The Elliot Experiment
July 18, 2013
A Class Divided
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With just the smallest bit of research into the human genome, it becomes clear that the racial lines we have allowed ourselves to be divided along are completely irrelevant. The genes that determine our skin or eye color, the texture of our hair or the size of our body are so lost in the sea of human DNA that, on a genetic level, we are far more similar in makeup than we are different. This is a fact. So why has race been so divisive in human societies? This is a question that in 1968, Iowan teacher Jane Elliott attempted to answer with her “Blue Eyes Vs. Brown Eyes” experiment. She taught a group of all white 3rd graders in the 97.7% white (by 2010 Census) town of Riceville what it felt like to be discriminated against because of an aspect of their being that could not be changed. One day, the students were told that the Blue Eyed kids were inherently better, smarter and kinder than the Brown Eyed students, and were allowed privileges that the ugly and stupid Brown Eyed kids were not. What was a kind group of kids degenerated into discriminators and discriminated very quickly. She then switched groups the following day, marking out the Blue Eyed children as the lesser humans and the Brown Eyed as being on top. What is so fascinating is how the children in the “lower” group were quickly downtrodden and left feeling helpless and depressed. Their performance in tests was tied directly to their place in the class society – when they were “good” and “smart,” they performed well on tests; when they were “bad,” “stupid” and “slow” they performed miserably, because they said they were distracted by how badly they were being treated by their fellow students and the teacher. If this one experiment can show the effect of teaching discrimination to a small group of kids, all of whom know it’s an experiment, just imagine (or look around at) the effects of generations of teachings from parent to child, reinforced by lawmakers and police, that some groups of people are inherently better than others. Check out the PBS documentary “A Class Divided” that follows Elliott’s experiment and its effects below.
Text via Dangerous Minds
The class of third graders are told that blue-eyed people are smarter and better than brown-eyed people. Blue-eyed people get an extra five minutes of recess, and the two groups aren’t allowed to play with one another on the playground. The brown-eyed children wear fabric collars so they can be identified from a distance. When, during recess, one of the children calls the other “brown-eyed” as an epithet and the child retaliates by slugging the taunter, Jane Elliott does what any good teacher would do: the child is reprimanded, but the overall exercise continues.
It was the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 that Elliott ran her first “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise in her Riceville, Iowa classroom. In 1970, Elliott would come to national attention when ABC broadcast their Eye of the Storm documentary which filmed the experiment in action. Below, is a portion from the 1985 PBS Frontline documentary A Class Divided which features the ABC footage as well as clips of a class reunion.
Elliott would earn further renown appearing on The Tonight Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show and speaking at over 300 colleges and universities throughout her career. Her landmark exercise helped pioneer the field of diversity training and anti-racism education in which she still works to this day.
Watching Elliott perform her social experiment on her class of young children, it’s easy to notice her determined reserve—and also just how psychologically deep she’s treading as she instigates the discrimination amongst her students. One can’t help but wonder if an exercise this controversial would even fly in today’s classrooms, and how many parents back then might have complained that this lesson was too forward and inappropriate for their children. Perhaps they didn’t want their kids being taught outside the “three Rs” curriculum, or about the difficult subject of racism in such a fervent time. Maybe some thought it didn’t pertain to their small, all-white towns.
Certainly Elliott garnered criticism for teaching and treading against the grain, though her impact reached well beyond her Iowa classroom because of it.