joke that the theme of all Jewish holidays is They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat. But before any feasting can begin, we are reminded that the Jewish people have been persecuted for thousands of years. The responsibility that comes with this history is to ensure that we never become persecutors ourselves.
The holiday of Passover commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Whether or not the Israelites were actually enslaved in Egypt isn’t clear, but the Torah’s message is. “You shall not oppress a stranger,” it says, “for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The Haggadah published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis includes this passage, followed by one from Leviticus—“When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them…You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (19:33-34)—and another from Deuteronomy—“Always remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt. You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan” (16:11-12).
You know the feelings of the stranger. You shall not subvert their rights. You shall love them as yourself. These are lessons in identification. In compassion. In empathy.
However: identification is only a starting point. Compassion is merely a stepping stone. Empathy alone is not enough.
One of the central principles of Judaism is tikkun olam: the repair of the world. We’re commanded to do mitzvot, good deeds, not so we can get into heaven, but so we can make the world a better place. It’s not enough merely to avoid oppressing others; we must work to eliminate all oppression. It’s not enough to feel compassion for the suffering of others; we must work to eliminate that suffering. Empathy has to translate into action.
I am a Jew: I know that there are legions of white supremacists and other antisemitic people who hate me. I am a lesbian: I know that there are millions of people who believe that I’m an abomination, that I don’t deserve the same rights as heterosexuals. But in my modern life in modern-day New York, I rarely experience those prejudices on a personal level. You can’t tell that I’m Jewish or gay just by looking at me. I look like what I also am: a woman of European descent—a white woman. So in terms of lived experience, there’s no comparison between me and a person of color. My Jewish upbringing taught me to be conscious of suffering; my third grade teacher taught me to be conscious of prejudice; society has taught me to be conscious of my white privilege. But when it comes to combating racism, it’s not consciousness that counts. It’s what I do with it.
One of the things I’m currently doing is taking Killer Mike’s advice and learning from Jane Elliott. Her website is full of resources, including a commitment to combat racism and a list of books about addressing all kinds of prejudice, including sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia. Her aim—beginning in that Iowa classroom in 1968 and continuing today at the age of 87—is to teach people how to confront the racist and prejudiced beliefs that we’re not even aware we have. By imparting this lesson through experiential, empathic learning, Elliott does more than educate. She transforms.
Like many white people, I’m on a perpetual journey toward a better understanding of what it means not only to be not-racist, but to be antiracist. Thanks to Mrs. Bates, I began that journey in a third grade classroom, learning a lesson I never forgot.