How racist are you?
That is the question that lies at the core of Jane Elliott’s Brown Eye-Blue Eye experiment. In 1968, Jane Elliott was a third-grade teacher in a small, all-white town and decided to divide the classroom into two groups — brown-eyed and blue-eyed — to teach the children about discrimination. On certain days, the blue-eyed students were told they were far superior to those with brown eyes. They were smarter, stronger, and brighter. Then she flipped the balance of power — telling students that brown-eyed students were far better than those with blue-eyes. The experiment had profound results. The “superior” group immediately embraced their power and privilege, truly treating their classmates as inferior beings. The “inferior” group fought at first, but eventually gave in — taking on the submissive, helpless role. To read more about experiment and the children involved, watch PBS’s A Class Divided.
This isn’t an outdated textbook story about ignorant children. Because Jane Elliott continues to conduct these “workshops” — even today.
JANE ELLIOTT’S WORKSHOPS TODAY
The small classroom activity has evolved into seminars about modern racism for the white majority, and warning: Jane Elliott’s pretty brutal. But I believe her jarring rudeness is actually necessary to teach those with privilege what it feels like to be a person of color in this country — helpless and drowning in stereotypes. Their ignorance and stubbornness amazed me.
At one point, a black man in the brown-eyed group talked about how he doesn’t pick up his daughter at her private school in a middle class, rural area. His daughter is the only non-white in her school, and no one knows that she has a half-black father. If he picked her up, everyone would know and treat her differently. He doesn’t want her to live with those burdens.
At this point, a blue-eyed school teacher piped up. Well, my ex-husband had that too. “He has to conform. He has to wear a business suit. He has to wear a tie. He has to speak beautifully. He’s actually a rugby player from way back. He’s happy wearing sloppy old jumpers. He used to have his hair longer. So we have to conform as well. He would conform to pick up my daughter from her school. He would not turn up looking like a scruff bag with long hair, bad clothes, bad breath, unwashed, bad shoes.”
Jane Elliott argues that it’s not the same, but the school teacher stands her ground. “No! It’s exactly the same.”
In another workshop, the blue-eyed group were brought in and scolded for not having brought paper and pencil for class. When some of them spoke out angrily, saying that they had never been told, Jane Eliott just pointed to the posters around the classroom. Blue-eyed people are lazy, argumentative, and unprepared. Everything the blue-eyed people did or said to resist the discrimination only reinforced that stereotype. “We couldn’t win.” Eventually they lost hope and became silent.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in A Letter from Birmingham Jail, that the “great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” was “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Nearly fifty years later, here we are. With a country full of sympathetic white moderates, who only intellectually understand the plight of the country’s second class citizens from their ivory tower of privilege; who believe that it’s our job to fight racism and bring about change while they sustain and perpetuate their privileged lives; who argue that being a person of color is like being obese or unkempt — as if the color of our skin is something we could just scratch off or take off like a costume.
We still have long ways to go.