Black or blue

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 7, 2009

What if blue eyes were like black skin?

It's too easy to say — and to believe — that if you don't engage personally in racist (or sexist, or homophobic) speech or behavior that you are not racist (or sexist, or homophobic). But watching the film Blue Eyed serves a reminder that by not speaking up against the mundane discrimination we unknowingly witness every day, we are just as culpable for perpetuating the cycle.

The 90-minute documentary, directed by Bertram Verhaag, highlights the work of Jane Elliott, a dynamic, abrasive, and brave diversity trainer. She is famous for her "Blue-Eyed" exercise, pioneered in a third-grade classroom in Iowa in 1968 and now used in adult-education seminars, which exposes white people to the discrimination that black people, women, and gays and lesbians face daily. Basically, the exercise calls for blue-eyed people to wear collars that set them apart, then spend an afternoon being ostracized, condescended to, and verbally abused, while brown-eyed people (including many blacks) look on and share their own experiences of prejudice. The result is increased consciousness of the constant struggles faced by anyone who isn't a white, straight male.

Blue Eyed documents this exercise as experienced by a group of 40 professionals — teachers, police, social workers, and school administrators — in 1995. It is uncomfortable to watch as Elliott harangues the blue-eyed group; at least two of the participants are so affected that they start crying. Indeed, even though we know that Elliott is trying to make a point, it's difficult at times not to perceive her as intolerable, sanctimonious, or just plain mean.

We see a softer side of Elliott in interviews, in which she describes the (mostly negative) effects her work had on her parents and her children, as well as the (mostly positive) outcomes on students who participated in Elliott's early sessions. While she never really explains why she became interested in this work in the first place, there's no mistaking Elliott's passion, and the perception-altering effect it has on others.

The film is being screened (admission is free) at SPACE Gallery at 7 pm on Tuesday, January 13, as part of the Portland NAACP's observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is on January 19 this year. Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the 100-year-old Portland NAACP branch, will speak, and Maine author Annie Sibley O'Brien (who has written about multiculturalism) will facilitate a discussion after the film.

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