Confronting the Reality of Discrimination: A Q&A on the teachings of Jane Elliott - with Dr Leeno Karumanchery

We recently sat down with Dr. Leeno Karumanchery to discuss the world-renowned diversity trainer, Jane Elliott. Dr. Karumanchery shared his thoughts on her decades-long work with the Blue Eyed/​Brown Eyed” role-play exercise depicted in the award-winning documentary Blue Eyed.

In Blue Eyed, Jane creates a realistic microcosm of social oppression within her training room. Establishing Power and Privilege against the arbitrary benchmark of eye color, Jane teaches those with power how to leverage that power to victimize and marginalize. At the same time, she teaches the marginalized blue eyed” group how to experience that victimization with little to no means of recourse.

In this interview, Dr. Karumanchery discusses the impacts of the Blue Eyed Role-Play model; how it powerfully illustrates the realities of social oppression and how those same science based realities sit at the core of the MESH/​diversity DEI Operating System.

1. Why is the Blue Eyed role-play impactful?

Simply put, whether live or on video, it can be a deeply moving thing to experience. For a few hours, we witness how a group of intelligent and otherwise self-assured adults begin to act like victims.

They become vulnerable. Hurt. Some even cry. The emotions are real. The suffering is palpable. And all within an exercise that every participant knows will only last a few hours at most. They can leave if they want to. And that’s where the real impact is

Imagine a lifetime of this same treatment … where you don’t have the option to leave. 

2. How did you first become aware of Jane Elliott and the Blue Eyed Documentary?

It was back in the mid-90s when I was working on my Ph.D. My research interests were starting to morph from traditional sociology to social psychology. I was starting to explore the psychological impact of what it meant to be minoritized and to live within an oppressive experience that you couldn’t escape.

We’ve created a social experience where people’s own physiology and psychology are used against them. No bars, no prison guards necessary. It was in these latter days of my academic journey that I stumbled upon Jane’s work. I saw Blue Eyed, the award-winning documentary about her life and work, and found myself absolutely mesmerized at the approach and the speed in which she functionally gained control over her participants.

3. What aspects of her work resonate most with you, and has she inspired or shaped your own work?

The Blue Eyed Exercise provides a visceral way for people to recognize that they are all part of an ugly system that maintains, reproduces and supports the pain of others.

It demonstrates that you don’t need brute force or overt threats to make social oppression work: all you need is power, and the ability to apply that power within a system. The more invisible the system, the better.

The Blue Eyed Exercise allows for people to:

  • see the invisible system around us
  • see how they may be playing a role in supporting, maintaining and reproducing that system, and
  • want to be inclusive.

The real challenge is that information is easy to share, but you can’t break the system down simply by helping people see that it exists. Change is rarely, if ever, accomplished through one-off training experiences.

Insight just isn’t enough. It’s why generalized Diversity and Unconscious Bias Trainings have turned out to be an ineffectual tool for change.

We have decades of evidence for this uncomfortable reality. It’s an important lesson, and it absolutely drives how MESH approaches DEI. It’s that third piece, Behavior Change. That’s the real trick, and it’s where we focus our data-driven approach.

4. The Blue Eyed documentary, completed in cooperation with Jane, was released in 1996 but its messages remain relevant – why would you recommend it as a must-watch today?

Well, it’s quite simple. Part of the beauty of the model is that it gives us an opportunity to see how pliable human beings are.

The old pull up your bootstraps” mentality is great when you don’t have anything pulling your boots off.

What the model shows us is the ease with which power can be applied to absolutely disarm and violate people. It shows how easily we can become willing collaborators and contributors to other people’s victimization and perhaps most importantly, it shows how powerful a lone voice for allyship can be. It made me want to be a better human being. It made me want to learn how I could help to expose and rupture the system – not just for myself relative to racism, but for others as an ally. I think if you are open to the message, it can truly move you to want to change.

5. Have you had the opportunity to work with Jane, and how has that experience impacted your work since?

That question makes me laugh a bit. In some ways, I’ve come full circle. Back in the early 2000s, as I was finishing off my doctorate, I had the opportunity to see Jane in action. Which is to say, I got snuck into one of her training sessions. I watched firsthand how she expertly dismantled people’s sense of power, and I honestly felt it to be quite a profound experience. More recently, since MESH has the exclusive rights to use the Blue Eyed documentary as part of our DEI Builder program, I’ve had the chance to chat with Jane about her experiences and methodologies. We’ve had some wonderful conversations, and even shared some stories.

6. How do these key learnings apply to MESH/​diversity’s science-based DEI Operating System?

There’s a line in the documentary where one of the participants talks about feeling deep grief about how we perpetuate these systems without learning and without ever changing. Everything about MESH, the platform and our approach is based on social psychology and behavioral science that allows us to break out of these failed models. The science shows us what does and doesn’t work:

  • We know we can’t educate ourselves out of this mess. One-off training sessions do little more than drive organizational friction, and when they’re led by unqualified trainers, the damage is even more invasive.
  • We know we can’t regulate ourselves out of this mess. The these are the words you can no longer say, and these are the terms you must use” approach is entirely subjective and politically driven. They also drive organizational friction for everyone who isn’t like-minded. We have decades of evidence that this top-down shame/​blame approach doesn’t work. Beyond anything else, these kinds of approaches infantilize minoritized people by implying the world needs to be bubble-wrapped for them/​us.
  • We know we can’t talk ourselves out of this mess. Conversations” really took off as an easy tick-box measure after George Floyd was murdered. They gave us the ability to really feel like we were doing something. But they tended to require that marginalized people share their pain. That’s a big ask, and again, experience shows us that this tends to drive tension and strain for the marginalized. It’s dangerous.
  • We know we can’t count ourselves out of this mess. Earnest organizational leaders almost always jump to counting heads as their first recourse when they discover that there’s a dearth of minoritized talent in their ranks. But these kinds of surface-level efforts do little to address the system itself. Go ahead and hire more women, or more Black folks, but if the culture doesn’t have them feeling safe, belonging and included, don’t be surprised if they don’t rise up the chain, or if they leave. It’s not just the glass ceiling we have to worry about – we have to be considering the glass walls (intersecting oppressions), the sticky floors (why people don’t rise up) and the open doors (why qualified, high-potential people leave).

The science underpinning good DEI work necessitates that we recognize one thing first and foremost: human beings are complex.

I mean, we’re capable of incredible, almost miraculous things. We can create technology that literally peers billions of years into the past in space, and yet at the same time, we’re frail little primates that have road rage and commit crimes of passion. Emotions are at the heart of all human behavior and any approach to rupturing this system requires that we give people not just the ability to support change but the impetus to do so. It’s for this reason that the science of Emotional Intelligence underpins everything MESH does.

Our approach and resources provide the what’s in it for me” that drives people to be better human beings, better colleagues and better leaders. From the individual level right up to the cultural level, we allow our clients to see the invisible system for what it is, while providing the impetus to grow and change. Our platform and programs don’t teach People Leaders how to better manage their minoritized staff; they support them in their ability to be the best they can be for all their staff so that everyone can thrive. Anything else is divisive and drives friction.

7. How does your Leadership Work differ from your DEI Builder Program?

Well, the DEI Builder Program was conceived because organizational DEI work rarely takes a systems approach to change. We have too many well-meaning, earnest DEI professionals who have been thrust into the position with little background in the field. And others, have experience in the field, but that experience doesn’t lend itself to systems change. The end result is that just too many HR leads and DEI professionals are trying to reinvent the wheel. 

That’s where DEI Builder comes in. We provide our cohorts with a clear and proven organizational change approach/​process so they can plan and execute their DEI vision in a way that is pragmatic and truly impactful.

The program begins with cohort members evaluating their own DEI initiatives through simple and effective litmus test:

  • Is it systemic?
  • Is it scalable?
  • Is it sustainable?

If their answer to any of these three questions is no, then they have to ask themselves why they’re doing it at all.

With this starting point in mind, the purpose of the program is to support DEI & HR professionals who are looking to level up their skills alongside real field experts, grow their networks and build DEI change into the fabric of their organizations. We go beyond the simplistic counting of diverse heads to help our program participants leverage real data and metrics to inform a pragmatic roadmap for inclusive change. Designed to give cohort members everything they need to successfully lead the charge on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in their organizations, the DEI Builder program dispels the notion that DEI change is hard, by providing a clear and actionable roadmap for effective DEI change that is systemic, scalable and sustainable. 

Visit the DEI Builder Program page to learn more.