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Skillful Teaching or Gratuitously Shaming Students? (VIDEO)

Marpa and Milarepa. Image via Colorado Ratnashri Sangha.

Educator Jane Elliot’s teachings on diversity involve no kumbaya holding of hands. They remind me more of Marpa’s exhausting and frustrating assignments for his student Milarepa. Elliot’s tough lessons spark a tearful meltdown in one student, and that’s not even two-and-a-half minutes in.

I’m interested in other people’s thoughts on Elliot’s methods. Are they an instructive example of compassionate confrontation? Or do they steamroll over nuances in multi-pronged oppression?

via Upworthy:

I know this is on the long-ish side, but I promise that there’s a really valuable message here that makes it worth watching all the way through.

Jane Elliot is a teacher and diversity trainer who developed the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise to teach students what it feels like to be a person of color. This video begins pretty abruptly, where one of the students who’s been singled out based on eye color is extremely frustrated.

At 2:46, Elliot explains why she keeps going even after she’s made the point. At 3:35, she delivers an important message. And at 10:05, you may laugh a little, but I think you’ll really get it.

Many years ago, I could have been the girl who walked out, not understanding how this feels to the people it affects. I’m glad that’s no longer the case.

In light of Elliot’s philosophy, we can see how the history of Marpa and Milarepa might have some resonance with anti-racist education.

We then go on to learn from Milarepa’s life that, in order to remove not only the negative karma of this lifetime but all that we have accumulated throughout many lifetimes, we need to have determination, perseverance, and diligence in removing faults.

Personally, I appreciate Elliot’s methods. My main concern or disagreement (without knowing her full curriculum) is that she appears to reduce racism to an aggregation of individual “racists.” These racists perpetuate microagressions of interpersonal racism through face-to-face interactions, and certain powerful ones may decide what goes on television and popular media. While those are certainly important (case in point: would Elliot be allowed to teach with an intensity verging on Judge-Judy-level harshness if she weren’t a white woman?), what about the structural, systemic reasons for racism, and its connection to exploitation and economic inequality on a mass scale?

In any case, embracing compassionate confrontation is one of BPF’s 10 principles of radical rebirth, and I love considering what it can look look like! Have you ever received or offered social justice teachings with a ferocious approach?

By the way: a small segment of the video is transcribed in Upworthy, but if anyone would like to work on a full transcript for accessibility, that would be wonderful!

Comments (9)

  • richard

    wow. as someone who has co-facilitated week long anti-racism workshops with a white woman in racially diverse settings, i remember time and time again we would be frustrated by the dynamic where white folks would get shut down in guilt & denial, and everyone else had to wait for them to move thru it. it would take a huge toll on the students of color. the last one i did, it was only on the 7th day that the “white epiphanies” happened, and while everyone had some resolution, it seemed really unfair, which was named. People of color almost left. this firey approach seems to really push white folks thru the guilt and denial, and not retraumatize the POCs in the process.

    i think that if the teacher was a woman of color, she would have experienced some racial demonization, and possibly even get fired. also, the sad truth is that these lessons are taken more seriously by white folks at this stage when it comes from another white person, so everything would have probably escalated more if the teacher came in as say, ” The Angry Black Woman”. but i do think it’s a good way to use one’s white privilege, precisely because of that leverage. but for real whooooo…. she is not playing!! and i didn’t feel comfortable thru all of it. however… This Is Not Work Where People Feel Comfortable. Should men feel comfortable in a workshop on sexism and patriarchy?

    i think we witnessed the possible drawback of this method, the possibility of white folks jumping ship before they can learn anything. but it’s a shift from an older method, where POCs are sacrificed on the altar of the white epiphany.

  • richard

    ps i’m a black man :)

  • Katie Loncke

    hi richard, thanks for comin on over. :) and what a helpful perspective: “where POCs are sacrificed on the altar of the white epiphany.” !!! well put. both you and elliot seems to describe a fairly common process of moving through white guilt that takes time… i wonder whether it’s something that can be ‘expedited’ (as you say, to push folks through guilt and denial, especially without traumatizing poc), or whether that pushing approach has hidden drawbacks to it…

    another concern i have with her arguments though (more than her methods) is that colorblindness is only a white fantasy, while poc will always want their racial identities acknowledged. not so, in my experience! definitely have met hella people of color (usually very white-culture-assimilated) who would say they don’t want to be seen as any race, just the same as everyone else. so conflating someone’s racialized status with their racial ideologies seems a lil sketch…

    thanks again. :)

  • Jeff

    Some medicine just tastes nasty no matter how you sugar coat it.

    It’s too bad Nathan’s “White Buddhist Race Talk” couldn’t have been held in that classroom with Jane Elliot running the show. Many liberals who protest the whole notion of white privelege because “race doesn’t matter to me” will never feel the deep systemic prejudice that permeates education, media, employment, government programs, and inevitably colors personal interactions despite our best intentions. Ms. Elliot’s relentless, tormenting insistence on reversing roles and following dehumanized rules of engagement gives a little flavor of the actuality of hurtful, unavoidable, uncompromising structural racism to those who would never experience it otherwise. Her exercise, like her subject, is not nice and easy. It shouldn’t be.

