Jane Elliott: A Class Divided

According to the wikipedia article below, this episode of Frontline is the most requested documentary on PBS:

From the wikipedia entry on Jane Elliott:

A Class DividedWhether she planned the exercise previous to April 5, 1968 or not, on that day she implemented the exercise (also called an “experiment”) for the first time. Steven Armstrong was the first child to arrive to Elliott’s classroom on that day, asking why “a King” (referring to Martin Luther King Jr.) was murdered the day before. After the rest of the class arrived, Elliott asked them what others said about Negros. The children responded with various racial stereotypes such as Negros were dumb or could not hold jobs. She then asked these children if they would like to find out what it was like to be a Negro child and they agreed.

On that day, a Tuesday, she decided to make the blue-eyed children the superior first, giving them extra privileges like second helpings at lunch, access to the new jungle gym and five minutes extra at recess.  She would not allow blue-eyed and brown-eyed children to drink from the same water fountain.  She would offer them praise for being hard-working and intelligent. The “brownies” on the other hand, would be disparaged. She even made the brown-eyed children wear ribbons around their necks.

At first, there was resistance to the idea that brown-eyed children were not the equals of blue-eyed children. To counter this, she used a pseudo-scientific explanation for her actions by stating that the melanin responsible for making blue-eyed children… also was linked to intelligence and ability, therefore the “brownies” pigmentation would result in lack of these qualities.  Shortly thereafter, this initial resistance fell away. Those who were deemed “superior” became arrogant, bossy and otherwise unpleasant to their “inferior” classmates. Their grades also improved, doing mathematical and reading tasks that seemed outside their ability before. The “inferior” classmates also transformed – into timid and subservient children, including those who had previously been dominant in the class. These children’s academic performance suffered, even with tasks that had been simple before.

The following day, Elliott reversed the exercise, making the brown-eyed children superior. While the brown-eyed children did taunt the blue-eyed in ways similar to what had occurred the previous day, Elliott reports it was much less intense. At 2:30 on that Wednesday, Elliott told the blue-eyed children to take off their collars and the children cried and hugged one another. To reflect on the experience, she had the children write letters to Coretta Scott King and write compositions about the experience.

This exercise changed her life, both as a teacher and personally. Her reflections on what she had witnessed would influence how she would approach race relations and teaching. “She had not told her pupils to treat each other differently, only that they were different; and yet they developed the characteristic responses of discrimination. Jane Elliott felt that they did this because they had already absorbed discriminatory behavior from their parents and other adults.”  Their willingness to accept the “inferiority” of a group of people was no small part due to the fact that children believe what adults, including teachers, tell them and follow their examples. However, the brown-eyed students who had experienced discrimination on Tuesday, seemed to modify their behavior when it was their turn to be “superior” on Wednesday. While they did exhibit some of the same discriminatory behaviors, they were much less intense supposedly because they already knew what it was like.  The exercise seemed to suggest that black underachievement was a product of “white-dominated constructions of reality”. She believes that what has been taught in schools (1968 to the present) conditions students that whiteness is the objective. Schools teach virtually nothing of what people of color have contributed to humankind while most people would have little trouble naming 10 white males who have done so. “That’s called racism, people,” according to Elliott, as she believes it is racism to deny or ignore what other people contribute. Elliott believes that teachers perpetuate racism by how they interact with their students. Teachers will call on white boys first, then white girls. They also establish a hierarchy based on who they pay attention to, where students are seated and how groups are formed.

Because she believed so strongly in the value of this exercise, Elliott continued it every year, whether her students asked for it or not until 1984 when she quit teaching in the Riceville school system. However, she never involved these children’s parents because “It was the parents who were the cause of the racism that these kids displayed.”

As much as Elliott believes in her exercise, she advises caution and restraint in implementing it.

I had seen this exercise/experiment mentioned on The Situationist blog in October, but it doesn’t hurt having it repeated here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *