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Jane Elliott's Education Exercise

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the racial turmoil that was stirred up inspired Jane Elliot, a third-grade schoolteacher. Living in a small Iowa farming town, comprised of a primarily all-white population, it was easy to come across racial stereotypes. Reflecting the racial makeup of the community at large, the class also consisted of all white students. Elliott’s original plan for the day’s lesson was to teach the eight-year old students a Sioux prayer about acceptance. However, she realized that a more blatant approach would have to be used in order to teach the children about the consequences of racism. It was all well and good to simply talk about racism, but as with many other people in the community, Elliott realized that it would only result in furthering ignorance and stereotypes.

When the children arrived in class, Elliott started by asking them to discuss their current knowledge of black people. The bulk of the responses were largely typecast ideas, such as unemployment or ignorance, which the children may well have heard from adults around them in their daily lives. As Elliott questioned them, she proposed an activity to help them understand racism. Since all the children were white, she suggested separating the class into two groups according to eye color: brown eyes and blue eyes. In part, this criteria was inspired by the way prisoners were sent to the gas chambers during World War II: based on their eye color. For the first round of the exercise, the blue-eyed children were deemed the superior group. The inferior brown-eyed group had to wear brown collars. For the remainder of the day, the blue-eyed group received extra privileges such as more food at lunchtime and extra play during recess. Moreover, they were encouraged not to mingle with the brown-eyed group. On her part, Elliott reprimanded the brown-eyed group and admonished them with negative words, whereas the blue-eyed group was often praised. Early in the experiment, the children were already able to feel the differences. The blue-eyed students became more dominant and even bossy towards their peers in the other group, while the brown-eyed group displayed a subservient attitude and declining performance in classroom tasks. The next day, the two groups reversed their roles. However, this time the superior group (the brown-eyed children) did not taunt or dominate the inferior group as much as they themselves had been taunted the previous day.

As a follow-up to this activity, Elliott had the students describe their experiences in letters that were published in the Riceville Recorder. The results of the entire exercise created a lot of controversy within the school, the community and finally the entire nation. Initially, there were many negative reactions locally. Teachers and parents were not only shocked, but also quite confused. It was difficult for them to believe that Elliott would treat the children in such a manner, and they believed it was simply unethical. The story was circulated by the Associated Press and before long, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson had invited Elliott to appear as a guest. Once again, the majority of reactions that poured in were mostly negative. The negative publicity affected Elliott back in Iowa, with colleagues shunning her and her own children being taunted. However, bit by bit, Elliott slowly started to receive positive feedback as well. She began to receive more requests to appear on television shows. By 1971, a documentary based on her exercise was aired by the American Broadcasting Company and this garnered Elliott more publicity nationally. In the next few decades, she focused her efforts on providing racial acceptance training for adults, specifically in corporate settings. Today her exercise still provokes controversy, but for slightly different reasons. Some have found fault with the fact that it present-day workshops, the brown-eyed group (or in a multi-cultural setting, the minority group) is appointed as the superior group. Others have criticized it by saying that the exercise does not recognize the cultural changes that Western society has experienced in the last few decades in terms of social and racial tolerance. Despite these criticisms, Jane Elliott is still very active today, and her work has been highly acclaimed in other circles. She gives presentations, lectures and workshops to school and college students, educators, as well as to corporate staff. Her lectures are aimed at revealing the causes and effects of prejudice, while her workshops repeat the famous blue and brown eyes exercise. Apart from this work, she also still occasionally makes appearances on television and radio. Her hope is that with time, racial prejudice will fall away, as it did with her third-grade students.

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