    The only thing missing from her program is a team of big, mean, armed cops outside the classroom to stop, frisk, handcuff, slam-in-the-back-of-the-patrol-car, and jail the students who walked out in anger. Seriously. It’s not realistic that they could just get away that easily. Remember how the Freedom Riders trained in the ’60s?

    Maybe there’s a place for tough love in Buddhism.

    Thanks for showing us this intervention, Katie.

  • Ian Mayes

    Part of being a Buddhist involves striving to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, which involves trying to practice Right Speech, which in turn involves:

    “Abandoning divisive speech… What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here…Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord…

    Abandoning abusive speech… He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large…”

    (this quote is taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_speech#Right_speech )

    With this in mind I do not see Jane Elliot’s approach as being in alignment with Right Speech.

  • nathan

    Ian, what I often wonder about with right speech as presented in the Pali Canon teachings is how it best operates under conditions where high level of inequality make up the social environment folks are dealing with. It’s one thing to promote soothing speech and harmonious, polite discourse within a sangha of relative equals, but quite another thing – in my view – to do so where folks are a very different positions in terms of level of privilege and experience of oppression. The truth is that even most of our lay sanghas are littered with these wild disparities, and the over-emphasis on harmony, politeness, niceness, non-conflict producing talk hasn’t done much in a skillful means sense to liberate suffering producing conditions.

    Jane Elliot’s been at this a long time. When Katie posted this yesterday, I couldn’t place her. But this morning, I remembered who she was, and the brown eyes/blue eyes videos I saw during my undergrad days (back in the 1990s) from her classrooms in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I think some of the limitations Katie (and others on the Facebook thread Katie started) have pointed out, such as the lack of deliberate attention to systemic racism and also the lack of attention to gender and sexuality differences and how that impacts a person’s position, are coming from where her ideas about this work originally formed. Back at the end of the Civil Rights Era.

    Richard’s experiences as a workshop leader sound familiar. I’ve been a participant in a few workshops in different places, and also once as a co-leader of a race dialogue during my undergrad days. It’s sometimes excrutiating to witness the stuck, spinning around in circles defensiveness, denial, guilt, etc. coming from fellow white participants. There’s productive and necessary discomfort, and then there’s unnecessary, hindering discomfort. And when I think back at those experiences, and the energy diverse groups spent on helping a handful of white folks move through their shit, it feels like a lot of the latter form of discomfort. Which is why I’m more inclined to give fierce approaches like Elliot’s the benefit of the doubt, at least in terms of the level of harshness present.

    At the same time, I do wonder if Elliot leans too heavily on the side of pressuring, forcing, almost demanding change. I tend to think that it might be ok if a few white folks jump ship in a program that otherwise creates the possibility for transformations. But more than a few makes me wonder if it’s the right approach. I wonder if there’s any research out there on retention rates in Elliot’s workshops (especially voluntary ones). Or if there are followup surveys examining participant experiences and how they handled discomfort in particular. Do white folks “check out” in her workshops? Are they more prone to parroting “right” answers to avoid getting berated?

    I’m also thinking that regional differences play out in all of this. When I think of the Midwest (where I’m from), as opposed to east coast cities like New York or Boston, the levels of general comfort with (or familiarity with at least) lots of direct, verbal conflict are different. In other words, what works in one setting, might not in another. It’s interesting to note that Elliot started out in Iowa with fairly young school children. Both of these elements added to the polarized responses she received in her home state, and also across the country.

  • Myo On Susan Linnell

    Looking forward to adding this site’s information to the development of our small growing Sangha here in Albuquerque. THank you for all your work, wisdom and compassion.

    Gassho, Myo On

  • Katie Loncke

    Thank you Myo On! Does your sangha have regular conversations about social justice and its connection to dharma? We’re always excited to hear inspiring examples from people’s practice communities.

  • Marlo Pedroso

    It’s hard for me to give an ample reaction to what Jane is doing in the beginning of the video, since the lead up is clipped and I’m not familiar with her exercise. While I value strong teaching methods and feel that uncomfortable conversations need to take place, I do think that the power dynamics of Teacher/student in the video, where Jane clearly was calling the shots in a accusatory and absolutist way seem problematic.

    She seemed to believe she had the right answers about racism and that the students had to come to see it her way in order to “get it”. That approach seems limited. I think one can make a point strongly without shoving down somebody’s throat and that when we get righteous about our views it often shuts down conversation, rather than encourages deep dialogue about the uncomfortable issues. Getting upset doesn’t equal a learning moment, is just as true as the more popular idea that keeping things harmonious and conflict free is the best way to have dialogue.

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