Playing the Race Card and Overreacting

I recently came across an old Frontline documentary called A Class Divided, in which 3rd Grade teacher Jane Elliott decided to put the phrase “actions speak louder than words”… into action. The day after Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed, one of Ms Elliott’s students came to her saying “They shot a king last night Mrs Elliot. Why’d they shoot that king?” “I knew,” Elliott explains, “that it was time to deal with this in a concrete way, not just talk about it, because we had talked about racism since the first day of school.”

Jane Elliot went into her all-white, rural, Iowan classroom that day and divided her students according to eye color: “the blue eyes” and “the brown eyes.” The first day, the light-eyed children get to be “on top” while dark-eyed students suffer various limitations on their freedoms and a running narrative about the “nature” of brown-eyed versus blue-eyed people—the next day, roles reverse. With remarkable insight and unmitigated moxie, Ms Elliott gave her students the incredible gift of living in an other’s skin. Once again, we see empathy inextricably connected to creativity.

The film documents these children and a separate group of adults working through Ms Elliott’s exercise. When discriminated against, both children and adults feel and act out, or withdraw, in hopelessness, isolation, anger, and aggression. They express feeling trapped, like the whole world is out to get them, like they can’t win and they don’t matter. They feel all this after one day of discrimination. One day.

People who have never experienced categorical discrimination often casually, and sometimes defensively, dismiss the reality of entire communities by suggesting they are “overreacting” or “playing the race/gender card.” This kind of response is a clear indication that these folks have yet to learn how to listen. This is not to say that oppressed and weary individuals and communities are never overly sensitive, or that someone with an outside perspective can’t gently point that out; but you’d better darn well know that person personally and have earned his or her trust by having a long history with that person of real listening.

Before dismissing the reality of millions of people by accusing them of overreacting or being “too sensitive,” think about this eye-color experiment. Take that reality, that one day of discrimination, and compound that experience and the toll on the human spirit by an inheritance of discrimination that stretches over 200 years.

Essayist and Christian thinker Dorothy Sayers attempts a similar experiment in her short, pithy essay “The Human Not-Quite-Human.” After rhetorically imposing upon men the gendered narrative/social commentary women experience in order to help men (and women) understand gender discrimination, Sayers puts it this way:

If, after a few centuries of this kind of treatment, the male was a little self-conscious, a little on the defensive, and a little bewildered about what was required of him, I should not blame him. If he traded a little upon his sex, I could forgive him. If he presented the world with a major social problem, I should scarcely be surprised. It would be more surprising if he retained any rag of sanity and self respect.

Take an hour out of your evening tonight to watch this video, or watch it over a couple of lunch breaks this week; you will come away with profound food for thought and an enriched perspective. I did.