Jane Elliott

Jane Elliott (b. 1933) is an American anti-racism activist and educator (she is also a feminist and LGBT activist).

She created the famous ‘blue-eyed/brown-eyed’ exercise, first done with grade school children in the 1960s, and which later became the basis for her career in diversity training.

While there are variations of the story, the exercise Elliott developed for her third grade class in Riceville, Iowa was a result of Martin Luther King’s assassination. According to one biographer, on the evening of April 4, 1968, Jane Elliott turned on her television to find out about the assassination. One scene she says that she remembers vividly is that of a (white) reporter, with the microphone pointed toward a local black leader asking ‘When our leader (John F. Kennedy) was killed several years ago, his widow held us together. Who’s going to control your people?’

It was supposedly there, in her living room, that she decided to combine a lesson she had planned about Native Americans with the lesson done about King for February’s Hero of the Month. To tie the two, she would use the saying ‘Oh Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.’ The following day she had a class discussion about it and about racism in general. But she states ‘And I could see that they weren’t internalizing a thing. They were doing what white people do. When white people sit down to discuss racism what they are experiencing is shared ignorance.’ She states her lesson plan for that day was to learn the Sioux prayer about not judging someone without walking in his/her moccasins and ‘I treated them as we treat Hispanics, Chicanos, Latinos, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, women, people with disabilities.’

The original idea for the exercise came from the novel ‘Mila 18’ by Leon Uris, published in 1961, about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during World War II. One of the ways they decided who went into the gas chamber, according to the novel and history, was eye color. Because most of her 8-year-old students had, like Jane, been born and were being raised in a small town in Iowa and had seen black people only on television, she felt that simply talking about racism would not allow her all-white class to fully comprehend racism’s meaning and effects.

On April 5, 1968, Steven Armstrong was the first child to arrive in Elliott’s classroom, asking why ‘that King’ (referring to MLK) was murdered the day before. After the rest of the class arrived, Elliott asked them what the children knew about blacks. The children responded with various racial stereotypes such as ignorance, unemployment, and common labels to those of Native Americans or Blacks. She then asked these children if they would like to try an exercise to feel what it was like to be treated the way a colored person is treated in America, mentioning that it would be interesting if there was segregation based on eye color instead of skin color. The children enthusiastically agreed to try the exercise.

On that day, she designated the blue-eyed children as the superior group. Elliott provided brown fabric collars and asked the blue-eyed students to wrap them around the necks of their brown-eyed peers as a method of easily identifying the minority group. She gave the blue-eyed children extra privileges, such as second helpings at lunch, access to the new jungle gym, and five extra minutes at recess. The blue-eyed children sat in the front of the classroom, and the brown-eyed children were sent to sit the back rows. The blue-eyed children were encouraged to play only with other blue-eyes and to ignore those with brown eyes. Elliott would not allow brown-eyed and blue-eyed children to drink from the same water fountain, and often chastised the brown-eyed students when they did not follow the experiment’s rules or made mistakes. She often exemplified the differences between the two groups by singling out students, and would use negative aspects of brown-eyed children to emphasize. Elliott observed that the students’ reaction to the discrimination exercise showed immediate changes in their personalities and interaction with each other as early as the first 15 minutes.

At first, there was resistance among the students in the minority group to the idea that blue-eyed children were better than brown-eyed children. To counter this, Elliott used pseudo-scientific explanations for her actions by stating that the melanin responsible for making blue-eyed children also was linked to their higher intelligence and learning ability. Shortly thereafter, this initial resistance fell away. Those who were deemed ‘superior’ became arrogant, bossy and otherwise unpleasant to their ‘inferior’ classmates. Their grades also improved, doing mathematical and reading tasks that seemed outside their ability before. The ‘inferior’ classmates also transformed – into timid and subservient children, including those who had previously been dominant in the class. These children’s academic performance suffered, even with tasks that had been simple before. The following day, Elliott reversed the exercise, making the brown-eyed children superior. While the brown-eyed children did taunt the blue-eyed in ways similar to what had occurred the previous day, Elliott reports it was much less intense. At 2:30 on that Wednesday, Elliott told the blue-eyed children to take off their collars and the children cried and hugged one another. To reflect on the experience, she had the children write letters to Coretta Scott King and write compositions about the experience.

According to Elliott, the first reaction to her exercise (Elliott prefers not to refer it as an ‘experiment’) was in the teachers’ lounge at lunchtime the day she did the exercise for the first time. When Elliott explained what she was doing in her class and why and how a number of shy and slow blue-eyed children were benefiting at the expense of the ‘brown-eyes,’ there was disbelief and confusion. One teacher responded that, ‘I thought it was about time somebody shot that son-of-a-bitch [i.e. Martin Luther King].’ Elliott was shocked and dismayed. Later, the compositions that the children wrote about the experience were printed in the ‘Riceville Recorder’ under the headline ‘How Discrimination Feels.’ This story was picked up by the Associated Press. Because of the AP story, Elliott was invited to appear on The ‘Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.’ After her telling of the exercise in a short interview segment, audience reaction to her was instant as hundreds of calls came into the show’s switchboard, most of the reaction being negative. An often-quoted letter states ‘How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children.’ Elliott has said that the exercise and the publicity that it was getting did not make her popular with some of the local citizens. When Elliott walked into the teacher’s lounge the day after being on the Johnny Carson show, several teachers walked out. Elliott claims that even her own children were taunted or assaulted by other students.

However, not all the reaction was negative. The mail that Elliott received after each television appearance was overwhelmingly positive, particularly from adult persons of color and educators. Most of the time that she remained in the Riceville school system, she had the support of her superiors and they gave her unpaid leave to pursue outside activities which were related to the exercise and its effects. As news of her exercise spread, she appeared on more television shows, and started to repeat the exercise in professional training days for adults. In late 1970, Elliott provided the experience for educators, physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, and civic leaders at a White House Conference on Children and Youth, staging it for adults, but with the same reactions as those exhibited by her students, though much more violent.

In 1971, ABC broadcast a documentary about her called ‘The Eye of the Storm’ and made her more nationally known. After that, two books, ‘A Class Divided’ and ‘A Class Divided: Then and Now’ by William Peters were written about her and the exercise. ‘A Class Divided’ was turned into a PBS ‘Frontline’ documentary in 1985, and included a reunion of the schoolchildren featured in ‘The Eye of the Storm.’ ‘Frontline: A Class Divided’ is one of the most requested videos on PBS’s website. Elliott considers her greatest honor to be having BBC presenter Kenneth Clark write the foreword to the book ‘A Class Divided Then and Now’ in which he states, ‘…Jane Elliott’s contribution demonstrates that it is possible to educate and produce a class of human beings united by understanding, acceptance, and empathy.’

Jane Elliott is considered to be the ‘foremother’ of diversity training, with the blue-eyed/brown-eyed scenario as the basis of much of what is called diversity training. Elliott left teaching in the mid 1980s to devote herself full time to corporate training. Her standard fee since then has been at least $6,000 per day for companies and governmental institutions. Companies found the idea of offering such training attractive, not only because in the 1970s and 1980s there were increasing numbers of people of color in their organizations, but also because of U.S. court rulings and federal policies to promote multiculturalism brought about by pressure from civil rights groups during the same two decades. These policies and rulings primarily dealt with ‘hostile work environments’ In most of these cases, the judgment resulted in the payment of compensation and the implementation of some kind of monitored diversity plan. Elliott herself offered Denny’s as an example of how racism leads to costs via lawsuits. She claimed that Denny’s had to pay US$46 million for one suit but still had an incident later where a group of black children were not waited on, and so predicated another suit for the restaurant chain.

According to supporters of Elliott’s approach, the goal is to reach people’s sense of empathy and morality. It seeks to address a sense of apathy that many people have because they do not think the problem affects them or that they do not believe that they act in a racist manner. Elliott says racism is not inherent: ‘You are not born a racist. You have to carefully be taught to be one.’ And while Jane Elliott created the exercise as a response to racial discrimination, her approach is equally touted to point out sexism, ageism and homophobia as well. However, the manner in which these training sessions are conducted and Elliott’s role as a trainer has drawn criticism. First, she usually puts the ‘brown-eyed’ participants in the superior position. If the group attending the session is of various races, the ones experiencing discrimination are most likely to be white.

The corporate version of the exercise is still based on demeaning a chosen group of people and then letting the temporarily favored group taunt them, much the way the brown-eyed children of the original exercise did. As in the original exercise, she does not explicitly tell participants to mock others but uses choice of language and tone, removal of basic rights (such as being allowed to speak without permission), and a constant changing of the rules to discomfort the blue-eyed participants. At the same time she uses positive language, praise and encouragement to the brown-eyed people. One way she does this is with the use of an alternative IQ test called the ‘Dove Counterbalance Intelligence Test’ which asks questions about the black experience of the 1950s and 1960s, in an attempt to mimic the experience that blacks may have with conventional IQ or standardized tests.

She has also been accused of not recognizing the social and political changes that have occurred since the era in which she originally developed the exercise. Alan Charles Kors, a conservative professor of history at University of Pennsylvania noted, in his defense of students accused of shouting racial slurs in the water buffalo incident of 1993, writes that Elliott’s exercise teaches ‘blood-guilt and self-contempt to whites,’ adding that ‘in her view, nothing has changed in American [sic] since the collapse of Reconstruction.’ However, Elliott seems to feel that such an approach is still necessary. She is quoted as saying ‘I’ve reached a point now where I will no longer tolerate the intolerable. I’m a ball of barbed-wire and I know it.’ ‘After 30 years of dealing with this subject of racism, I am no longer a sweet, gentle person. I want it stopped.’ She has also expressed frustration at the idea that she still needs to do this exercise, ‘It shouldn’t be necessary in 2008,’ she says, to ‘…say things that are difficult for people to hear. I’m not kind about it. But neither are the racists.’

Academic research into Elliott’s experiment is inconclusive about whether it reduces long-term prejudice or if the possible psychological harm outweighs the potential benefits. She has been accused of scaring people, breaking the school rules, humiliating children, being domineering, angry and brainwashing. Two professors of education in England, Ivor F. Goodson and Pat Sikes, claim unhesistantly that what Elliott did was unethical, calling the experiment psychologically and emotionally damaging. They also stated ethical concerns connected to the fact that the children were not told of the purpose of the exercise beforehand. Long term results of the diversity training for adults are also unknown. In some courses, participants can wind up feeling frustrated about ‘their inability to change’ and instead begin to feel anger against the very groups they are supposed to be more sensitive to. It can also lead to anxiety because people become hyper-sensitive about being offensive or being offended. However, three years after Elliott’s original exercise, an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa conducted an attitudinal survey of the third- to sixth-grade students in the Riceville Community School and in the third- to sixth-grade students in a comparable community to measure their attitudes concerning racism. When the results were compiled, not only were Elliott’s former students less racist in their responses as measured by this survey, than were their fellow students, but ALL the students in the third- to sixth-grades in the Riceville school were less racist than the students in the comparable community. The associate professor concluded that not only were Elliott’s students attitudes positively changed by the exercise, but their attitudes were ameliorating the attitudes of their peers.

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