Blue Eye/Brown Eye is an experiment performed by Jane Elliot in 1968 on the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated to demonstrate what prejudice was to her third grade class. The basic idea was to separate the class into two halves - those with blue eyes and those with brown. She then told them that the children with blue eyes were inherently inferior to the children with brown eyes - they were denied access to play equipment, they were told they were stupid, and they were not allowed to socialize with members of the 'superior group'. The next day the roles were reversed, with the blue-eyed children treated as better.

The idea behind the experiment was to show the children first hand what prejudice was like. In this it was a success: on days when students were part of the inferior group, they showed lower test scores, less enthusiasm, and more hostility towards activities in the classroom.

The experiment has since been repeated with dramatic results elsewhere, with both children and adults. There are of course some major ethical questions raised by the original experiment - particularly the concept of 'informed consent'.

Jane Elliott was an elementary-school teacher in hometown of Riceville, Iowa. The "hero of the month" in Elliott’s fourth-grade class was Dr. Martin Luther King and Elliot was convinced that "what he was doing was right for all of us, not just for blacks." When King was shot the students wanted to know why their hero had been killed. It was then that the teacher decided to teach her students from this all white community about racism.

She questioned the kids about what they thought a black person was, even though they had never met one. Their responses were especially vicious.

"They’re dirty," "They stink," "They don’t smell good," "They riot, they steal," "You can’t trust them, my dad says they better not try to move in next door to us."

It was time for an evaluation of these horrifying responses and what follows is the content of the lesson plan. The students would reveal without a doubt to her that racism was created.

She divided the class into two groups: the brown eyes and the blue eyes. Anyone not fitting these categories, such as those with green or hazel eyes, was considered an outsider and did not actively participate in the exercise. Elliott told her children that brown-eyed people were superior to blue-eyed due to the amount of the color-causing-chemical, melanin, in their blood.

Elliot said that blue-eyed people were stupid and lazy and not to be trusted. To ensure that the eye color differentiation could be made swiftly, Elliott handed out strips of cloth that fastened at the neck as collars. The brown eyes gleefully affixed the cloth-made shackles on their blue-eyed counterparts.

Next Elliott withdrew her blue-eyed students’ basic classroom rights, such as drinking directly from the water fountain or taking a second helping at lunch. Brown-eyed kids, on the other hand, received preferential treatment. In addition to being permitted to boss around the blues, the browns were given an extended recess.

Elliott recalls, "It was just horrifying how quickly they became what I told them they were." Within 30 minutes, a blue-eyed girl named Carol had regressed from a "brilliant, self-confident carefree, excited little girl to a frightened, timid, uncertain little almost-person."

On the flip side, the brown-eyed children excelled under their newfound superiority. Elliott had seven students with dyslexia in her class that year and four of them had brown eyes. On the day that the browns were "on top," those four brown-eyed boys with dyslexia read words that Elliott "knew they couldn’t read" and spelled words that she "knew they couldn’t spell."*

Seeing her brown-eyed students act like "arrogant, ugly, domineering, overbearing White Americans" with no instructions to do so proved to Elliott that racism is learned. Prior to that day in 1968, her students had expressed neither positive nor negative thoughts about each other based on eye color. Yes, Elliott taught them that it was all right to judge one another based on eye color, but she did not teach them how to oppress. "They already knew how to be racist because every one of them knew without my telling them how to treat those who were on the bottom," says Elliott.

That day, Elliott discovered that "you can create racism. And, as with anything, if you can create it, you can destroy it." For 14 out of the next 16 years that Elliott taught in Riceville, she conducted the exercise. In the white enclave of Riceville, fighting racism was not looked upon by most as an honorable duty. As a result of her work, kids beat up her own children. Her parents’ business lost customers. Elliott and her family received regular death threats. And each fall, parents called Elliott’s principal and said, "I don’t want my kid in that nigger-lover’s classroom!"

Not everyone was against Elliott. She believes that 80 percent of the people in Riceville were compassionate, caring people who were concerned about their school and their kids and their community. But, says Elliott, the 20 percent, the vocal, vicious minority, intimidated the rest of them. It seemed as though the only Ricevilleans strong enough to stand up to this vicious minority were Elliott’s students. After participating in the exercise, says Elliott, her students went home and argued with their fathers about racism. Imagine: 8-year-old children telling their parents that they were wrong.

In the1980's Elliot began to do her Blue Eye / Brown Eye experiment for corporations who felt their companies were in need of diversity training challenging racist behavior and thought. Since then there have been great strides in becoming aware of racism in America and even though not all whites are racists, unfortunately all blacks still face racism in their lives, the question of racism is always present.

