Lately, a serious discussion about systemic racism and bigotry in the United States has finally become front and center in the public sphere, which caused me to reflect on a classic discrimination experiment done at the end of the 1960s by an elementary schoolteacher.
Jane Elliott was ironing a teepee for a classroom activity as she watched news on the television. The news was highlighting the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been shot to death. One white reporter said: “When our leader [John F. Kennedy] was killed several years ago, his widow held us together. Who’s going to control your people?”
This shocked Elliott. Why the differentiation between a white or black leader, and why a separation between us and them. It got her thinking. She decided to modify her Native American activity and replace the moccasins and teepees with eye colors. Since she was blue-eyed, she told her students that blue-eyed people were superior to brown-eyed people. The children were then separated based on their eye color.
The blue-eyed children, the “blues,” were given collars to wrap around the necks of their brown-eyed peers, the “browns.” That is, the blues branded the browns with a collar. The blues were also given extra time at recess and more food at lunch. The browns were left out of activities. The blues were also allowed to sit at the front of the class, while the browns were ushered to the back. (Much like what actually happened to black people, who were forced to sit at the back of the buses during the Jim Crow era.)
Blues were encouraged to stick with their own kind and ignore browns. Blues were also allowed to drink at the water fountain, while browns were not allowed to — reminiscent of the legalized bigotry in the segregated American South.
Initially, the children resisted the idea that blues were superior to browns, and that browns should be treated as inferiors to blues. However, Elliott lied and said that melanin is linked to both blue eyes and intelligence; therefore, a correlation existed between higher intelligence and blue-colored eyes. The children bought into her lie.
The blues then became mean and bossy to their brown peers. They excluded them from activities, looked down on them, and viewed themselves as the superior ones. The blues also scored better on exams. The browns weren’t exempt from behavioral changes — they became more shy and submissive to the blues. Their grades dropped.
But the next week, Elliott twisted her little experiment. She made the blues inferior, and the browns superior. The blues now wore the branding collars. The browns became mean to their blue peers, though not as mean as the blues were to them. The browns became what the blues were.
Days later, no students had collars. Elliott had them all reflect on what they experienced and learned. Years later, those same students still kept their teacher’s lesson at heart. A documentary was made about Elliott’s experiment, and the progress that the activity made. Elliott continued her experiment year after year with her students, and others have adopted her work into their own curriculums.
With racism still persisting in the United States and many other parts of the world — we need to remember that though our brains evolved with an us-them dichotomy, we have the frontal lobe capacity to develop and express empathy. We are not born hating others; we are born preferring our own group to others. But that does not excuse any form of hatred or bigotry. Our brains are wired for empathy. We need to always be aware of that.
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