“A Class Divided”: Powerful experiment on how Racism can be learned, and in 15 minutes

September 23, 2009

in this i believe

Some of you may know about this already, since this Frontline documentary was first aired in 1985. I have only heard about the “Blue-eyed vs. Brown-eyed” experiment done by a daring 3rd-grade teacher, but I have never actually seen the documentary until today.  Through Twitter, of course.  There is something to be said about the power of audio visual presentation.

I was impressed by the courage of the teacher, Jane Elliott, and awed by the outcome when I READ the description of what happened in those two days:

“On the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in April 1968, Jane Elliott’s third graders from the small, all-white town of Riceville, Iowa, came to class confused and upset. They recently had made King their ‘Hero of the Month,’ and they couldn’t understand why someone would kill him. So Elliott decided to teach her class a daring lesson in the meaning of discrimination. She wanted to show her pupils what discrimination feels like, and what it can do to people.

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 a taking a longer recess and being first in the lunch line. In contrast, the brown-eyed children had to wear 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…”

But the text does not prepare you for the visceral reactions you’ll be getting when you watch the actual documentary…  I’ve got goose bumps all over me…

These are Part 1 & Part 2 of this series.  You can find the full 5-part program on the  PBS website.

What is even more valuable as a lesson, and reminder, for all of us, even in this day and age, despite the sensationalism this documentary certainly has delivered, is what Jane Elliot said to have pushed her towards such a drastic experiment on her 3rd graders in an interview:

“Yet all I could think of as I saw this attitude of sympathetic indifference develop was the way I had myself reacted to racial discrimination all these many years: Sure, an incident can anger you. Sure, you feel sorry about the way blacks are being treated. Sure, something ought to be done about it. And now, what shall we talk about?”

Coda: I was surprised to learn that the small, rural, all-white community actually supported this experiment.  The parents were ok with Ms. Elliot’s unique lesson plan.  Upon further reading, the superintendent at that time was indeed under a lot of pressure to fire Jane Elliot.  He didn’t.  According to Elliot, “20 percent of the people in Riceville are still absolutely furious about what I did on April 4, 1968.” But the parents of her students never had any problem with her unique lesson plan…

It is probably the sign for the times we live in and my unrelenting cynicism.  As I was watching the video and dealing with the whirlwind of emotions and thoughts forming inside me, one part of my brain was actually thinking, and I am not proud to admit it,

“Whoa.  That took some courage for her to do that. I wonder whether she would have got herself AND the school AND the school district into a shit load of trouble if she were doing this NOW. Imagine the protests from parents…”

Have we somehow walked backwards some time when nobody was looking?

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September 23, 2009 at 12:41 pm


Lorraine September 23, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Hey, thank you for posting this. I’d never seen or heard of it before. That’s some powerful stuff.
.-= Lorraine´s last blog ..On Canning =-.

Absence Alternatives September 24, 2009 at 8:15 am

@ Lorraine
You are very welcome. I hope people are not turned off by it since it comes upon you so strongly, and some people may feel it is too heavy-handed?

Jane September 24, 2009 at 7:13 pm

Thank you for bringing this to our attention all over again. It’s message cannot be heard too many times. But oh…when will it finally sink in?
.-= Jane´s last blog ..Shoppin’ The Refrigerator =-.

Absence Alternatives September 26, 2009 at 12:39 pm

@ Jane
On some days I get frustrated, and on other days I just wish I live in a bubble because I’m so tired of all this…

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