Brown Eyes or Blue: A Social Experiment
A Little Background
If you are unfamiliar with this social experiment done with a third grade classroom in 1968, this is certainly a story worth looking at. Jane Elliot says, that after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, she heard newscasters saying "who will hold your people together" and the question inspired her to begin a new lesson at her school. Her students asked her "why they killed a king" and the Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes became part of a curriculum that was chronicled by a book, A Class Divided and is still taught in various workshops around the world today.
To begin her lesson, she surveyed her class of all white students and asked them what physical characteristic she could use to divide her class into two groups. One of the students said they could use eye color and Elliot decided to split the class into two groups: brown and blue. (I'm not certain about other shades such as green or gray, but I think the brown probably meant dark and everything else was not).
Initially, the class was excited about this project and seemed to look forward to it. Eventually though, this arbitrary division based on eye color would have a dramatic effect on the way students performed, behaved and felt about themselves.
The blue eyed students, when told they were superior and offered privileges such as extra recess time, changed their behavior dramatically and their attitudes toward the children with brown eyes. The act of treating students differently was obviously a metaphor for the social decisions made on a larger level.
Eye color being a physical attribute such as the shade of one's skin would serve as a symbol for the physical and social categories that humans create to recognize differences in others, such as race or ethnicity.
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What Elliot discovered is that initially the blue eyed folks felt not only alienated, but would begin to taunt the students with brown eyes. The Brown eyes sometimes retaliated, becoming violent, although the one student who hit another "in the gut" realized that his violent act provided little resolution. Performance on tests by the students who were told they were in the superior group excelled while the same tests scores plummeted for the group that represented the oppressed. Enthusiasm increased for those who were from the group on top, while the group who was told they were less than equal became withdrawn and depressed. All this was done in span of less than a day.
Clearly the metaphor for discrimination - whether it be segregation in the South, the rounding up of "unacceptables" in Nazi Germany, or the way some groups are marginalized today, Elliot's observations seem to reflect what one would expect. There are places today where Elliot - and others like her - conduct workshops similar to the Riceville School exercise, where the message about treating your fellow human beings with respect is often viciously pounded into the attendees heads.
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- A Class Divided | FRONTLINE | PBS
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Are you familiar with the Brown Eyes vs. Blue Eyes experiement?
Elliot's Premises and Presumptions
Elliot's experiment - which was documented in a 1970 film "Eye of the Storm" - certainly had noble intentions and produced some profound observations. It should be expected that if you are treated as if you are expected to succeed, you shall find it easy to achieve your goals. On the opposite side of that, if you are told that you are a failure and no good, you probably will not only find it difficult to accomplish your requires tasks, but may find the effort futile, given that your successes go unrecognized. This is an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is imperative to keep in mind that many of her influences had to do with the prevalent attitudes that were influential in her time, particularly segregation. Elliot was teaching in a small Mid-Western American town which was completely white. In the 1960's, images of African Americans having water hoses turned on them or being mowed down by police dogs were ubiquitous on the television screens and newspapers. Racism, although not new, was certainly a turbulent topic that divided the nation at the time.
Some Images From the Civil Rights Movement (1960s)Click thumbnail to view full-size
The original Brown Eyes v Blue documentary
A Few Words in Defense of White Culture
When discussing race issues in the United States - perhaps the world - it is inevitable that whites will be attributed with most of the blame. While there are certain elements of "white privilege" that are fairly obvious - from the Constitution to popular culture - it is probably unfair to make the claim that all whites are to be held accountable for philosophies of racination.
Certainly it must be acknowledged that discrimination based on skin color knows no adherents: any creed can be have elements of racial superiority and everyone probably has been judged by their physical appearance in one way or another at some time.
Elliot's experiment though was initiated because there seemed to be accepted social attitudes at the time, particularly in the media, that were worthy of examination. When a reporter asked Civil Rights leaders "Who will hold your people together? When Kennedy was shot, his widow helped us..." there are implications of superiority and separation in the interrogation.