Elliott emphasizes her point in her speeches on college campuses, she wants people to begin to "recognize racism when they see it, know that it is a choice that we make and that we can choose to not go along with racism." It is not a black problem, explains Elliott, racism is a "white attitudinal problem." For too many years we have been blaming racism on people of color, says Elliott. We have thought, "If you people would just get white we’d all be all right." Wrong. If people would just accept that, as Elliott says, "we are all different and have the right to be so," it will all be all right.

Although I've never had the opportunity to teach this lesson in a classroom. And I have never heard the issue of informed consent raised in my community. This is not a scientific experiment, a drama nor an act, but a lesson plan. Elliott's objective as she states, is to have the students define for themselves what and where their racisms derived from, to learn that racism is created and to understand that everyone is subject to a set of prejudices and how to recognize them. My son says that he learned ".... how unfair racism is and to treat all people equally." It's been an established lesson plan for well over twenty years and a professional teacher doesn't need consent to do his or her job.... to teach. Both of my sons have 'gone through the experiment' and their understanding is that we all have our own set of prejudices. A good lesson to learn about life anywhere.

Excerpted from:
Horizon: People and Possibilities The Eyes of Jane Elliott:

As a person who was subjected to this experiment, I have to say this: It's dumb, many people know about it, and it makes you (the person administering the experiment) look SOOOOO presumptuous. The effect was totally lost on me since I'd seen the PBS special some time before.

It may have some value, in that it shows people just how stupidly they can behave, but it is a very played-out and sometimes cruel sociological device. However, like I said, if even one person in the group knows what you are doing, they are not going to get anything out of it, and may actively try to throw a wrench into the works. I certainly did.

Let's go into the informed consent thing mentioned by Baron Saturday, above. I don't appreciate being used as some kind of weird guinea pig, especially at the behest of some youth leader who is getting incredible kicks out of watching a process he started to affect everyone except himself. I wasn't amused by the tedium of the other youth leaders pretending to give me the evil eye, nor by the order to sit on the ground. Oh, and look, now we're being told to trade places with the "oppressors." Fabulous! Now we get to treat them like they treated us!!! HOORAY.

Later, as we were discussing it, I said that I didn't particularly associate myself with the whole experience, that I didn't feel a part of the group, either as oppressed or oppressors. Because no one else felt that way (or had the guts to stand up and say so), I was obviously wrong. I might have forgot to mention that I'd seen the PBS special beforehand. :)

So, to recap: Don't do this experiment. Seriously, don't. Humans are not toys for use in fueling your private ego trip. True, some of your subjects may appreciate the experiment, or at least feign appreciation so as not to seem the odd one out. However, I can virtually guarantee that some of your subjects will not appreciate being treated like pawns.

Strictly speaking, this does not constitute an experiment - rather, it is a work of drama; a play to be acted out.

Were it an actual scientific experiment, it would have to be administered in a double-blind fashion. As described here, the teacher (experimenter) is likely to unduly influence the results by imposing his/her own values and preconceptions. Likewise, as stated by DoctorNo, the subjects of the "experiment" can also impose their own values and opinions on the outcome.

The only thing this fabricated social drama proves decisively is that humans, like many other mammals, have a strong urge to establish hierarchy and "pecking order".

