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On April 6, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King was shot dead, Jane Elliott, a white school teacher in the midwestern American town of Riceville, Iowa, taught her all-white third grade students an object lesson in racism they never forgot.
Elliott separated the kids in her class by the colour of their eyes. She told all the brown-eyed students to sit separately from the blue-eyed students, and asked all the blue-eyed students to put on coloured paper collars. She then wrote the word ’MELANIN’ on the blackboard, and told her students with a straight face, “Eye colour, hair colour and skin colour – and intelligence – are caused by a chemical called melanin. The more melanin, the darker the person’s eyes – and the smarter the person. Brown-eyed people have more of that chemical in their eyes, so brown-eyed people are better than those with blue eyes.”
Melanin has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence, but the kids believed her because she was their teacher.
Ms Elliott then gave the brown-eyed students privileges that she withheld from the blue-eyed ones, like having a longer lunch break or playing with the playground equipment. During the course of the day, she kept emphasising the superiority of the brown-eyed kids and made remarks against the ‘blueyes’ such as telling them to drink from separate paper cups, because “who knows what we might catch from you”?
It was a daring experiment in prejudice and the results were startling. Elliott says, “I watched my students become what I told them they were; I watched little wonderful brown-eyed white people become vicious, ugly, nasty, discriminating, domineering people in the space of 15 minutes.”
The normally bright and cheerful blue-eyed kids, on the other hand, became timid, frightened, angry and actually unable to read or learn as well as they were just the day before! The next day, Elliot reversed the roles and put the collars on the brown-eyed kids instead and told the blue-eyed kids all sorts of untrue and bigoted things about the “browny-s“. This time, too, the results were dramatic. This time it was the brown-eyed kids’ turn to say things like, “I feel like quitting school. …I feel mad. ….I understand how it feels when you’re discriminated against.”
(Interestingly, the blue-eyed kids were less obnoxious to the brown-eyed ones, possibly because they had already had a taste of what it felt like to be on the receiving end.) When the activity ended, Elliot explained to the kids she had done this because she had wanted them to understand what racism felt like. The kids had gotten the point!
Elliott continued the blue-eye/brown-eye activity with successive batches of kids over the next several years, despite opposition from her own fellow faculty members and townspeople. Her family often found themselves on the receiving end of their ire, but Elliott persisted, and her efforts began to get national attention.
While some psychologists and educators lambasted Elliot for her ‘sadistic methods,’ other psychologists like Michele Borda said it “teaches our children to counter stereotypes before they become full-fledged, lasting prejudices and to recognise that every human being has the right to be treated with respect”. Even Philip Zimbardo of Stanford prison experiment fame commended Elliot for demonstrating “how easily prejudiced attitudes may be formed and how arbitrary and illogical they can be”.
For her part, Elliott simply maintained that her exercise was “an inoculation against racism”.
Seventeen years later, Elliott hosted a class reunion for the third grade kids she had done the activity with. Now grown men and women, every single one of Elliott’s students said that though the activity had been difficult to participate in at the time, it had left an indelible mark on them as kids and helped them grow up to become empathetic adults.
At one point in the reunion, Elliott asked Raymond, one of the kids who had been extra vicious, why he had behaved the way he had. His reply was sobering. “It felt tremendously evil. All my inhibitions were gone, and no matter if they were my friends or not, this was a chance to give vent to any pent-up hostilities or aggressions I ever had towards these kids.”
One of the reasons Elliott said she did what she did was because she was angered by the arrogance and superiority of white TV anchors like Walter Cronkite who, on the night of King’s murder, asked black Americans, “When our leader (John F. Kennedy) was killed, his widow held us together. Who will hold you together now that your leader (King) is gone?“ The other reason was, “Because none of the other teachers in school were discussing an event as big as the assassination of Dr. King, I knew I had to.”
One wonders how many school or college teachers would have the courage to do something similar in India today. It is no secret that a massive nationwide project to demonise Muslims and other minorities is underway. A very big part of this project involves quietly re-writing school textbooks (history books in particular) and building bigotry and majoritarianism into the very structure of primary, secondary and higher education. But, if there is anyone who can stand against this rising tide of organised hate which is not unlike the kind Germany witnessed in the 1930s, it is the teacher in the classroom. The quiet and steady influence of a sincere teacher on her students is more than enough to counter the hate and propaganda they are faced with daily.
And while not all educators will necessarily employ Jane Elliott’s unorthodox methods, it behooves everyone who cares about the secular ethos of their country to, in some shape or form, follow her example of teaching their students about the dangers of discrimination. Doing so will likely come at a cost, but if there is one thing that those who care about the next generation can draw comfort from, it is, in Elliott’s words, the fact that…
“You are not born racist. You are born into a racist society. And like anything else, if you can learn it, you can unlearn it. Racism is a learned affliction and anything that is learned can be unlearned.”
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at email@example.com.