Immediately after the tragic assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, Professor Jane Elliott, a schoolteacher in the predominantly white town of Riceville, Iowa, created an exercise to give her third-grade students an opportunity to experience first-hand what prejudice discrimination, and racism felt like.
Elliott divided her class into two groups based on their eye color. Members of both groups were treated according to the color of their eyes. On the first day, Elliott convinced the brown-eyed students that they were “better”, “smarter”, and “superior” to their blue-eyed classmates, hence entitled to privileges such as more recess time and access to a water fountain. Additionally, making the brown-eyed students put construction paper armbands on the blue-eyed students. The next day, she reversed the roles. She told the students that the brown-eyed children were inferior and repeated the experiment. The results were the same.
A difference as simple as eye color, defined and established by the figure in power, created a rift between the students. The brown-eyed children began to act aggressive and mean towards the blue-eyed children. The latter felt discriminated against by the other brown-eyed children. In reality, “blue-eyes” isn’t an insult. However, in this classroom, it had become a condition of inferiority. The brown-eyed children started using “blue-eyes” as an insult, didn’t want to play with the “blue-eyes” during recess. Additionally, they also harassed them constantly. The arbitrary division among the students intensified over the course of the experiment, so much it actually ended in physical violence motivated by eye color.
If this arbitrary division that Elliott enforced for a few hours created so much conflict in this classroom, what’s happening on a larger scale? Considering all the stereotypes and prejudices that exist, what damage is being done emotionally and physically? It’s not surprising that discrimination against others due to ethnicity, religion, or culture exists, often leading to war and hatred.
Jane Elliott said in a PBS documentary about her work A Class Divided that the fact that she “watched wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders” was just shocking. The social experiment demonstrated that if prejudicial, while discriminatory and racial behaviors can be learned, they can also be unlearned.
In conclusion, Professor Elliott’s experiment reminds us again of the precariousness of coexistence and cooperation. Additionally, how arbitrary and subjective things can turn people against each other.
“Charity is humiliating because it’s exercised vertically and from above; solidarity is horizontal and implies mutual respect.” - Eduardo Galeano
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My name is Emily and I'm an ordinary person who aspires to do something extraordinary. My hobbies include baking, reading, journaling, writing, and sometimes attempting new things. Most importantly, I believe that every person deserves to live with promise and hope. However there are still a lot of people that have to deal with bullying every single day, thus I want to change that. I want to be part of the solution, part of the change, and as Anne Frank once said, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."