53 years ago last Sunday, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and mortally wounded as he stood on the second-floor balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
Millions upon millions around the world lost a great hero later that night, when he died.
April 4, 1968 happened to be a Thursday. The next day, Friday, an elementary school teacher in Riceville, Iowa, entered her third-grade classroom with a broken heart but a vision in her mind. Jane Elliot was one of those millions who saw Dr. King as a hero and a hope-bringer, and she was resolved not to allow his death to be the death of hope.
So, she decided to do something about it, in her little corner of the universe.
She decided to help liberate her kids. To liberate them from ignorance, from pride, from defensiveness, and ultimately, from suffering.
That’s what white supremacy culture really is, after all. A way of life anchored by ignorance + pride + defensiveness leading to suffering for everyone involved.
Jane Elliot, on that Friday April 5, 1968 morning, entered her third-grade classroom and invited her students, each and all of them white, into what I want to call a “Big Lie.” She chose an arbitrary physical trait that some had and others didn’t (through no fault of their own!) to be the standard of superiority. She spun a story that brown eyes were inherently best and blue eyes were inherently worst.
But it didn’t stop there, with mere prejudice. Jane Eliot unleashed prejudice with power. She used her institutional power to enforce the prejudice. She separated the class into two halves, based on eye-color. She assigned brown-eyed kids the task to fasten blue cloth collars around the necks of the blue-eyed kids, just to make it easier to know who was who. She decreed that brown-eyed students—all so superior—could drink directly from the water fountain, take a second helping at lunch, and enjoy an extended recess, but that the inferior blue-eyed kids could not. She said to those brown-eyed kids, superior just because they had more of the color-causing chemical melanin in their blood, that they could bully around the blue-eyed kids, without consequences.
And they did. The brown-eyed kids swallowed their teacher’s Big Lie hook-line-and sinker. They fell in line behind their teacher’s institutional policies and energetically put blue collars on the blue-eyed kids, enthusiastically enjoyed their privileges, and categorically denied blue-eyed kids access to them.
They used power, authorized by the teacher, to enact prejudice; and every time a brown-eyed kid did this, they grew in their belief that they were the superior ones, and their sense of connection to the other brown-eyed kids was strengthened.
Brown-eyed kids positively excelled under this new regime. Elliott had seven students with dyslexia in her class that year and four of them had brown eyes. When those brown-eyed kids lived into the Big Lie, suddenly they could read words and spell words that, before, because of their dyslexia, they couldn’t.
But they could now. Their supremacy of brown eyes made them successful, although they probably thought they did it all by themselves.
Conversely, as for the poor blue-eyed kids: their test scores cratered. They had been much higher before the Big Lie, but now they were cratering; and in general the blue-eyed kids were showing much less enthusiasm and very much more hostility towards being a part of the classroom.
Within just 30 minutes of the Big Lie being introduced and enforced, with the brown-eyed kids falling in line, a blue-eyed girl named Carol had regressed from (and I quote) a “brilliant, self-confident carefree, excited little girl to a frightened, timid, uncertain little almost-person.”
The blue-eyed kids were failing fast. Frighteningly soon, they began judging themselves as failures not for the real reason that they were living in traumatizing circumstances that would crush any soul, but simply because that’s what it meant to be blue-eyed. Frighteningly soon, brown-eyed kids started to blame the blue-eyed kids as the cause of their own failures. They would tsk tsk, If only blue-eyed kids could learn to act more like brown-eyed kids, things would get better. If only the blue-eyed kids would stop being so frightened. If only they could stop being so hostile and anti-social!
Elementary school teacher Jane Elliott allowed the brown-eyed kids and blue-eyed kids to dwell in the Big Lie culture for a time, but only for a time. And then she turned the tables on them. Brown-eyes had been superior, but now it was the blue-eyes who would be superior. Brown-eyes had been the ones benefiting from all the privileges of superiority, but now it would be the blue-eyes who would benefit.
What was astonishing to Jane Elliott was how quickly the culture change happened. Soon enough, the blue-eyed kids were fully into their superiority mindset and enjoying success and crediting it to their personal talents and skills, while they blamed the failures of brown-eyed kids on the fact that they were brown-eyed.
As for the brown-eyed kids—it’s as if their memories had been wiped clean. Now, they knew themselves only as bad and that their failure was all their fault. They no longer needed blue-eyed kids to remind them that they were inferior; they had internalized the hatred and actively blamed themselves.
This is what happened, the day after Dr. King died, on a Friday April 5, 1968 morning, in the all-white community of Riceville, Iowa, when a Big Lie about how some people are superior and others inferior took root in human beings and grew into a small-scale version of the ugliness and viciousness of 450+ years of racism and white supremacy culture in these United States of America that Dr. King died fighting.
