We Are Repeating The Discrimination Experiment Every Day, Says Educator Jane Elliott

Jul 8, 2020
Originally published on July 9, 2020 9:04 am

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 prompted educator Jane Elliott to create the now-famous "blue eyes/brown eyes exercise."

As a school teacher in the small town of Riceville, Iowa, Elliott first conducted the anti-racism experiment on her all-white third-grade classroom, the day after the civil rights leader was killed.

She wanted them to understand what discrimination felt like. Elliott split her students into two groups, based on eye color. She told them that people with brown eyes were superior to those with blue eyes, for reasons she made up. Brown-eyed people, she told the students, are smarter, more civilized and better than blue-eyed people.

More than 50 years after she first tried that exercise in her classroom, Elliott, now 87, said she sees much more work left to do to change racist attitudes. The May 25 killing of George Floyd set off weeks of nationwide protests over the police abuse and racism against black people, plunging the U.S. into a reckoning of racial inequality.

"It's happening every day in this country, right now," she said in an interview with Morning Edition. "We are repeating the blue-eyed/brown-eyed exercise on a daily basis."

When Elliott first conducted the exercise in 1968, brown-eyed students were given special privileges. She said she watched and was horrified at what she saw.

The students started to internalize, and accept, the characteristics they'd been arbitrarily assigned based on the color of their eyes.

Elliott started to see her own white privilege, even her own ignorance. At her lunch break that day in the teacher's lounge, she told her colleagues about the exercise. One teacher ended up displaying the same bigotry Elliott had spent the morning trying to fight.

"She said, on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, 'I don't know why you're doing that — I thought it was about time somebody shot that son of a bitch,' " she said. "Not one of them reprimanded her for that or even corrected her. They all either smiled or laughed and nodded."

The interaction only strengthened Elliott's resolve. She decided to continue the exercise with her students after lunch.

"No person of any age [was] going to leave my presence with those attitudes unchallenged," Elliott said.

Two years later, a BBC documentary captured the experiment in Elliott's classroom. The demonstration has since been taught by generations of teachers to millions of kids across the country.

Still, Elliott said the last few years have brought out America's worst racist tendencies. The empathy she works to inspire in students with the experiment, which has been modified over the years, is necessary, she said.

"People of other color groups seem to understand," she said. "Probably because they have been taught how they're treated in this country — that they have to understand us. [White people] on the other hand, don't have to understand them. We have to let people find out how it feels to be on the receiving end of that which we dish out so readily."

But the protests happening now have given her hope.

"Things are changing, and they're going to change rapidly if we're very, very fortunate," she said. "If this ugly change, if this negative change can happen this quickly, why can't positive change happen that quickly? I think it can."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When I was in seventh grade, my history teacher had us do this unusual exercise. He divided us into two groups based on our eye color. One group was given special privileges. The other was given extra homework. He was trying to teach us about the randomness and cruelty of discrimination based on a physical trait.

It's called the blue-eyed/brown-eyed exercise, and it's been taught by generations of teachers to millions of kids across this country. And the educator who came up with it is an antiracism activist named Jane Elliott. I called her up recently to talk about her now-famous class exercise and what it says about America today. We talked about the first time she used it in a classroom. She won't ever forget the date - April 5, 1968...

JANE ELLIOTT: It wasn't a long time ago. In my mind, it happened yesterday.

MARTIN: ...The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. She wanted her classroom of students, all of whom were white, to understand what discrimination felt like.

ELLIOTT: So I said, OK, today we're going to judge people by the color of their eyes. And because I have blue eyes and blue-eyed people are the greatest number in this room, brown-eyed people are going to be on the top the first day. Immediately, somebody said, what do you mean? I said, I mean blue-eyed people aren't as smart as brown-eyed people. They aren't as civilized as brown-eyed people.

MARTIN: The students started to internalize what she was saying and then accepting the characteristics that were assigned to them based on the color of their eyes. A documentary film crew from the BBC captured the experiment on tape in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BBC BROADCAST)

ELLIOTT: Who goes first to lunch?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Blue-eyed.

ELLIOTT: The blue-eyed people - no brown-eyed people go back for seconds. Blue-eyed people may go back for seconds. Brown-eyed people...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: But what about the brown-eyed?

ELLIOTT: Don't you know?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: They're not smart.

ELLIOTT: Is that the only reason?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: ...Afraid they'll take too much.

ELLIOTT: They might take too much.

MARTIN: The very first time Jane Elliott used this, she watched and was horrified at what she saw.

ELLIOTT: I didn't know I was a racist until I watched my students become me.

MARTIN: Through the exercise, Elliott started to see her own privilege, even her own ignorance. At the lunch break, she went to the teacher's lounge. She was telling them all about the exercise. One of those teachers ended up displaying the same bigotry Elliott had spent the morning trying to fight.

ELLIOTT: She said, on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, I don't know why you're doing that. I thought it was about time somebody shot that son of a [expletive]. Not one of them reprimanded her for that or even corrected her. They all either smiled or laughed and nodded.

MARTIN: The interaction just strengthened Elliott's resolve.

ELLIOTT: At that point, I decided - I had thought I would stop the exercise at noon. I decided I wasn't going to stop the exercise at noon. No person of any age there were going to leave my presence with those attitudes unchallenged.

MARTIN: Jane Elliott is now 87 years old. Fifty years after she first tried that simulation in her classroom, Elliott sees much more work left to do.

ELLIOTT: People of other color groups seem to understand, probably because they have been taught by how they're treated in this country, that they have to understand us. We, on the other hand, don't have to understand them. We have to let people find out how it feels to be on the receiving end of that which we dish out so readily.

MARTIN: She says the last few years have brought out America's worst racist tendencies. But the protests happening now have given her hope.

ELLIOTT: Things are changing, and they're going to change rapidly if we're very, very fortunate. If this ugly change - if this negative change can happen this quickly, why can't positive change happen that quickly? I think it can.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOW MEADOW'S "BOY IN A WATER GLOBE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.