Jane Elliott is an American icon and anti-racism activist. Her 1968 classroom experiment, “blue-eyes, brown-eyes,” received national attention and has since been turned into a documentary aired on ABC, The Eye of the Storm and subsequent books. Elliott appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show 5 times, was featured as Person of the Week by Peter Jennings, and in November 2016 was named to the BBC’s annual list of 100 women.
The following article was submitted to the Spilled Milk Club by Jane herself.
On the morning of April 5th, 1968, I went into my third-grade classroom in all-white, all-Christian Riceville, Iowa, prepared to put my students through an exercise in discrimination, based on the color of their eyes.
It was the morning after Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and I was desperate to help my students to realize how truly ugly this killing was. Our lesson plan for the day had been to learn the prayer which Sioux Indians recited, which was, “Oh, Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” I had decided, after watching Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather interview leaders of the black community, the night before, that I could not allow my students to view this murder in as casual and insensitive a manner as those two adult, educated, accomplished white males were doing. John Dewey told us many years ago that we learn by doing and it seemed to me that my students would only truly relate to this death if they experienced a tiny taste of what MLK and people of his color group were experiencing.
What happened on that fateful day in my classroom has changed me in ways that I did not anticipate. I didn’t realize, when I decided to put blue-eyed people on the bottom and brown-eyed people on the top on the first day, that my brown-eyed students would delight in discriminating against not only their blue-eyed peers, but also their blue-eyed teacher. When little Debbie, in the front row, asked me how come I was a teacher when I had ‘them blue eyes”, I was hard put to justify my position of power, until a blue-eyed boy countered with, “If she didn’t have those blue eyes, she’d be either the principal or superintendent; they’re both brown-eyed.”
When I went to the teachers’ lounge, at noon, hoping to get some support from my peers, and the older of the other two third-grade teachers responded to my description of what was going on in my classroom, with, “I don’t know why you’re doing that. I thought it was about time someone shot that son of a bitch”, I was absolutely appalled, but determined not to end the exercise until every student in that classroom had learned more than that teacher, and those who didn’t confront her for what she had said, had ever learned.
I created a microcosm of society in my classroom on that two-day exercise and what I saw was shocking and dismaying and unacceptable. I watched happy, kind, gentle souls become vicious, nasty, discriminating racists in the space of 15 minutes. I would have argued with anyone who suggested that my students would ever treat their peers the way they did on the day they were on the top in that exercise, if I hadn’t seen what happened on that day. I watched brown-eyed dyslexic boys, who had been unable to read and spell with any degree of accuracy, before the exercise, suddenly become students who could read and spell as never before. On the other hand, I watched students who, until that day, had been exemplary students; excited, creative and, in some cases, brilliant, become intimidated, defeated, angry little third-graders who only wanted the day to end. This, because their teacher had given one group magic eyes and total dominance in the classroom while the other group was treated as people who had no hope and who would probably never succeed.
I had, indeed, created a microcosm of society in my classroom on that day. 48 years ago I hoped that my students would learn enough from what they experienced during those awful two days to make them aware of how discrimination impacts both those who are the discriminators, and those who are the victims. I displayed a society where the leader does not discourage those who have been designated as superior from behaving in ugly, unacceptable ways and, in fact, assists them in, and rewards them for, being, saying, and doing uncivil things to one another.
I thought that the learning was just about what my nine-year-olds were willing to do to one another; I was certain that their reactions were only those of children. Until this year.
Now, as a result of the nomination of Donald Trump for the presidency, I am seeing my brown-eyes-blue eyes (BE/BE) exercise being enacted by adults at the national level and I suddenly am realizing how very powerful that exercise actually was.
We are seeing a leader who not only tolerates but encourages racist, sexist, homophobic, ethnocentric words and deeds and also leads in exhibiting exactly how to make that behavior accomplish what it is he intends to bring about in the future.
Not since the end of WWII have I seen someone in a position of great power work so diligently to separate people from one another by invoking fear and distrust of the ‘other’ in citizens of one of the most civilized countries on the face of the earth. Never have I seen this country become as Hitlerian as it is today. Hitler was a twisted individual who was willing to do whatever it took to destroy a group of people, not because they were the ugly persons he described them as being, but because he needed to create an enemy, for the ignorant, the under-employed, the under-educated, the impoverished, and the angry to use as targets, against whom they could vent their spleen. And all for the purpose of achieving power which he hadn’t earned, didn’t deserve, and wouldn’t know how to control.
The students in my classroom knew that the exercise was going to be over at the end of the second day. The people that we are now being encouraged to regard as the ‘other’ because of skin color, religion, gender, age, and sexual orientation in this country, today, have no indication that this exercise is going to stop, at least for the next four years. How will we who have let this happen explain this disgusting situation to our children and grandchildren in the future? And what are we willing to do to make it stop?
The very least we can do in order to bring some kind of sense to this thing, is to teach our children, of whatever age, that race is not the problem. There is only one race on the face of the earth and that is the human race, of which we are all members. There are many different color groups, but only one race and, until we can see that what harms another member of the human race, harms each of us, we will not be able to claim that we are a civil society and that we have finally given up the myth of race.
Remember Edmund Burke’s statement: “The only thing necessary for the perpetuation of evil is for good people to do nothing.”
You can read Jane’s latest book, A Collar In My Pocket: Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise by clicking the link in title. You can also follow Jane on Facebook.