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Brown, blue, and it opened many eyes to the meaning of race

A teacher created a now-famous exercise after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Years later, it hits home for an adoptee and fellow Iowan.

March 26, 2009|Corina Knoll

Brown-eyed children "became domineering and arrogant and judgmental and cool," she says. "And smart! Smart! All of a sudden, disabled readers were reading. I thought, 'This is not possible, this is my imagination.' And I watched bright, blue-eyed kids become stupid and frightened and frustrated and angry and resentful and distrustful. It was absolutely the strangest thing I'd ever experienced."

Elliott's eyes flash at the memory.

"When they were saying and doing those things to one another, they were being their preachers, their parents, people on television -- they were practicing what they had learned. I learned you don't have to have people of color in a community to have racism. My third-graders knew every negative stereotype they'd ever heard about blacks, and there were no blacks in Riceville, Iowa."

--

Elliott is an enigma to me, not only because she is a white woman who believes God is black and detests phrases like "reverse racism," but because she comes from a city I know well.

My grandfather once served the Congregational church in Riceville as a student pastor and my mother graduated from Riceville High School. She and my father settled in Cedar Rapids, but every summer, we'd pack into our red station wagon and join cousins, aunts and uncles at Riceville's Lake Hendricks for our annual family camp-out.

A place that had fewer than 1,000 people and a main street where elderly women sold Avon soap at sidewalk sales intrigued me -- at first. But as I grew older and more self-conscious, Riceville became yet another small town where it felt as though residents stared extra long at an Asian face.

("Did you ever think it was because you're new in town?" a well-meaning aunt once chided after I expressed my frustration.)

Race was not something we discussed in my family. My adopted Korean brother and I were different, yes, but we focused on similarities. Besides, "Asian" was thought of merely in cultural terms, mentioned in connection to food or dress or dance, but forgotten in a black-white paradigm. Racism was acknowledged only when it appeared on the news, linked to such symbols as burning crosses or hooded Klansmen.

My parents were liberal Democrats who believed love transcended race and taught us to judge according to character. Good lessons, but they did nothing to combat the ache of growing up "foreign" and "exotic."

But then, my junior year of high school, there was Riceville's Elliott, a woman who did not know me, discussing race from a perspective that seemed to understand.

I wondered how a white woman from another generation who laughs like my grandmother, was raised in the same area as my mother and does not have two children of color was more willing and able to speak thoughtfully about race than my own family.

--

Elliott was born during the Depression and raised on a 160-acre farm four miles northeast of Riceville. The middle child of seven, she was determined to be heard. "I had to fight a lot to get noticed," she says. "I suppose some psychologist will read that and say, 'She's still fighting.' "

Her father was the first to teach her about equality.

"My dad used to say, 'Never put a stone in another man's path . . . ,' " Elliott says. "These things all sound like cliches until you grow up and you realize that, damn it all, he was right."

She enrolled at a teachers college in Cedar Falls, where she met and married Darald, an assistant manager of a supermarket in a mainly black area of town.

Elliott says her eyes began to open to issues of race and discrimination when she went to the University of Northern Iowa and met black students who were smarter and more talented than she was. Somebody's been lying to me, she thought.

At the height of the civil rights movement, the couple decided to return to Riceville with their four children. Elliott took a job at the elementary school and discovered a community that did not acknowledge the changes occurring elsewhere -- or any need for them. But then King was killed, and something snapped in Elliott.

The first year of the exercise, the local paper printed essays that Elliott's students had written about discrimination, but no one outside the classroom took much notice. The next year, however, a film crew from Canada followed her and she was invited to "The Tonight Show."

After that appearance, Elliott returned home to find that she and her family had been blacklisted.

Customers stopped patronizing the hotel her parents managed. Passersby called her names and shouted insults. The bowling team that she had long played for replaced her, and she was no longer invited to play bridge. Her children were spat on and knocked down, their belongings defaced.

When Darald got a job managing a supermarket in nearby Osage, the family was happy to move, although Elliott stayed on as a teacher in Riceville and continued to conduct the exercise. She still marvels that she wasn't fired, believing it was because four generations of her family had lived in the community.

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