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Jane Elliott (1933–) is a former schoolteacher and impromptu sociologist who developed in-class exercises to demonstrate the effects of racial discrimination. She grew up in the small town of Riceville, Iowa, where she lived with her large family on a farm. Her life and education was mostly uneventful, although she was quite precocious. This all changed after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., following which she first performed her groundbreaking and innovative "blue-eyes brown-eyes" exercise within the classroom.
Brown-eyes blue-eyes experiment
In the wake of MLK's assassination in 1968, Elliott was devastated by his death and deeply moved by the meaning that his movement held for African Americans. The day after, she instituted her first iteration of the blue-eyes brown-eyes experiment to her group of third grade students, where she initially told them that blue-eyed people were inferior to brown-eyed people, being less smart, less attentive, less nice, and generally worse in all possible ways in relation to personality traits.
Throughout the day, Elliott would institute many different symbolic tools to demonstrate and justify this segregation: she would make kids use paper cups at the water fountain because the blue-eyed people made it 'dirty', give brown-eyed kids extra recess, give blue-eyed kids vests that clearly indicated the color of their eyes, and verbally point them out for perceived inadequacies. As one could expect, the blue-eyed children were devastated while the brown-eyed children delighted in their perceived superiority, and continued to act that way for the rest of that period.
Afterwards, the roles were suddenly switched. Under the pretense of "science having made a mistake", it was then established that it was, in fact, the blue-eyed people who were smarter, nicer, played better, and were generally better behaved, and that it was the brown-eyed children that were "worse" by all metrics that were established. However, on the second day, the blue-eyed kids did not act as brutally as the brown-eyed kids had previously, presumably because they themselves had previously experienced the discrimination and had some degree of empathy for those who were on the receiving end of it. Nevertheless, the social hierarchy was clearly established. It was only after the exercise was over that Elliott had her students write an essay on the effects of discrimination, improving their understanding of racism for the rest of their lives.
The release of this exercise and the videos accompanying it attracted critical acclaim and criticism. Her work emphasized the nature of symbolic reproduction in regards to how people consider race and the institutional rules based on it, and how those things come together to prime an individual to act a certain way to begin with. However one may try to explain why her exercise worked the way it did, it nonetheless worked, shining a light on the possible causes of racism and the perpetuation of racism. To understand that symbolic, legislative, and systemic prejudices and inequalities exist, and to experience it firsthand, is the first step to truly understanding discrimination in this country. This is the effect and the lie of hate. To understand that that is a lie is to defeat it.
The demographic for which Elliott did this is doubly important. She did not perform this activity in an integrated classroom, rather, she employed it in a rural area that was predominantly white. These were people who had never experienced anything close to segregation, let alone racism or prejudice. As such, these people would also be the types of people likely to not understand the plights of racism, and therefore would be more capable of being empathetically turned off to their social movements for the very reason that they are systemically turned off from discrimination. This activity, done in the right geographies, is able to shed light on the effects of discrimination beyond the point of media reproduction, taking it instead directly to the classroom of personal effects. It goes beyond the nature of presenting a specific story to one of being the main character in the story, creating a much different and more profound effect. This is the effect of her exercise, and what one can expect from it as well.
After her first exercise, Elliott experienced a backlash from the people in her hometown who, for a variety of reasons, did not want to be pointed out as racist, and were perhaps just trying to garner attention. The teachers in her town treated her with scorn, and her son experienced bullying, with the bullies' parents citing that "he deserved it." Conservative commentators and education professors have criticized her on the potential ethics of her exercise, with critiques questioning the act of putting children unwillingly into this discrimination where it potentially isn't needed, and accusing her of potentially teaching the children "white guilt". Some have even gone so far to label it "abuse", claiming that the exercise is lacking in humanity and doesn't properly teach these children, instead relying on fear to make its point.
Jane Elliott, the badass, responds with a rough version of, "If you're so unhappy about these kids facing discrimination for a couple days, why are you not outraged about children who experience discrimination every single day of their entire lives?"
Political and sociological acclaim
Elliott's exercise was groundbreaking. Her videos and books are respected and continually referenced in sociological discussions and classes, while she herself continues to dive deep into what discrimination even means. The main point to be taken away from her exercise is that the effectiveness of intolerance is twofold: one who exists outside of the intolerance has no way of understanding the intolerance itself, while experiencing the intolerance personally can fundamentally change the view that one takes in society. In this day and age, racism takes a different form, and as such, understanding the prejudices surrounding it are equally important. Her work has also received acclaim from sociologists and education professors who point out the effectiveness of her activity in demonstrating the first-hand effects of discrimination, and highlighting just how easy it is to create and define social prejudices that aren't based on evidence or any tangible facts.
Jane Elliott, despite her age, is still performing these types of exercises to demonstrate the effects of and the simplicity of establishing something as seemingly fake as racism. She continues to educate people and students with various versions of her exercise through the social justice platform Humanity 101, as a continual assault on the ideas of racial discrimination. Her lectures nowadays reflect the modern version of racism that people experience, and she rightfully points out that "There is nothing in this country that is not impacted by racism." She holds the position that Barack Obama's tenure did not help to solve racism, but instead, caused racist thought to "go underground", only to be uncovered again under the Trump administration. Although Elliott stopped teaching institutionally in 1985, she continues to speak and lecture about her work constantly throughout the US to highlight the real harms of racism.
- Bloom, Stephen G. Lesson of a Lifetime. Smithsonian.com, September, 2005.
- O'Connor, Caroline. The Importance Of Jane Elliot. The Odyssey Online, July 18, 2016.
- Blue Eyes and Brown Eyes: The Jane Elliott Experiment. Exploring Your Mind, June 27, 2019.
- Rice, Punita. Is Jane Elliott’s Lesson Relevant Today?. PunitaRice.com, June 1, 2016.
- Bland, Karina. Blue eyes, brown eyes: What Jane Elliott's famous experiment says about race 50 years on. AZ Central, November 7, 2017.