I work for a company that frequently hosts speakers as part of their Diversity and Inclusion program. Last week Jane Elliott spoke to many of us about racial discrimination and implicit bias. This elderly, white-haired, acerbic, sassy, white woman held us rapt for two hours.
Jane Elliott’s 15 minutes of fame arose from an experiment she concocted and carried out in response to the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr; an experiment designed to shine a spotlight on the ugliness of discrimination. Little did she know at the time how controversial her experiment would become, and how it would change her life.
This experiment also impacted my life. I have vivid memories of the day in 6th grade when the entire school was told that brown-eyed kids were trouble-makers and were less intelligent than the blue-eyed kids. Brown-eyed kids would sit in the back of the classroom, eat last for lunch, sit in a designated area of the cafeteria, not be able to use the playground equipment outside, and so on.
I was traumatized. I was an extroverted kid who loved school, and wanted to be part of everything. I didn’t understand, and went through the day alternating between indignation and tears. To this day, I remember the one blue-eyed friend who invited me to still sit with her at lunch–because the new rules were stupid; but I also remember the blue-eyed ‘friends’ who quickly bought into the concept of their own superiority, and gleefully taunted this brown-eyed girl.
There are many examples and videos of this experiment, including on the Oprah show in 1992. It is chilling to see how quickly the designated superior group started asserting their privilege–calling the ‘others’ names, and finding examples in benign behavior to justify the inferiority of the other group. Sadly, we absorb these messages about our superiority or inferiority just as quickly. The third-graders that were dubbed as superior (if only for the day) in Jane’s original experiment, did markedly better in their school work than they had done just the previous day. Conversely, kids dubbed as inferior did worse. The power of expectations cannot be overstated.
Was the experiment cruel? As a brown-eyed girl, I feel qualified to say that Yes it was. Although, it was no more cruel than the taunting I experienced earlier that same year, when exercising my brand-new ‘right’ as a girl to wear pants in school. Discrimination, in doses large or small, educational or otherwise, is cruel.
Was it effective? The experiment quickly became controversial and triggered many uncomfortable discussions of race and discrimination. It definitely gave my white, middle-class classmates and I a small taste of what it is like to be discriminated against, based on a physical characteristic over which we have no control.
In Jane’s original experiment, she put a collar on the ‘inferior’ kids so they could easily be identified. At the end of the day, after a discussion about the real purpose of the experiment, and the nature of discrimination; the kids were eager to remove their collars. They ripped them off, they stomped on them, they hated those dang collars – those symbols of their repression. If only it were so easy in real life.