I have some experience with "the 'Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes' Game" — as it was called by a school where I barely survived it. The school (name and locale on request) is still in business; it was, and is, an incredibly Politically Correctitudinous place — where the events described below occurred in October 1970: a month after I had started there in third grade as a transfer student from another school where I had been seriously abused (by teachers, and by delighted classmates at the teachers' instigation) throughout the two years it took me to convince my parents that this was being done. At my new school (which Mom and Dad had selected as a low-pressure, "accepting" sort of place), the third-grade teacher (Elaine Watts) was one of several throughout the country who were, right then, trying out "Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes" as a method of teaching children not to be bigots. As I recall, my third-grade teacher had recently learned about this “game,” at a conference, from its inventor Jane Elliott (with whom I, too, decades later also had some personal contact, under circumstances described below). Anyway, Ms. Watts (yes, my third-grade teacher was one of the early adopters of the title "Ms.") had been trained by Ms. Elliott in this "game" which was meant to teach us all about prejudice by first telling us as scientific fact — for a week or two — that blue-eyed people were a superior race (smarter, cleaner, braver, better-behaved, more alert, beautiful, smelled nicer, and all the rest of it) and revising classroom procedures accordingly (blue-eyed children getting to be first in line for recess, and all imaginable other sorts of special favors and extra perks and help, academically and otherwise, while brown-eyes like me were pariahs: the two green-eyed kids were counted among the brown-eyes, simply in order to make the numbers of the two castes roughly equal) — then, of course (as Ms. Watts told us on Friday afternoon after a week of this grade-school Hitlerism), for the NEXT week the tables would be turned and the BROWN-eyed kids were to be the masters, the blue-eyes the underling pariahs) ... that's how it was SUPPOSED to be done, by the protocol for this exercise, BUT ... when Friday afternoon came, and Ms. Watts announced: "Actually, I've made a mistake: it turns out that BROWN-eyed people are the better type of human; of course, I probably made that mistake because I have blue eyes, which explains why I had to study for years and years before they would let me teach even little third-graders" ... when Ms. Watts announced the turn-around (which we'd all been expecting anyway, as we all had been told in advance that this whole set-up WAS an experiment to teach us about bigotry and its consequences), most of the class (blue-eyed and brown-eyed both) said they were "not gonna keep playing, because we are NOT gonna take having HER pointing to me- be one of the good guys! If you do this give me 'perks' and top-dog status when it's the turn of brown-eyed kids to get these, we are NOT gonna cooperate with your experiment any more!"The "popular girls'" clique, especially — all of whom happened to have blue eyes (and all of whom had ALREADY despised me thoroughly from the moment I arrived at the school ) — swore that, IF I were granted a turn at privilege, they would disrupt, not only the experiment, but the classroom and all teaching therein, if I were to be given privileges or favor of any sort. "NO WAY are you putting her above us, at our school!" (They were all very conscious — and made sure that I, too, never forgot — that I was there on a hefty scholarship, and that my parents therefore paid far less of our teacher's salary than was paid by the parents of the "popular clique" kids.) So ... what did Ms. Watts do, for the sake of the instructional game? She decided that, come Monday, for the rest of the experiment I'd be an "Honorary Blue-Eyes": so that the game, and all we were presumed to learn therefrom, might go on.I am sure my classmates learned SOMETHING from having my own interests sacrificed for (as I was expressly told) the sake of theirs. however, I have excellent reason to believe that what they learned was not the lesson intended. Throughout the rest of my time at the school — grades 3 through 9 — and much later during conversations/correspondence with some of them (once Facebook made it easy to find old classmates & re-introduce myself), it was plain every day that the lessons they'd learned (or that they'd already had well in hand, which the experiment simply reinforced) were:/a/ the ancient joys of bigotry and peer pressure,/b/ that the less numerous may be sacrificed to the more numerous, in the name of the greater good of the greatest number. (Ms. Watts, and other teachers and staff there, never tired of explaining to me that I should actually feel honored to have "the opportunity to help out the other students' psychological and emotional growth, by being the student they can gain so much from. You are just one person, they are a greater number, and fairness is when the greatest number benefits," etc., etc., etc.)and /c/ for at least some classmates, a corresponding dread that, when I continued to be bullied by the teacher and classmates ("in the name of the greater good") throughout the months and years AFTER the experiment, any classmate of mine might well become the next victim if s/he ever protested or sought to counter the way they had to watch me being treated by teachers and others. ("You've got to be carefully taught ... to hate," runs a Broadway show tune: it's unfortunately a lesson far more easily and quickly learned than the SOUTH PACIFIC lyricists imagined.)Decades later, here's how I came into contact with the experiment's deviser, Jane Elliott. She had just appeared on OPRAH (where Mom and I saw her tell how she had eventually from third-grade teaching into a new and full-time career— still continuing, as I write this — of doing a version of "Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes" as sensitivity training at colleges and in the workplace).So Mom wanted to find and SCREAM at this woman for devising something whose observable after-effects on me had been a direct contributory cause for the school's referring me to a psychiatrist ( it the first I had had, anyway). I called Oprah's studio next morning when they opened for business, got Jane Elliott's phone-number and had her on the phone with Mom and me within twenty minutes ... Jane listened to my story (from me and from Mom) and stated unequivocally that /a/ the exercise should NOT have been sacrificially distorted and conceptually mangled as it had glaringly been in my case (accommodating a group's cherished bigotry is no way to teach group-members to wish to end it!), and that /b/ if Jane had been the one in charge (doing this exercise in a school, workplace, or anywhere else), she would have looked beforehand at the extant interpersonal dynamics — and, therefore, would NOT have done, or recommended, or enabled doing, her exercise (or anything similar) in a classroom where "pariah status" would have to be assigned to a newcomer to the group, let alone to the group's SOLE NEWCOMER, let alone to anyone who was ALREADY the group's chosen and approved pariah/scapegoat/target/etc.How many other people out there have been harmed by any version of "Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes"? (whether applied "by the book" or applied as in my case) — are there any other people out there to whom (as in my case) it was INTENTIONALLY misapplied because otherwise it would have privileged someone who was already the designated sacrifice? I need to know: and I want, deserve, and maybe need to be in touch with other such people. But so far, whenever I've met other survivors or the exercise, anywhere, 99.98% of them have said it was a great and wonderful thing. (Some, like the teacher who had inflicted it, told me I should be proud to have been sacrificed for a procedure this great, this wonderful.)

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