A CLASS DIVIDED VIDEO
Warning: There is very frank use of a racial epithet in this video. The use of this term is not endorsed by the College nor myself. However, this is a documentary and not fiction.
This program documents an exercise in discrimination based on eye color with two distinct groups: children in a third-grade classroom in an all-white, Christian community in Iowa and adult employees of the Iowa State prison system at a daylong workshop on human relations.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the spring of 1968. This led to turmoil and riots in urban areas across the country.
- In Iowa, Jane Elliott, a white, 3rd grade teacher, felt the need to try a new approach to teaching her young students about discrimination and its effects after watching days of news commentary in the aftermath of MLK’s assassination where white men sat around discussing “those people” and “those communities,” as if black Americans were somehow not a part of America. The patronizing and condescending talk was too much and Elliott responded with her experiment.
- In 1970, during the third year that she conducted her experiment, PBS filmed a documentary, “Eye of the Storm.” The segment in this video, spanning Tuesday to Wednesday, is from that documentary.
- Jane Elliott begins by asking her class about National Brotherhood Week, what it means and whether there are people in America who aren’t treated like brothers. The children respond that yes, Black and Indian Americans are not treated as brothers. Elliott proposes an experiment to help the students understand what discrimination means.
- She suggests that over two days, the class will be split into blue-eyed and brown-eyed students and that on the first day, blue-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people.
- This means that they get extra recess, can drink right from the fountain, may have seconds at lunch and can play on the playground equipment. Brown-eyed students must use a paper cup to drink from the fountain, may not play with blue-eyed children, must stay off the playground equipment and wear collars around their necks to be easily identifiable.
- During the rest of the day, both in and out of class, Elliott points out how much time brown-eyed students take to complete tasks, how ill-prepared they are, how they don’t take things seriously and are generally disruptive and badly behaved. She enlists the blue-eyed children to back her up and give examples of these supposed behavioral deficiencies.
- One of the shocking things is how quickly and easily the blue-eyed children slip into the roles of bully, informer and bigot. One child suggests that Elliott should keep the yardstick close by so that she can deal with unruly brown-eyed kids. Some children call others “brown eyes” in a way that one child explicitly compares to the use of the n-word against African Americans.
- On Wednesday, it is the turn of the brown-eyed children to be better than the blue-eyed children. All the privileges that accrued to the blue-eyed kids yesterday are now the prerogative of the brown-eyed ones today.
- Despite having been on the receiving end of discriminatory and nasty behavior because of their eye color only the day before, or maybe because of it, the brown-eyed children take to their roles as bigots and tormentors easily and cheerfully.
- A blue-eyed child describes his experience on Wednesday as like being a dog on a leash.
- At the end of Wednesday, Elliott explicitly leads them to the lesson of the experiment by asking whether eye or skin color should be how you decide whether someone is good or bad or if those things make a good or bad person. All of the children say no.
- It is on Wednesday that we learn something disturbing: The children who are privileged because of their eye color do better on tests of their skills than the children who are being discriminated against. This is backed up later in the documentary when Elliott describes that from the 2nd year of the experiment onward, she gave tests two weeks prior, during and two weeks after the experience and found that the stress and issues related to being discriminated against interfered with the students’ ability to perform.
- This video began with a group of former third-graders, now adults, who gathered for a reunion with their teacher at their school fourteen years after participating in the lesson on discrimination. They screened the original documentary, in which they star, and after the film, the former students discuss with Elliott the effects of that lesson on their lives, behavior, and beliefs.
- Elliott was intensely curious as to whether any of her former students had carried the lessons she had taught with them into their adult lives.
- Her students astound her with how deeply they took her lesson to heart, with one even saying that, “everyone should have this experience.”
- Jane Elliott’s goal was to, “inoculate her students against the virus of bigotry.” She managed to do so because her students found out how to hurt one another and how it feels to be hurt in that way and they refuse to continue to hurt others.
- Elliott’s experiment has been so successful, and its impact so profound, that she retired from teaching and travels the country carrying out training seminars.
- The Iowa Department of Corrections uses it for training its guards and parole officers.
- Corrections staff attend a training seminar and are separated by eye color with the blue-eyed individuals discriminated against. They wear green collars, can’t use the same bathrooms as everyone else and are treated badly. They are taken in a half hour late to the training, during which time the brown-eyed employees have been told what is going on. Blue-eyed employees are antagonistic towards Elliott, a few rebel, but the brown-eyed employees assist Elliott.
- After a break, Elliott debriefs the entire group and asks for their input. Many of the blue-eyed employees describe feeling powerless, hopeless, angry and wanting to speak up but being afraid to do so. One even explained that when they tried to argue with her, their argumentative behavior was then just twisted and used to further support their supposed inferiority.
- The brown-eyed employees felt embarrassed but also relieved to be on the good side of the experiment. One white, brown-eyed woman eloquently stated that all the blue-eyed people are white and while this might have been uncomfortable for that day, they can’t truly know how it feels to be Black in America, where every morning you wake up knowing the day is likely to be a struggle to have your ideas and voice heard and to not be discriminated against.