A Class Divided: Jane Elliott’s Lesson

Thursday April 4, 1968. Alike most inhabitants of Riceville, Iowa, Jane Elliott came back home that evening to hear about Martin Luther King’s assassination in the latest news report. The peaceful leader of the Civil Rights Movement had been shot in Memphis, the day after he had delivered one of his most inspirational speeches, ‘I’ve Been To The Mountaintop’. But unlike most of the people residing in Riceville, a rural town circled with corn crops, she had to face more than the blatant shock of MLK’s death: as a third-grade teacher, she would have to explain it to her pupils over the following days. Her class had indeed found a genuine interest in the figure of King, electing him their “Hero of the Month” back in February.

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MLK delivering his last speech in Memphis, 1968. (Source: ABC News)

As planned, the first kid to enter the classroom on Wednesday asked her: “Why’d they shoot that King?” But Mrs. Elliott could not make them understand it the pen-and-paper way, she knew it. Her class was made up white boys and girls, mostly from a Christian background, so grasping the complex concept of discrimination would be very new to them. So instead, she started an exercise, and her offer was cheerfully welcome by the students. She started by giving a speech about brotherhood, stating that everyone should be treated equally regardless of race, religion, skin color… Children would agree in a roaring round of “yeah”, but Jane doubted developing a moral code would be achieved through vain talks.

“I could see that they weren’t internalizing a thing. They were doing what white people do. When white people sit down to discuss racism what they are experiencing is shared ignorance.”

Mrs. Elliott then divided her class into two separate groups: the blue-eyed and the brown-eyed pupils. The blue-eyed were to be on top on that day. “The blue-eyed are the better people in this room,” she said to the general astonishment of her audience. In order to identify the minority group, brown-eyed pupils were given a colored piece of fabric they had to wear around their necks. That being done, Mrs. Elliott implemented a special set of privileges aimed at empowering the first group: blue-eyed pupils had five extra minutes of recess, could go first for lunch, while brown-eyed ones were not to play with their blue-eyed counterparts in the playground and not allowed to drink from the drinking fountain.

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Racial diversity: a glint in children’s eyes? (Credit: Spilled Milk Club)

As soon as they understood they had superiority over their brown-eyed counterparts, blue-eyed pupils started teasing the others whose behavior was also reprimanded by their teacher – “You’re being forgetful, see, that’s how brown-eyed people are”. Taking a written test sometime later, the brown-eyed group performed poorly compared to the blue-eyes who responded more quickly and appeared more effective – they were also eager to make the others feel inferior.

“I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.”

The next day, Mrs. Elliott reversed the exercise; she turned the tables, this time insisting for the brown-eyed pupils to be considered the superior group. Most of the latter took a savage pleasure in taking off their colored scarfs and handing them to their former persecutors. The set of special privileges was also swapped, to benefit to the brown-eyed ones: it did not take much time for the blue eyes to become the unfair victims of the classroom’s discriminatory system… Eventually, at the end of the day, pupils were grouped together and asked to reflect upon their experience.

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Jane Elliott: “Should the color of some other person’s eyes have anything to do with the way you treat them?”
Class: “No.”
Jane Elliott: “Alright, so should the color of their skin?”
Class: “No.”
Jane Elliott: “Should you judge people by the color of their skin?”
Class: “No!”
Jane Elliott: “You’re going to say that today, and this week, and probably all the time you’re in this room. You’ll say, “No, Mrs. Elliott” every time I ask that question. […] Is (the color of their skin) what makes people good or bad?”
Class: “No!”
Jane Elliott: “Let’s take these colors off.”

 

Jane Elliott did not make herself admired in the town of Riceville, Iowa, for conducting this psychology experiment on her own class of third-graders. Her own daughter, studying in the town’s junior high, stumbled upon a message written for her in red lipstick on a bathroom mirror: “Nigger Lover”. Other less-extreme critics argued that children were way too young and malleable to be introduced to such an unfair, discriminatory situation. (As of 2003, Mrs. Elliott estimated that 20% of Riceville inhabitants were still made at her, though 35 years had passed since.)

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The Blue-eyes/Brown-eyes experiment remains a milestone in the field of social psychology. Although Mrs. Elliott fostered a general outcry at her home town, her work received word of praise across various corners of the world, and she was invited to re-conduct the experiment numerous times... on adults, mostly. The blue-eyed teacher, who is remembered for having said she had ‘a microcosm of society in a third-grade classroom’, also got have grown-ups involved to make a change – she directed workshops and her teaching experience is considered the cradle of what we know today as ‘worplace diversity training’.

So the month of April 1968 would not only be synonymous with grief!

“In the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.” – Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968

 


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