Source: FRONTLINE: "A Class Divided"
Thirty years after she first taught her eye-color exercise to a third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa, Jane Elliott reflects on what she has learned about discrimination over the years. She also recounts her experiences, some of them disturbing, in her travels throughout the United States and abroad. This Web-exclusive interview was conducted on Dec. 19, 2002 for FRONTLINE.
On the day after the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968, Jane Elliott discussed the tragedy with her third-grade class in the small town of Riceville, Iowa. Her students had recently studied Dr. King and named him their Hero of the Month. Now they were curious why anyone would want to murder him. One boy said, "They shot that King yesterday! Why did they shoot that King?"
Elliott asked her class what they knew about African Americans. In the tiny town of Riceville, Iowa (population 898) and the sparsely settled farmland surrounding it, there were no African Americans, but the students' disparaging responses reflected common stereotypes about them. Then Elliott asked her students to define "prejudice," "discrimination," "race," and "inferior." The class agreed that prejudice and discrimination were unfair. When Elliott asked them if they could imagine what it felt like to be black, initially the students said yes.
Elliott's daring lesson tested the students' answers and took their understanding of discrimination to another level. Elliott repeated the exercise with her new classes in the following years. The third time, in 1970, a film crew captured the lesson.
Elliott divided her class by eye color -- those with blue eyes and those with brown. On the first day, the blue-eyed children were told they were smarter, nicer, neater, and better than those with brown eyes. Throughout the day, Elliott praised them and allowed them privileges such as taking a longer recess and being first in the lunch line. In contrast, the brown-eyed children had to wear cloth collars around their necks and their behavior and performance were criticized and ridiculed by Elliott. On the second day, the roles were reversed and the blue-eyed children were made to feel inferior while the brown eyes were designated the dominant group.
What happened over the course of the unique two-day exercise surprised Elliott. On both days, children who were designated as inferior took on the look and behavior of genuinely inferior students, even performing poorly on tests and other work. In contrast, the "superior" students became mean-spirited and seemed to like discriminating against the "inferior" group.
Fourteen years later, Elliott reunited with her students to discuss the impact of the lesson. The students talked about some of the difficult feelings the experiment evoked, but agreed that the positive impact -- what they learned about discrimination and how all people should be treated -- was worth the agony they experienced during the lesson.
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