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.
Horizon: People and Possibilities The Eyes of Jane Elliott: