1968, Iowa, U.S.A. “Blue eyed children are superior,” Jane Elliot told her third grade class. “All brown eyed children will wear collars around their necks because they are inferior.”
On the eve of Martin Luther King’s assassinations, Elliot became acutely aware of the issues of racism and discrimination. She spoke about this topic with her school children and realised that they weren’t internalising it. With the children’s permission, she devised an experiment; all the children were to view the brown eyed children wearing the brown collars as inferior.
At that point in the year, Jane Elliot was teaching her students about Native Americans. A Sioux prayer; “Oh Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins,” was incorporated as a method to show the children about discrimination.
The students were guided, by Elliot, who informed them that blue eyed people are brighter, stronger and able to learn easily. The blued eyed children were given longer recess periods, second helpings at lunch time and were seated in the front of the classroom. Brown eyed students were not allowed to drink from the hallway fountain and were criticised when they made errors in their studies.
Although the children were apparently cognisant that this was an experiment, within a short time their behaviour towards one another changed significantly. The ‘superior’ children began to increase their tests scores, were reading more fluently and became arrogant and bossy. The ‘inferior’ children turned in poorer test scores, cried easily and isolated themselves.
One week later, Jane Elliot flipped-flopped this exercise. Brown eyed children were deemed superior and the blue eyed students donned the hated collars. Elliot was quoted when she stated, “I think these children walked in a colored child’s moccasins for a day.”
Jane Elliot’s students were asked to pen a composition about their experience. The local newspaper ran these comments and eventually the Associated Press picked up this story. Elliot soon found herself as a guest on Johnny Carson’s, ‘The Tonight Show.’
The majority of Jane’s teaching colleagues were up in arms about this particular lesson, feeling that the children in question were too young to have participated. Nonetheless, Jane Elliot’s fame grew as she appeared on television shows, was asked to lecture at the White House, etc. Eventually, a documentary entitled, ‘The Eye of the Storm,’ was filmed and Elliot became an American topic. Interestingly, Jane Elliot was asked to profile racist behaviours in the United Kingdom and this filmed experiment was titled, ‘The Event: How Racist Are You?’ The results weren’t nearly as successful as the American project as “the UK citizens had prior knowledge of the inherent methodology.”
Jane Elliot is listed as one of the 30 most notable educators by textbook editor McGraw-Hill, along with Plato, Maria Montessori, Confucius and Booker T. Washington. She has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show 5 times and has spoken at 350 universities and colleges.
“Academic research into Elliot’s exercise shows moderate results in reducing long-term prejudice but is inconclusive on the question of whether 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, argue that what Elliot did was unethical, calling the exercise psychologically and emotionally damaging. They also stated ethical concerns pertaining to the fact that the children were not told of the exact purpose of the exercise beforehand.” [Wikipedia]
“We can remove the veil that shrouds our understanding and made us forget who we truly are. When we understand the core self and live from the core self, the myth of separation, concepts of separation, color, religion, class, intelligence…all these fade away. We are not our colour. We are not our religion. We are not our sexual preference. We are human beings. We are spiritual beings.”
– Cassandra Blizzard