Members of Jane Ellliot's 1969-70 third-grade class, featured in A Class Divided

Brown Eyes vs. Blue Eyes: Discrimination in a Third-Grade Classroom

One Saturday a few weeks ago, while having a documentary mini-marathon on my couch, I came across A Class Divided. What it showed was so fascinating (and sad) that I found myself searching for more information it ended. Given this week’s discussion on white hostility and violence toward blacks, I thought it would be an interesting topic to discuss.

Members of Jane Ellliot's 1969-70 third-grade class, featured in A Class Divided

Jane Elliot was a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The day following Dr. King’s murder, in an effort to make her young, all-white class understand the issue of racism, she divided the students into “blue-eyed” and “brown-eyed” groups. On the first day, blue-eyed people were superior.  Brown-eyed students went to lunch last, were not allowed second helpings, had five fewer minutes of recess, could not use the drinking fountain (they could use paper cups), and were forced to sit at the back of the classroom. Students of different eye colors were not allowed to play with one another on the playground (brown-eyed students were not allowed on the playground equipment), and throughout the day Elliot made comments about the shortcomings and inferiority of brown-eyed students. The following day, the roles were reversed, with brown-eyed students prized as the superior group.

What she found shocked her. In group work (segregated by eye color), students’ abilities changed from day-to-day depending on their status. On the day in which they were the inferior group, it took the brown-eyed group five and a half minutes to get through a set of flash cards; the following day, as the superior group, it took them two and a half minutes. Equally, if not more, disturbing were the attitudes of the children in the “better” group. “I found what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in the space of 15 minutes,” she recalled.[1]

She continued conducting the exercise for future classes. In its third year (1970), ABC News profiled the experiment for a documentary called Eye of the Storm. Fifteen years later, in 1985, the TV series Frontline made A Class Divided as a follow-up. In addition to the original footage, it includes a reunion with members of the third-grade class shown in the film, as well as Jane Elliot’s adaptation of the exercise for employees of Iowa’s Department of Corrections.[2] In the years since A Class Divided, Elliot works primarily with adults doing the “blue-eyes/brown-eyes” experiment, albeit in a modified form, as part of workplace diversity training. In it, brown-eyed participants are recruited and encouraged by Elliot to actively participate in the discrimination of their blue-eyed colleagues (while the blue-eyed participants are in another room), and the roles are not reversed.[3]

Whether with students or adults, however, the experiment is highly controversial. I admit, my first reaction was that Elliot would have a lawsuit filed against her in two seconds if she tried that experiment (as it was presented in 1970) today. She is still not welcome in the Iowa community in which she grew up and taught. Scholars, social/political commentators, and participants themselves differ as to how effective (or detrimental) the exercise is to those who take part in it.[4] Elliot’s Wikipedia page has a fairly thorough discussion of the controversies if you’re interested in reading more. The full documentary is available on the PBS/Frontline website–it’s about an hour, but if you can find the time to watch at least a little, it’s really interested.

Is this sort of exercise acceptable or appropriate for third-grade students? For adults and employees? Do you think it’s an effective means of understanding racism, or does it limit discussion and dialogue?

[1] A Class Divided, PBS website. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/view.html&gt;

[2] “Frequently Asked Questions,” A Class Divided, PBS website. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/faq.html&gt;

[3] “Jane Elliot and the Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes Exercise,” BBC Edited Guide Entry. 19 August 2005. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1132480&gt;

[4] Stephen G. Bloom, “Lesson of a Lifetime,” Smithsonian magazine (September 2005). <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/lesson_lifetime.html&gt;

Photo credit: “Diversity in Education Discussions,” Brigham Young University website. <http://education.byu.edu/diversity/egua_discussions.html&gt;

3 thoughts on “Brown Eyes vs. Blue Eyes: Discrimination in a Third-Grade Classroom

  1. This brown eyes blue eyes exercise is riveting. Jane Elliott has done this exercise with very young children, young adults and adults in the workplace. All with eerily similar results.

    There is a great facilitator’s package for using with adults called Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes: Linking Perceptions & Performance available from http://www.trainerstoolchest.com that helps in moving this exercise from awareness into action in the workplace.

    The original version too – Eye of the Storm – has a great subtext message of the pygmalion effect and the self-fulfilling prophesy.

  2. This is an exercise that every student should experience. Very rarely do students get a concrete example of what discrimination really is. In this controlled environment, these children learned exactly how hurtful and humiliating discrimination is. Just watch the follow up interviews 20 years later. They are still positively affected.

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