After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jane Elliott, a third grade teacher in a small rural town, looked for a way to help her class of all-white students understand bigotry and prejudice. She divided the class into two groups based on eye color: brown eyes and blue eyes. Once divided, she proclaimed the blue-eyed children as superior, put collars on the brown-eyed children, and proceeded to lead the blue-eyed children into discriminating against their brown-eyed classmates, treating them as inferiors. The next day, she reversed the hierarchy and the brown-eyed children were superior and the blue-eyed children were the discriminated group. The experiment was so startling and so successful that Elliott repeated it, eventually becoming a lecturer and a diversity trainer, duplicating this experiment among adult groups all over the world.
After taking Harvard’s IAT tests, often people feel that the test has described them inaccurately and that they are not racist at all, either consciously or unconsciously. However, after watching Elliott’s workshops, it becomes easier to see how hard it is for people to see unconscious biases.
Please watch the following three videos – one is about Elliott’s initial experiment, one is done with college students, & the third is done with adults in England.
- A Class Divided – a Frontline documentary about the original class Elliott worked with in the late 1960s.
- The Angry Eye – “I’m your resident bitch today,” Elliott tells her largely Anglo class of volunteers. The Angry Eye provides stiff medicine on the psychological assumptions girding racist attitudes and behavior. This exercise was done at Bard College, showing what happens when the Blue Eyes are ground down relentlessly via small humiliations. This is what marginalized people have felt for generations, Elliott argues, and with a method nearing the sadomasochistic edge of psycho-theater, she drills her point home. (Please note: you may have to manually start the video from the beginning if it loads & starts in the middle.)
- How Racist Are You? – Elliott does her experiment again, but this time it’s in modern Britain with adults. The experiment is largely the same, but the results are slightly different as the adults fight harder to hold on to their views without acknowledging the inherent biases they hold.
After watching the videos, please write a paragraph (150-300 words) in which you respond to Elliott’s videos/methods. Some things to consider for your response (meaning you don’t have to answer any/all of these – they’re merely suggested starters):
- How does this experiment support the idea of racism as a learned behavior?
- What is your emotional response & how do you come by it – are you pushing back & not wanting to believe? Are you agreeing? Are you angry/hurt? Why?
- Why are these people so reluctant to consider Elliot’s message?
- Do their behaviors/words – the conversations they have amongst themselves – display any racist attitudes?
- What do you think of Elliot’s method of teaching racism/the effects of racism?
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