After MLK’s Assassination, a Schoolteacher Conducted a Famous Experiment–“Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes”–to Teach Kids About Discrimination

Get­ting his­to­ry across to young stu­dents is chal­leng­ing enough, but what should a teacher do when actu­al his­to­ry-mak­ing events hap­pen on their watch? They have to be acknowl­edged, but to what extent do they have to be explained, even “taught”? Of the teach­ers who have turned his­to­ry-in-the-mak­ing into a les­son, per­haps the most famous is Jane Elliott of Riceville, Iowa. On April 5, 1968, the day after Mar­tin Luther King Jr.‘s assas­si­na­tion, she divid­ed her class­room of third-graders along col­or lines: blue-eyed and brown-eyed. On the first day she grant­ed the brown-eyed stu­dents such spe­cial priv­i­leges as desks in the front rows, sec­ond help­ings at lunch, and five extra min­utes of recess. The next day she reversed the sit­u­a­tion, and the blue-eyed kids had the perks.

What brought seri­ous atten­tion to Elliot­t’s small-town class­room exper­i­ment was the result­ing arti­cle in the Riceville Recorder, which report­ed some of what her stu­dents wrote in their assign­ments respond­ing to the expe­ri­ence. The Asso­ci­at­ed Press picked up the arti­cle and soon Elliott received a call from The Tonight Show invit­ing her to come chat with John­ny Car­son about her “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exer­cise on nation­al tele­vi­sion.

“I did­n’t know how this exer­cise would work,” Elliott tells Jim­my Fal­lon on the clip from the cur­rent Tonight Show at the top of the post. “If I had known how it would work, I prob­a­bly would­n’t have done it. If I had known that, after I did that exer­cise, I lost all my friends, no teacher would speak to me where they could be seen speak­ing to me, because it was­n’t good pol­i­tics to be seen talk­ing to the town’s only ‘N‑word lover.’ ”

Elliot­t’s fam­i­ly also expe­ri­enced severe blow­back from her sud­den fame, but it did­n’t stop her from fur­ther­ing the clear­ly res­o­nant idea she had devised. She con­tin­ued to per­form Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes in class: the third time, it was filmed and became the 1970 tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary The Eye of the Storm. (Some of the lan­guage used by her stu­dents sure­ly would­n’t make it to the air today.) Fif­teen years lat­er, PBS’ Front­line reunit­ed Elliot­t’s third-grade class of 1970 for its Emmy Award-win­ning episode A Class Divid­ed, and a decade there­after Ger­man film­mak­er Bertram Ver­haag would again film Elliott per­form­ing her sig­na­ture exer­cise for the doc­u­men­tary Blue Eyed. In a vari­ety of set­tings across Amer­i­ca and the world, Elliott con­tin­ues, in her late eight­ies, to make her point. It isn’t always well received, as she reveals in this Front­line fol­low-up inter­view, and at times has even drawn threats of vio­lence. “I can be scared, but I won’t be scared to death,” she says. “Or, at my age, of death.”

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s Hand­writ­ten Syl­labus & Final Exam for the Phi­los­o­phy Course He Taught at More­house Col­lege (1962)

How Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Used Niet­zsche, Hegel & Kant to Over­turn Seg­re­ga­tion in Amer­i­ca

Read Mar­tin Luther King and The Mont­gomery Sto­ry: The Influ­en­tial 1957 Civ­il Rights Com­ic Book

How a Virus Spreads, and How to Avoid It: A For­mer NASA Engi­neer Demon­strates with a Black­light in a Class­room

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • EB says:

    I have seen this going around the Inter­net and I am con­cerned by how uncrit­i­cal­ly peo­ple have accept­ed this form of learn­ing. It is impor­tant for chil­dren to learn about the evils of prej­u­dice and racism. But I do not think edu­ca­tion should ever require that stu­dents be humil­i­at­ed, no mat­ter the guise and no mat­ter the cause. Much as the teacher is well-inten­tioned, this is an exer­cise in teacher-man­dat­ed bul­ly­ing. I have seen an exam­ple of this method used more recent­ly on col­lege kids, in which the pro­fes­sor enlists the stu­dents them­selves to jeer at blue-eyed stu­dents (in this case I do not think the exer­cise was reversed). When one blue-eyed stu­dent wants to leave, the pro­fes­sor says she may only do so only on the con­di­tion that she per­son­al­ly apol­o­gize to every brown-eyed stu­dent in the room. This is degrad­ing. The medievals believed in the purifi­ca­tion of the soul through the cleans­ing flames of fire. I’d like to think that in the 21st cen­tu­ry we do not still sub­scribe to the notion that our guilt may only be expur­gat­ed through the suf­fer­ing of the guilty.

    This is a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple, but it also has con­crete con­se­quences. I can­not help but think that one of the myr­i­ad lessons learned in this class­room envi­ron­ment is that there are times and places when it is okay for the teacher or the oth­er stu­dents to treat each oth­er unfair­ly, as long as it is prop­er­ly “jus­ti­fied.” Chil­dren learn that ratio­nal­iza­tion is the means by which any behav­ior is sanc­tioned. It also instills in stu­dents pre­cise­ly the oppo­site mes­sage that we want to tele­graph: that the way they look is of absolute­ly para­mount impor­tance every­where and always, even in the class­room. Real­ists might say that this is true of real life — but should it be encour­aged? Sought after? Insti­tut­ed by teacher? The class­room should be a place where a child’s appear­ance — and par­tic­u­lar­ly judg­ments about whether that appear­ance is good or bad — is nev­er part of the cur­ricu­lum for any rea­son.

    Bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er, encour­ag­ing empa­thy, reduc­ing alien­ation, pro­mot­ing equal­i­ty, destroy­ing prej­u­dice is the goal. This is not accom­plished by mim­ic­k­ing the out­side world and divid­ing stu­dents up into sep­a­rate teacher-man­dat­ed castes. I would not be sur­prised if after this exper­i­ment the pri­vate rela­tion­ships between the blue-eyed and brown-eyed stu­dents remained less mixed than ever.

  • Bill W. says:

    Inter­est­ing exper­i­ment; how­ev­er, when real racism can’t be found, invent it! It’s why “micro-aggres­sion” even exists. Pub­lic schools should­n’t be lab­o­ra­to­ries for social engi­neer­ing, that’s what col­lege is for. Schools today will teach, or indoc­tri­nate, young stu­dents on the woke-beliefs of-the-day, but they won’t teach those same kids how to bal­ance their check­book, or write neat cur­sive, etc. Use­ful life-skills. It’s uncom­fort­able, but a fact. If any­thing, wait till they hit puber­ty, so their now-abstract minds can decide for them­selves about the said-issue dis­cussed in the class­room.

  • Thomas Stark says:

    While I con­sid­er myself a con­ser­v­a­tive in most con­texts such as lim­it­ed role for gov­ern­ment, fis­cal restraint, per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, and faith in God, I found myself won­der­ing why this is not used in every class­room in the U.S. The left­ists that have become so much a part of edu­ca­tion claim that con­ser­v­a­tives are the ones per­pet­u­at­ing racism, but the real­i­ty is that the par­ty of the left, Demo­c­rat Par­ty, has been respon­si­ble for seg­re­ga­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion, Jim Crow,and the wel­fare state that has kept the black com­mu­ni­ty down for over a cen­tu­ry. Per­haps that is exact­ly why this is not a stan­dard part of the cur­ricu­lum in our schools. That is both sad and mad­den­ing. I was serv­ing in Viet­nam when these events took place. Nobody thought any­thing about race in the mil­i­tary at that time. We were all there to do the same jobs. The exper­i­ment in this video — most impor­tant­ly — pro­vides the per­fect body of evi­dence for why the black com­mu­ni­ty feels the way they do. Telling some­one they are less human, less intel­li­gent, or just dif­fer­ent and infe­ri­or quick­ly pro­duces a belief that those things are true. This is what wel­fare and gov­ern­ment depen­den­cy does to the human spir­it. Poli­cies that encour­age per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty and oppor­tu­ni­ty for every­one are the means of lift­ing all peo­ple to be the best that they can be. There is no way for any per­son to know what dis­crim­i­na­tion does to you unless it is expe­ri­enced and this teacher hit the nail on the head when it comes to the per­fect means to do that while kids are young and impres­sion­able. Kudos to the teacher.

  • Thomas Stark says:

    You have no idea how wrong you are. Destroy­ing prej­u­dice can tru­ly only be done by hav­ing the offend­er expe­ri­ence what it is like to be dis­crim­i­nat­ed against. In order to do that, the seeds must be plant­ed through an exper­i­ment such as this one when their minds are impres­sion­able and they have not been hard­ened by expo­sure to a soci­ety that has insti­tu­tion­al­ized a mind­set. Our coun­try has come a long way toward the goal of equal­i­ty and there is like­ly no way to elim­i­nate indi­vid­ual cas­es of dis­crim­i­na­tion or racism, but it would have tak­en a lot less time to achieve has all of my gen­er­a­tion had been exposed to this exer­cise. Sit­ting around in a cir­cle singing Kum-by-yah has lit­tle last­ing effect. There has to be a per­son­al impact to make it sink in.

  • Lynda P says:

    I grew up in south­west­ern Michi­gan dur­ing the ‘70s. My fifth grade teacher did this exer­cise with our class. While we weren’t allowed to scape­goat our fel­low class­mates, the expe­ri­ence of being part of the non-priv­i­leged group had a pro­found impact on how I learned to treat oth­ers.

    We also had a junior high teacher who had us do the bunker exer­cise where there’s sup­plies for few­er peo­ple than were there, and as a group, we had to decide who deserved to
    Live and defend our choic­es.

    In my expe­ri­ence, this result­ed in me look­ing past some­one unlike me as “oth­er” and to find where we were more alike.

  • Brooklynn Thomas says:

    I don’t get why peo­ple hate blue eyes, we are humans too… I’m cry­ing by the fact that they think we are evil. Not all blue eyes should be con­sid­ered evil. Now i feel unsafe about this world how all these peo­ple are going like “Can­cel blue eyes!! We hate blue eyes!” please just please we don’t want this to hap­pen… I don’t. X’O

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