The death of George Floyd on May 25 2020 has provoked rage and sadness all over the world. We share these feelings and there’s been an outpouring from our members on WhatsApp and Zoom.

One member posted a terrifying video of three white policemen violently assaulting a black man in a wheelchair. Another member, Joshua* posted an article by historian David Olusoga, in which he wrote:

"It is now almost two decades since I had my first encounter with British plantation records, and I still feel a surge of emotion when I come across entries for slave children who, at only a few months old, have been ascribed a value in sterling; the sale of children and the separation of families was among the most bitterly resented aspects of an inhuman system." - David Olusoga, 2015, The Guardian

And another member, Nathan* posted a remarkable video of David Davis, a Conservative politician, who addressed his colleague, the Home Minister, in these chilling words:

“There are deep and longstanding injustices at the heart of our immigration system. Illegal migrants can be held indefinitely in psychologically inhumane conditions. Detention is meant to facilitate deportation, but we routinely detain people for extraordinary lengths of time without deporting them. By the end of 2019 the individual detained for the longest period had been in a holding centre for 1002 days, nearly 3 years… They’re held without trial or due process, without oversight or basic freedoms, and carrying the destabilising psychological burden of having no idea when they will be released….”

Black Lives Matter 

Black people aren’t the only victims of inhumane detention, and people might be surprised to learn that some of our members from African countries are uneasy about the Black Lives Matter movement. Don’t all human lives matter? What message does it send to spotlight black lives in this way?

These questions sparked a heated discussion in our Monday Zoom meeting. Although everyone agreed that they were important questions, the overwhelming feeling was that it’s right to celebrate black lives, given the desperate scale of injustice against black people in the Western world today.  If Yazidi people were abused on this scale in societies they had helped to build, and if they existed in large numbers over here, we would need a Yazidi Lives Matter movement in the UK. To say that black lives matter isn’t to say that other lives don’t.

What is racism? Where does it come from? This Monday (our eleventh week in lockdown), news of George Floyd and riots was fresh in our minds, and feelings were raw. We considered the collusion of some African leaders with imperial interests, against the interests of their own people. We talked about Windrush and discrimination in the UK. I also encouraged the group to think about human nature, and against the buzz and crackle of Zoom, I read this story to the group...

Every human being matters

On the morning of April 5, 1968, a Friday, Steven Armstrong stepped into Jane Elliott's third-grade classroom in Riceville, Iowa. ‘Hey, Mrs. Elliott,’ Steven yelled as he slung his books on his desk. ‘They shot that King yesterday. Why'd they shoot that King?’

All 28 children found their desks, and Elliott said she had something special for them to do, to begin to understand the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the day before. ‘How do you think it would feel to be a Negro boy or girl?’ she asked the children, who were white. ‘It would be hard to know, wouldn't it, unless we actually experienced discrimination ourselves. Would you like to find out?’

A chorus of ‘Yeahs’ went up, and so began one of the most astonishing exercises ever conducted in an American classroom….The blue-eyed children were set apart from the children with brown or green eyes. Elliott pulled out green construction paper armbands and asked each of the blue-eyed kids to wear one.

‘The brown-eyed people are the better people in this room,’ Elliott began. ‘They are cleaner and they are smarter.’

She knew that the children weren't going to buy her pitch unless she came up with a reason, and the more scientific to these Space Age children of the 1960s, the better. ‘Eye color, hair color and skin color are caused by a chemical,’ Elliott went on, writing MELANIN on the blackboard. Melanin, she said, is what causes intelligence. The more melanin, the darker the person's eyes—and the smarter the person. ‘Brown-eyed people have more of that chemical in their eyes, so brown-eyed people are better than those with blue eyes,’ Elliott said. ‘Blue-eyed people sit around and do nothing. You give them something nice and they just wreck it.’

She could feel a chasm forming between the two groups of students.

‘Do blue-eyed people remember what they've been taught?’ Elliott asked.

‘No!’ the brown-eyed kids said.

Elliott rattled off the rules for the day, saying blue-eyed kids had to use paper cups if they drank from the water fountain.

‘Why?’ one girl asked.

‘Because we might catch something,’ a brown-eyed boy said. Everyone looked at Mrs. Elliott. She nodded. As the morning wore on, brown-eyed kids berated their blue-eyed classmates. ‘Well, what do you expect from him, Mrs. Elliott,’ a brown-eyed student said as a blue-eyed student got an arithmetic problem wrong. ‘He's a bluey!’

Then, the inevitable: ‘Hey, Mrs. Elliott, how come you're the teacher if you've got blue eyes?’ a brown-eyed boy asked. Before she could answer, another boy piped up: ‘If she didn't have blue eyes, she'd be the principal or the superintendent.’

At lunchtime, Elliott hurried to the teachers' lounge. She described to her colleagues what she'd done, remarking how several of her slower kids with brown eyes had transformed themselves into confident leaders of the class. Withdrawn brown-eyed kids were suddenly outgoing, some beaming with the widest smiles she had ever seen on them. She asked the other teachers what they were doing to bring news of the King assassination into their classrooms. The answer, in a word, was nothing.

Back in the classroom, Elliott's experiment had taken on a life of its own. A smart blue-eyed girl who had never had problems with multiplication tables started making mistakes. She slumped. At recess, three brown-eyed girls ganged up on her. ‘You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we're better than you are,’ one of the brownies said. The blue-eyed girl apologized.

On Monday, Elliott reversed the exercise, and the brown-eyed kids were told how shifty, dumb and lazy they were. Later, it would occur to Elliott that the blueys were much less nasty than the brown-eyed kids had been, perhaps because the blue-eyed kids had felt the sting of being ostracized and didn't want to inflict it on their former tormentors.

When the exercise ended, some of the kids hugged, some cried. Elliott reminded them that the reason for the lesson was the King assassination, and she asked them to write down what they had learned. Typical of their responses was that of Debbie Hughes, who reported that ‘the people in Mrs. Elliott's room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I have brown eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five minutes extra of recess.’ The next day when the tables were turned, ‘I felt like quitting school. . . . I felt mad. That's what it feels like when you're discriminated against."

Source

“Truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing,” say the Buddhists. Jane Elliot helped young children to un-cloud their longing to be ‘better’ and ‘smarter’ than other people. From here, they could appreciate the basic truth of humanity: at a fundamental level, we are all the same. We are equally precious, equally important. Every human being matters.

What different countries the US and UK would be if every child were to learn, really learn, this lesson.


Cotton Tree responds to Black Lives Matter movement

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd, we wanted to support our members through the oppression of racism. We hope to do this by celebrating and honouring black lives. We're asking each of our members and the Cotton Tree community to suggest an inspiring figure who has supported them or inspired them in the fight for racial justice. We're hoping to collate these stories and celebrate them through an exhibition.


Find out more 

Cotton Tree Stays Connected