Blue Eyed vs. Brown Eyed Students
Jane Elliot was a 3rd grade teacher born on a farm in Riceville, Iowa. She was of Irish-American descent, but despite her upbringing, she had a particular sensitivity to racial injustice. On the night of April 4th 1968, she was watching television and learned of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She reportedly stated that she recalled a white reporter tell a local black leader that “Our leader (JFK)’s widow held us together after he was killed. Who is going to control your people?”
She was frustrated by the inability of white people to see beyond their own experience. The inability to empathize with marginalized peoples, something that many would say still exists today. In an attempt to teach her class to internalize the understanding of racism and its effects, she decided to do an experiment.
She asked the class if they would like to feel what it is like to be a back boy or girl so they can understand what discrimination feels like and, they said yes. On the first day of the experiment, Elliot divided the class by eye color. She separated out the blue eyed children and made it clear that they were the superior group.
She had them wrap brown fabric collars on their brown eyed students to designate them as the minority group. They were easily identifiable. Easily separated from the superior majority.
The blue eyed children received special privileges, not based on merit or effort, simply due to their superior eye color. They were given extra food at lunch, allowed special access to the jungle gym on the playground and allowed extra time during recess. They sat at the front of the class, while the brown eyed children had to sit at the back. They were encouraged to stay with their own kind and the brown eyed children were not allowed to drink from the same water fountain. Elliot would use the brown eyed students as examples of negative traits and single people from this group out to make a point in class.
Reflecting the innocence of youth, at first the children were resistant to the idea that the blue eyed children were simply better than brown eyed, but then Jane Elliot provided proof. She lied to the class and told them that the genetic factors that determine blue eyes are also linked to higher intelligence and learning ability. That it’s just the facts of nature.
This is where things get interesting. After receiving this justification, the superior group began to fulfill their roles. They became more arrogant, mean, and bossy to their inferior classmates. They also fulfilled their role as the more intelligent children by scoring high on simple tests and actually rising to levels above their baseline ability on certain tests of math and reading.
But they weren’t the only ones. The inferior group of brown eyed students also fulfilled their role. They became more timid and subservient. Their test scores declined and they often isolated themselves during recess. Presumably experiencing resentment along with their isolation. Even children who were outgoing and bright suffered socially and academically during the experiment.
The next week, the experiment was reversed. Interestingly, the brown eyed students played along and mocked the blue eyed students – it is reported that the level was simply much less intense and the students did not seem to internalize the experience as much, now that the dividing lines had already been established.
If this experiment seems unethical or shocking to you, you would not be alone in that sentiment. Jane Elliot was essentially ostracized by her fellow teachers following the simulation. She received wide coverage in the press and on talk shows, which brought along strong criticism from the public.
One infamous letter from a viewer of her interview on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson read:
How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children? Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there’s no way they could possibly understand it. It’s cruel to white children and will cause them psychological damage.
The hate and backlash didn’t stop there. Elliot’s eldest daughter came out of the bathroom stall at her junior high school to see a hateful message directed toward her scrawled in red lipstick on the mirror. Clearly this experiment struck a chord with people. And it does make you think. It’s astonishing how simple it is to create an air of divisiveness within groups when simple rules and truths are enforced, regardless of their actual veracity.
The part that sticks out to me, though, is the behavior of the inferior group. It is well understood now that at least to some degree, self-fulfilling prophecies are real. I find it fascinating how in such a short time, a forcefully marginalized group could live up – or down as it were – to their role and begin to struggle on basic academic tasks. The internalized sense of helplessness that no matter what they do, they are probably in the wrong, so why bother trying, breaks my heart.
It makes me reflect on the experience of marginalized groups in the world today. Much like the experiment, the behavior that majority groups internally fear from groups that have been marginalized likely began from a seed of forcefully imposed separation and then people on either side simply began to fill their rolls in a slippery slope that we have not found a way to reverse to this day.