Jane Elliott ethnography

by Carl Dyke

The conversation about ‘culture shock’ has continued at Savage Minds and seems to have refocused on the question of the transformation of consciousness. I’ve just written a longish comment over there that I’ll carry over here for convenience:

… it’s that critical distance from second nature that’s looked for, the transformation of consciousness from naive ethnocentrism through a kind of Copernican revolution of mind that enables responsible (self-) criticism.

The problem is that like the Marxists trying to figure out how class consciousness happens, we don’t have a very good idea how these transformations actually occur, and so the tendency is to think magically. If we just throw people at the right kind of experience they will be transformed, abracadabra. ‘Education’ is the usual incantation, which makes all those Nazis with university degrees hard to swallow.

So somehow anthropologists are uniquely positioned to decenter their own cultural presuppositions because they go where people are really, really weird. But this corporate ideology does not work for at least two reasons: one, as Rex and John point out (some) sociological ethnographers, historians and tourists somehow manage to get the point of otherness without the epistemological grandstanding; and two, Euro (and Chinese, and Japanese, etc.) colonialists lived elbow-to-elbow with the Big Blue Others and managed (mostly) not to get the point, as for that matter some anthropologists haven’t.

For the latter reason I’m afraid Greg’s earlier gesture at the lamentable disconnect between white grad students and African Americans won’t actually get us far. No whites in history have been closer to African Americans than the slave owners and Jim Crow racists. You can rub people all over each other and it’s not going to automatically transform their consciousness (or may do so in undesirable ways).

Yet people do wake up from their dogmatic slumbers and become more mindful, critically responsible participants in human community. What are the conditions and moments of this process?

One classic answer is educator Jane Elliott’s famous exercise, as documented in the Frontline “A Class Divided” (you can watch the whole thing there and it’s well worth it). Following Martin Luther King’s assassination, Elliott decided she needed to do more to transform the racial consciousness of her white Iowan elementary school kids. To this end she divided her class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed kids, declared one group superior and the other inferior (and then, the reverse), and chillingly succeeded in recreating among her students all the nasty interpersonal dynamics of racism (with emergent structural properties) in no time at all. As a consultant she now works on adults, with the same effects.

Elliott the consultant reproduces her experiment

The exercise is frightening because of how well and how quickly it works, and because of how thoroughly it blurs the lines between teaching, activism, brainwashing and unethical research on human subjects. The kids are tossed this way and then that; they are spared no indignity of subordination, or excess of power; their worst impulses are elicited, encouraged and then ruthlessly dissected. Yet, the experiment was a smashing success. Years later members of the class report an inspiring level of sensitivity to others and critical self-awareness. They are happy and well-adjusted. If they were ‘broken’ by Elliott’s procedure, the new them that was created seems to be far preferable.

It seems to me that the key was not mere exposure to otherness, nor even momentary participation in otherness, although both are necessary. The kids were all deprivileged in turn, stripped of their sense of power and legitimacy, made aware of themselves through a lens of radical inadequacy. That step created anger and resentment; stopping there creates Klansmen and Nazis and terrorists in the wild. Elliott’s brilliance is in the reprivileging debriefing that follows the exercise. Elliott shows the kids the supportive empathy she wants them to learn, but only after demolishing their sense that they were entitled to it. Having torn the kids down and turned them on their heads, she puts them back on their feet, dusts them off and leads them in an analysis that reaffirms every value of themselves they had previously taken for granted, while stepping sideways and looking at it all from another angle. The dialectic of their transformation, then, is emergent in the sense that all of the materials for it were there already; what has been changed is their configuration.

3 Responses to “Jane Elliott ethnography”

  1. This morning I added a comment on Savage Minds.

    Picking up on what Carl said, I offer a bit of ethnography. I tell a story and attempt to extract a few principles from it.

    The story begins in Puli, a market town in the center of Taiwan. The year is 1969. An anthropologist and his newly married wife are starting two years of fieldwork. One of the first things they do is call on Fr. Clancy Engler, the priest in charge of the local Catholic parish. The back story here is that when mainland China became the PRC in 1949, the missionary apparatus that had once been scattered all over China converged on Taiwan. Thus, oddly enough, every small town in central Taiwan had its missionaries. The Catholic mission in central Taiwan was run by Maryknollers, an order whose priests were, we were told before we left Cornell, nice guys of a generally liberal disiposition, who took an interest in anthropology and would share their whiskey and old Newsweeks with lonely anthropologists. Fr. Clancy fit the mold. So, especially during our first year, we dropped in for a visit once in a while.

    It was on one of those visits that Fr. Clancy asked me the following question, “What can an anthropologist teach somebody like me?” He was speaking as someone who had lived in Taiwan for fifteen years and was fluent in Taiwanese. He was speaking to someone, me, who had just arrived, was just starting to learn the language, and would leave once our two years were up. I mumbled something about training and theory but didn’t sound very convincing.

    A year later, though, we returned to the topic. By then I knew all sorts of things that Fr. Clancy didn’t. I asked myself why. Here is the answer I came up with (the principles I mentioned).

    1. I had the free time. Fr. Clancy had been in Puli a lot longer than I would ever be, but he was a busy man, a priest with a parish to run. I had the extraordinary privilege of two years in which I had nothing to do but pursue my anthropological interests.

    2. I had freedom. It wasn’t just time. I could go places and spend a lot of time with people in ways that Fr. Clancy couldn’t. I could spend several hours each day hanging around with the Daoist master whose rituals became my dissertation, watching what he did, taking photographs, asking about what this or that meant. I could become my Daoist master’s disciple in a way that Fr. Clancy, constrained by his role as a Catholic priest, could not.

    3. Everything was new to me. One advantage to bringing fresh eyes to a place where you know less than the average two year old is that you notice and get to ask questions about things that for old hands have long since faded into the background, the taken for granted of everyday life.

    4. And, yes, the training and the theory pointed my eyes and ears in directions that Fr. Clancy hadn’t considered. Having, for instance, read Radcliffe-Brown’s “The Mother’s Brother in South Africa,” I looked for what mother’s brothers were up to when invited to Taiwanese weddings. Having read Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process, I was primed to notice how much the basic pattern of Chinese rituals isn’t a rite of passage. Having read Geertz on thick description, I was moved to ask what other layers of meaning were present besides the thin fragments provided by the usual sorts of local explanations or the bits of Daoist lore passed on by a key informant who was both very generous and also had secrets to keep.

    Time, freedom, fresh eyes, and a training that gave me all sorts of interesting questions to ask — what an incredible privilege! Transformative? Perhaps. An Archimedean point from which I became an omniscient observer? Hardly. An opportunity to learn, to pursue my own questions without a living to earn or other jobs to do, to acquire a bunch of new perspectives that opened up my head? Oh,yes. Add a credential that made me a “real” anthropologist, a vision quester who had traveled to strange places and come back with some interesting stuff. Would I do it again? Oh, yes.

    Now, if only I didn’t have a business to run, a busy life with a bunch of projects demanding attention….


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