But it was all to serve a larger point: that, just as the Big Lie culture about eye color had a beginning and therefore can have an end, so did the Big Lie culture about skin color and white supremacy have a beginning and therefore, it can have an end too.
Just pause for a moment, and let that sink in.
Life does not have to be lived as a Big Lie.
Liberation can happen from that, in the light of Love and Justice.
But now, let’s take a closer look at what the story of Jane Elliott’s classroom exercise suggests about what white supremacy culture is, and what liberation from it might look like.
Start with the white supremacy problem of ignorance. What was stunning to Jane Elliott was how quickly her kids adapted to her Big Lie decrees—who got to drink directly from the water fountain and who got to stay longer at recess and so on. Call these “social arrangements,” and astonishingly soon, kids saw these social arrangements as a given, as “just the way the world works.”
But so can we, as we live in our current world. One social arrangement that can feel like a given is the continuing reality of segregation. By that, I mean how the social networks of white Americans are around 90% white. How fully three quarters of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. How no other racial group exhibits this level of segregation. Segregation continues to be real, yet ignorance can keep white people passive and unquestioning as they go through the motions of life. Ignorance can prevent white people from taking a closer look at the concrete decisions that happened in the past, which were intentionally malicious and often murderous towards people of color, resulting decades later in the current status quo that we so take for granted being what it is.
The challenge is not to be passive in the face of present social arrangements, but to be more active in our questions. It’s just as James Baldwin says, how white people are “trapped in a history they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” (James Baldwin 28)
Liberation from white supremacy requires people to fight ignorance.
It also requires fighting pride. White supremacy culture, for whites, feeds a prideful worldview that says, “I achieved my success all on my own,” together with severe judgmentalism towards those who aren’t achieving success. This, even though history shows that such success has been built on a complex edifice of social arrangements that, at the very least, has reduced and continues to reduce the number of obstacles white people face in life. And then there are the positive benefits of whiteness—completely unearned—one historical example of which is the G. I. Bill, which can be seen as the largest affirmative action program in American history, whose benefits related to education and housing and so many other social goods almost exclusively blessed whites.
But white supremacy pride—the illusion of the “self-made” person—makes white people tone deaf to all the ways that they are not self-made. Definitely there is tone-deafness towards how susceptible people really are to the manipulation of external figures of authority. Jane Elliott was the teacher in her classroom, and she used her authority to declare what was real, and the kids just fell into line. One moment, the brown-eyeds were superior, and everyone played that oppressive game. Next moment, Jane Elliott told the opposite Big Lie making the blue-eyeds superior, and everyone just shifted and played that game.
As in that classroom, so in the larger world. I was reading the other day about how, in the 1960s, the KGB did some fascinating psychological experiments, and they learned that if you bombard human subjects with fear-based messages nonstop, in two months or less most of the subjects are completely brainwashed to believe the false messages, to the point that no amount of clear information they are shown to the contrary can change their minds. People just need to acknowledge, in all humility, that they are not impervious to fear-based manipulation, and they need to know that they must proactively combat that. They need to regularly practice intellectual and spiritual hygiene so they aren’t duped into falling into line with oppression.
Yet white supremacy culture wants people to stay oblivious to this, to stay centered in the illusion of being “self-made.”
White supremacy culture, in fact, actively operates to defend itself against being deconstructed and dismantled. Defensiveness, I am saying, is yet another aspect of white supremacy culture; and one form this takes is white people so devoted to maintaining white supremacy leadership that they are more than willing to make dire personal sacrifices to do so. We just saw this with the recent Presidential election and its astounding aftermath. People willing to go so far as to undermine an institution that is synonymous with being American—I mean democracy—through the January 6th invasion of the Capitol, and now through voter suppression bills and anti-protest bills circulating in legislatures all around the country, one of which recently became law in Georgia. All this, in order to keep avowed white supremacists in power.
But white supremacy defensiveness says, Whatever it takes.
And then there’s a dynamic people have long seen and wondered about: how there are so many white voters who regularly vote against their own best interests. But it’s not so strange after all, once you see the cultural connection. They vote against their own best interests because there is yet another interest that for them takes top priority: that the horrible fear-based visions that white supremacy leaders spew out on Fox News and all the other conservative media outlets don’t come true.
It’s so tragic.
But this is how white supremacy defensiveness operates.
