This is a guest post by Melissa Sweat from the DM archives. It seems timely again so we’re re-posting it
“It might be interesting to judge people today by the color of their eyes. Would you like to try this? Sounds like fun doesn’t it?” –Jane Elliott
The class of third graders are told that blue-eyed people are smarter and better than brown-eyed people. Blue-eyed people get an extra five minutes of recess, and the two groups aren’t allowed to play with one another on the playground. The brown-eyed children wear fabric collars so they can be identified from a distance. When, during recess, one of the children calls the other “brown-eyed” as an epithet and the child retaliates by slugging the taunter, Jane Elliott does what any good teacher would do: the child is reprimanded, but the overall exercise continues.
It was the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 that Elliott ran her first “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise in her Riceville, Iowa classroom. In 1970, Elliott would come to national attention when ABC broadcast their Eye of the Storm documentary which filmed the experiment in action. Below, is a portion from the 1985 PBS Frontline documentary A Class Divided which features the ABC footage as well as clips of a class reunion.
Elliott would earn further renown appearing on The Tonight Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show and speaking at over 300 colleges and universities throughout her career. Her landmark exercise helped pioneer the field of diversity training and anti-racism education in which she still works to this day.
Watching Elliott perform her social experiment on her class of young children, it’s easy to notice her determined reserve—and also just how psychologically deep she’s treading as she instigates the discrimination amongst her students. One can’t help but wonder if an exercise this controversial would even fly in today’s classrooms, and how many parents back then might have complained that this lesson was too forward and inappropriate for their children. Perhaps they didn’t want their kids being taught outside the “three Rs” curriculum, or about the difficult subject of racism in such a fervent time. Maybe some thought it didn’t pertain to their small, all-white towns.
Certainly Elliott garnered criticism for teaching and treading against the grain, though her impact reached well beyond her Iowa classroom because of it.
This is a guest post by Melissa Sweat