*Photo from www.janeelliott.com*
By Allen Schultz
On April 5, 1968, a class of white third-grade students from Riceville, Iowa all had the same question for their teacher, Ms. Jane Elliott – why was their “Hero of the Month,” Martin Luther King Jr., killed the day before? That is when Ms. Elliott decided to conduct an experiment to teach her students what it felt like to be a minority in the United States.
The next day, she began class by claiming that blue-eyed people were superior to brown-eyed people in matters of intelligence and behavior. This statement, while met with confused laughs and facial expressions, was quickly accepted by her blue-eyed students. Further, Ms. Elliott gave blue-eyed students extra recess time and required brown-eyed students to wear collars. The belittling of brown-eyed students throughout the day even caused one blue-eyed student to request that she keep a ruler ready in case a brown-eyed student misbehaved.
Consequently, brown-eyed students complained of both harassment and exclusion. One student said, “[they] felt like [they] didn’t even want to try to do anything.” The term “brown-eyes” quickly gained traction as a pejorative. Ms. Elliott later recalled the horrifying sight of “marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn[ing] into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in the space of 15 minutes.”
Ms. Elliott changed her tune the following day, claiming that now brown-eyed students were superior to blue-eyed students. She noticed similar results from both the victims and perpetrators, and understood that their perceived hate derived from the small amount of perceived power they had. She also discovered that student performance was tied to whether they felt inferior or superior; students deemed superior finished their math card packs faster, for instance. Both sets of students also reported that whenever they wore the collars, they felt dumb and had trouble paying attention in class.
Once the experiment was complete, Ms. Elliott explained it to the class, reassuring them that they were all equal. While those children maintain a friendship to this day, sharing a bond over what they had learned, their parents weren’t as receptive. One complained that the experiment was cruel, since “black children grow up accustomed to such behavior [from teachers],” but white children aren’t used to it and could, therefore, be traumatized.
The town subsequently turned their backs on Ms. Elliott as she was fired and called an array of slurs. Even her own children were harassed and assaulted at school. Determined to make a change, Ms. Elliott continued her in-class experiments, which even earned her an appearance on Oprah. To this day, Jane Elliott serves as a Black Lives Matter advocate, recently speaking about it on Jimmy Fallon’s virtual talk show.
This experiment teaches us that discrimination is learned, not innate. These children turned on their peers the moment they were informed of the other’s inferiority. Later, when they understood everyone was equal, they accepted that reality. So if it is possible to teach hate, it is also possible to teach love. The experiment also challenges us to reflect on our own education, and whether or not we are biased toward a certain group of people because of what we were taught.
While many view this as a successful story of how one teacher sought to open a town’s eyes to the consequences of discrimination, we unfortunately continue to see inequalities play out in education today. This is likely due to common misconceptions about the education gap and why people of color more often struggle. What Jane Elliott has shown us through this simple, yet poignant experiment is that discrimination and systematic oppression are real and that just the perception of inferiority or superiority has a profound impact on academic performance and treatment of others.
Bias still plays a significant role for students of color and the paths schools set for them, which contributes to the School-To-Prison Pipeline and lack of diversity. Jane Elliott is a truly inspiring human being and advocate. And while I am in no way trying to take away from the amazing work she has done over the past 60 years, we cannot blind ourselves to the current systematic biases by only looking at anti-racism success stories of the past.
It will take many more advocates, like Ms. Elliott, to fight racial injustices in school and achieve higher equality for all students, regardless of the color of their skin.
Allen Schultz is a senior at Palisades Charter High School and recently concluded JCJ’s summer legislative fellowship. Allen is interested in studying political science.