Put it together with white supremacy ignorance and pride, and the ultimate result is terrible suffering. The terrible suffering of people of color. The terrors of slavery and genocide and lynching and Jim Crow and the death of George Floyd and so many others. Social arrangements around education, law enforcement, employment, housing, health care, and so on, that, even to this day, tell a Big Lie about people who are not white: that they do not matter. That they are not worthy.
As for white people who persist in their ignorance and pride and defensiveness? We just saw how they are willing to destroy American democracy. We just saw how they will vote against their own best interests. I call that suffering too. And then there is the suffering of being alienated from oneself and from others—the suffering of hearts and souls whose sensitivity to the world is stunted, and whose souls are stunted.
You tell me what happens to a person when they don’t blink an eye at someone else’s pain—and in fact blames them for it, to boot. You tell me.
Jane Elliott would continue her Big Lie culture experiment with students for years, and soon enough, the town took notice and would demonstrate more of the defensiveness I just spoke to. Kids beating up her children. Her parents’ business losing customers. She and her family receiving death threats.
Each fall, you could count on some parent calling the school principal to say, “I don’t want my kid in that ******-lover’s classroom!”
But guess who were her staunchest defenders? Guess who would go toe-to-toe with their overtly racist parents? Jane Elliott’s kids. They were never the same again. They became anti-racists in their pretty much racist all-white town.
And that is the end of that story.
But I need to say that it is not the end of our story—it can’t be.
Because liberation from Big Lie white supremacy culture is not like turning a light switch from off to on. It’s not a one and done sort of thing. The liberation journey is a continuing classroom, a process, and even when you cross the line from overt racism to anti-racism, white supremacy culture can still be operating, though in different ways. It has a push-down, pop-up aspect to it. Push it down there, it pops up here.
This is just the way it is. We can’t underestimate the Big Lie!
How I make sense of all this is through an analogy. I used to be a huge smoker. Originally my relationship with smoking was straightforward; I smoked; the mode was overt. But then I quit, and not only was it a matter of just not smoking anymore, I was in a fully reactive mode of hating smoking with a deep passion. I would zealously patrol my environment for smoke smells, and when I saw other smokers, I felt terrible things about them and had to hold back from verbally insulting them. I also felt deep shame for all the times I inflicted smoke on other people, and much of the time that shame weighed heavy on my heart. When my wife at the time made light-hearted jokes about how my clothes used to smell like, or what my kisses used to taste like, well—in my shame-filled fragility I’d crumble. I couldn’t take the jokes.
Eventually, I got past my reactive relationship with smoking. I made peace with my history. Because I processed my shame enough, I stopped hating on other smokers and instead saw them through better eyes of compassion. And if my ex-wife were to call me today, and if we found ourselves going down memory lane and the issue of my smoking came up and she made a joke, I’d be ok. I’d laugh and it would be ok. I want to call this phase of my relationship with smoking constructive; but to get there, I needed to stop overt smoking first, and then I also needed to get through the reactive phase that immediately followed.
Does this all make sense?
I’m fairly sure that this analogy with smoking won’t stand up to too much poking holes in it. There are significant ways in which white supremacy culture and smoking are quite different. Absolutely. But all I want to do here is open the door to the insight that there’s a straight-ahead mode of white supremacy to be liberated from, yes, but there’s yet another mode to be liberated from, which is the reactive mode.
This is what I will briefly outline for the for the rest of the sermon today. And note that I am staying within the basic white supremacy culture formula that I offered in the beginning: White supremacy culture is a way of life anchored by ignorance + pride + defensiveness leading to suffering for everyone involved. But what does that ignorance, pride, defensiveness, and suffering look like, when a person is in a distinctly reactive mode with white supremacy?
Start with ignorance. Part of this is simple unawareness that one can be in reactivity mode to white supremacy—that such a thing even exists. This is when people really do think that the liberation process is like flipping a switch, as opposed to a lifelong journey.
Another part of ignorance in reactivity mode is underestimating how impactful the self-disgust a white person can feel is when they consciously face their whiteness and how they are a beneficiary of 450+ years of racism in America. The realization of that crashes down upon a white person. Yes, you were not a slave owner. Yes, you were not a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, you were not a legislator whose vote affirmed Jim Crow laws. But it doesn’t matter. Your life today still benefits from what they did, while Blacks suffered and died and still do. You used to see your success as something you accomplished all on your own, but now you know that’s not true, and you may even feel like a fraud.
The sin of racism has been passed down to the children.
The children feel the sin on their very souls.