The media seemed to portray a division between black and white culture specifically and held that whites were superior. When one looks back at footage of the police response to many of the protests, there doesn't seem to be much compassion to the right of a peaceful group to exercise their Constitutional rights.
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Opening a Dialogue
Whether or not you agree with Elliot's methodology, you will probably agree that her experiment inspires dialogue.
While Elliot certainly is not the first person to speak out about race, the results demonstrated the profound effects the power of suggestion could have. The brown eyes who were told they were inferior exhibited a decline in academic performance, a propensity towards senseless violence and became withdrawn, all in a period of hours of being told that they were seen by the rest of the class as no good.
When examined in a larger social context, and looking at some of the statistics concerning race, it seems apparent the profound affect the idea of racial superiority has had on those groups that have been marginalized by the dominant culture.
Elliot eventually had a documentary film - The Eye of the Storm - made about her work and a book called A Class Divided was authored. She has continued her work with employees of correctional facilities, college students and done tours worldwide, demonstrating her lecture to people from all walks of life.
She calls herself "The Bitch" and is adamant and unrelenting about her message and pounds her philosophy into the ears and heads of those willing to listen. Sometimes she is meet with hostility and resentment, which seems an unusual response, especially from audiences who are willing participants. Woman have screamed and yelled at her, men have broken down in tears.
Blue Eyes vs. Brown EyesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Have you ever felt discriminated against because of your physical appearance?
A Clip From a Modern Workshop by Elliot
Are Elliot's Methods Sound and Fair?
While watching Elliot in some of her interviews or workshop clips, you cannot help but wonder that she must realize that she is an actor and that in order to convey her message, she puts on a charade of sorts. The participants must also realize that when they attend her class, that they are part of the scheduled drama. However, listening to her tone and seeing her physical language and looking at the reactions of the people during her lectures, one can't help but wonder if she is really hurting people's feelings.
Does she attain any sadistic pleasure from her vicious pantomimes? Is it possible that there is psychological damage occurring? There must be some sort of trauma involved, even if it is temporary. I personally felt a bit traumatized watching some of the episodes on video; I wasn't even in the same room.
A Few Things to Think About
Other Perspectives on a Complicated Subject
Certainly we have all experienced some sort of prejudice in one form or another. No one is exempt from discrimination. Some people might have felt exclusions because they are not tall enough. You might be embarrassed to visit a night club because your hair isn't blonde enough or your features are not appealing to others who have decided what is good and what is not. The possibilities are actually endless.
People naturally feel comfortable with people who are "like them". Initially, the distinctions may be based upon physical characteristics: skin color, age, perceived ethnicity, gender. Eventually other groups might form based on class, social group, religious preference. People might discover things like intellectual ability, interest and eventually there will be cross cultural relationships forming: an older white Catholic white woman might find herself in a nice conversation with a young, Palestinian man who is an adamant atheist.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
Any positive or negative expectation about circumstances, events, or people that may affect a person's behavior toward them in a manner that causes those expectations to be fulfilled.
Racism is not the major or only form of discrimination. It is probably one of the more overt and in reality senseless forms of bigotry. In the study of her third grade students, many decided to give up and this notion of apathy was adopted within a few hours of being told they were no good. Think about what centuries of the idea of inferiority coupled with the daily onslaught of negative images has done to some.
Much of it could be in perception as well. You take things as you do and create your own reality. If you tell yourself you will succeed you will. If you set yourself up for failure, you have already failed. It's called a self fulfilling prophecy.
Perhaps you have skin that is brown or yellow. Maybe you have a little more weight in your middle section than you want. Maybe you are extremely fit and find yourself the victim of continuous unwanted attention because of your beauty. Maybe you are finding yourself near retirement and confused and alienated by the pace of the modern world. Maybe you are none of those things and just wondering what the fuss is about.
Maybe you worship in a mosque instead of a cathedral or a temple.
Perhaps you are waiting, like many others, for the mother ship to one day return and answer all of your questions and take you home.
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© 2017 Liam Finnegan