This OTYCD post originally ran in January 2019.
Let Jane Elliott open your eyes about racism in America.
Elliott became an activist after Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in 1968. Shocked by the racist reactions she heard about King’s death, the elementary-school teacher designed an exercise for her young, white students in small-town Iowa that would show them what racism felt like.
She dubbed it the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise.” On day one, she showed blatant favoritism to the blue-eyed kids, giving them extra helpings at lunchtime and five extra minutes of recess. She treated the brown-eyed kids as African-Americans were treated then, forcing them to sit at the back of the class and barring them from using the same water fountain that the blue-eyed kids did. She spouted ridiculous arguments about blue-eyed superiority, and antagonized brown-eyed kids who complained about their treatment. Some blue-eyed kids became bossy and nasty to their brown-eyed peers.
The experiment seemed to affect how well the two groups did on tests and schoolwork. The “superior” kids did better and felt confident enough to attempt harder work. The “inferior” kids withdrew and did less well in class.
The next day, the two groups changed places. Then Elliott asked the kids to write about how the experiment made them feel.
Word got out about the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment. It led to an appearance on The Tonight Show, two books, and a 1970 ABC documentary, The Eye of the Storm, which spread the word further. Demand for lectures and diversity training workshops became so strong that Elliott left her public school career in the mid-1980s.
It should be said that academic analyses of the effects of Elliott’s experiment are mixed. It seems to show moderate success in reducing bigotry long-term, but it might not be enough to justify the trauma the experiment could inflict on its participants. (Elliott caught flak for doing the experiment with eight-year-olds rather than trying it on teenagers or adults.)
Regardless of whether the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment succeeds in making white people less racist, Elliott’s lectures can help you understand white privilege and push back against it.
See Jane Elliott’s homepage:
See her recommended bibliography, which is a good place to get started with learning about white privilege and its effects. The list also includes titles that cover sexism, homophobia, ageism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry in general:
See her Lectures page to learn what programs she’s offering currently:
Like her Facebook page:
Visit her online store to buy documentaries that feature her work, plus the top she often wears when lecturing, in t-shirt and sweatshirt versions:
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