This is emotional turmoil of epic proportions—shame of epic proportions—and in turn it can severely distort a white person’s relationship with themselves, with other white people, and with non-white folks. One manifestation of this has been called “reversal” by intercultural development experts. “Reversal” is similar to the switch we saw earlier in Jane Elliott’s class, between the brown-eyes and the blue-eyes. What is considered superior is simply turned upside down. It’s when white people see non-white cultures and related practices as best, and anything white as inferior and worst. Whiteness as all-bad and white culture as having nothing of value to offer…
These distortions of perspective and relationship are destructive to everyone and definitely to non-white folks. Layla F. Saad in her powerful book Me and White Supremacy articulates this powerfully, when she talks about how Black people are put on pedestals or are seen as magical or are fetishized in some way—and this is as dehumanizing as doing the reverse. Black folks and Asian folks and on and on are not treated as real human beings, with strengths and flaws. Because they are seen as magical, they are not given the support they need. Because they are seen as magical, they get worn out. In particular I am thinking of well-intentioned, antiracist, mainly white churches where, out of deep shame-based anxiety, every committee feels that its work is invalid if it doesn’t have a person of color serving on it, and this in turn leads to the few people of color available being burned out to a crisp and unable to be at that church in the way they want to be and maybe even having to leave to save themselves.
White antiracists must be liberated from ignorance about the deep emotional impact of grappling with whiteness, which easily translates into hurtful relationship patterns that undermine the cause of antiracism.
There must also be liberation from pride. Now pride, when we’re in reactivity mode, looks like this. It looks like overpromising and underdelivering. White supremacy pride, remember, is based on the assumption that one’s success is all up to one’s own efforts, and if one just works hard enough, success will happen. The sky is the limit! Importantly, there’s little to no acknowledgement here of the dependence of one’s success on external factors that are beyond one’s control. There’s a tendency to gloss over all that. Which can make a white person—or, by extension, a mainly white organization—susceptible to developing plans that are not so much growth visions as illusions unsupported by real available resources. We saw this written large in the UUA’s Black Empowerment Controversy, back in the early 1970s. We have also lived through an episode of this recently, right here, with the creation and then unfortunate elimination of our Justice Minister position because the funding scheme was just not feasible. I say all this with no intent of casting blame, or of hurting feelings. The intentions were all good. But we need to learn from history. As Maya Angelou has said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
West Shore, we are all in this together. And I am all in, and am a fellow learner in the classroom of life we share.
It is just imperative that we become intimately familiar with reactivity to white supremacy culture—a normal phase of the antiracism journey, but a phase we need to pass through and get beyond.
Liberation from ignorance, liberation from pride, and liberation from defensiveness too. Antiracism trainers like to focus on “white fragility” as the outstanding symptom of racial defensiveness, but here I want to bring our attention to the judgmentalism and rage of so-called “woke” white people who, when they sense something offensive happening, don’t hesitate to pile on. I’m talking circular firing squads. That we are in covenantal relationship with each other—that we literally say to each other every Sunday
This is our great covenant:
to dwell together in peace,
to seek the truth in love,
and to help one another–
gets tossed out the window if we see or sense something offensive, and we mutate the deep shame roiling with us into bullying actions towards others. Often it can happen with us knowing few of the facts involved. But we have no time for facts. People are guilty unless proven innocent. We must strike out, without delay, to prove our antiracism worth.
Again, this is me when I was still in deep shame about my smoking, and hateful towards other smokers. None of that will help another smoker to stop. No positive motivation can come from bullying.
When we are in reactivity mode in our relationship to white supremacy, there is still more liberation to seek. Liberation from just a different kind of ignorance and pride and defensiveness than what we saw before, and which, together, add up to different kinds of suffering.
Or call them contortions. The contortions of white antiracists stuck in reactivity mode, which are particularly hurtful to people of color. One onlooker is Columbia University professor John McWhorter, who is Black, and who is asking some tough questions about all the work involved in those contortions, all the emotional labor involved in white antiracists trying so hard to be good and pure. But what does that have to do, he asks, with changing actual racist social arrangements around segregation, education, law enforcement, employment, housing, and health care?
That’s where the work needs to happen. White antiracists need to liberate themselves from reactivity mode so they can move on to a more constructive mode, and get to the real work.
Listen again to James Baldwin, how white people are “trapped in a history they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
From a certain Friday, April 5, 1968—the day after Dr. King was killed—and Jane Elliott’s elementary school classroom experiment, 53 years ago, to now:
we are still learning in the classroom of life,
we are still growing;
sometimes we are struggling,
sometimes we are strong,
but we are becoming wiser that the Big Lie
we are becoming more aware of the Big Lie
and we are resolved
we are resolved–
Let there be understanding, liberation, release.
This was really powerful. I miss your sermons and the thoughtfulness you always brought to them. Thank you.
Thank you! Love to you!