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What Color are Your Eyes?

The textbook publisher McGraw-Hill has listed her on a timeline of key educators, along with Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Horace Mann, Booker T. Washington, Maria Montessori and 23 others. Yet what Elliott did continues to stir controversy. One scholar asserts that it is "Orwellian" and teaches whites "self-contempt." A columnist at a Denver newspaper called it “evil."

Now, more than ever it is critical that we look deeply at the subject of race and prejudice. That is exactly what Jane Elliot did back in 1968. We need to take a lesson from Ms. Elliot and do it again today.

Jane Elliott, is an internationally know lecturer, teacher, diversity trainer and the recipient of the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education. She exposes prejudice and bigotry for what it is, an irrational class system based purely upon arbitrary factors. If you are thinking, as I was, that this does not apply you you….you are in for a rude awakening.

In response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, Jane Elliott devised the controversial and startling, "Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise." This, now famous, exercise labels participants as inferior or superior based solely upon the color of their eyes and exposes them to the experience of being a minority. Everyone who is exposed to Jane Elliott's work, be it through a lecture, workshop, or video, is dramatically affected by it. Her exercise, as she calls it, has been called the landmark in anti racism education and social science.

She walked into her classroom that morning to questions of why “that King was shot yesterday?” When all 28 students were settled she decided to do something special with them to help to begin to understand the assignation of Martin Luther King, Jr., the day before. She silenced them and asked: “How do yo thin it would feel to be a negro boy or girl?” The children, who were predominantly white, in essence answered it would be hard to really know, unless they had experienced discrimination themselves. So she asked another question: “Would you like to find out?” They all hollered together YES!

So began one of the most astonishing exercise that ever took place in an American classroom. She was nearly run out of town for her efforts. Her work is still controversial to many.

She pulled out green construction paper and fashioned began to fashion armbands. The children quickly joined it. Then she instructed each child who had blue eyes to wear one. She said: “The brown eyed people are better. Those that have brown eyes in this room are better, they are cleaner and they are smarter.”

Now she said by way of explanation to her class: “Eye color, hair color and skin color are caused by a chemical.” She then wrote the word MELANIN on the blackboard. She said that Melanin is what causes intelligence. The more melanin, the darker the person’s eyes and the smarter they are…Brown eyed people have more of that chemical in their eyes, so brown eyed people are better than those with blue eyes. Blue eyed people sit around and do nothing. You give them something nice and they just wreck it.” She could feel a chasm forming between the two groups of students.

Elliot asked the class: “Do blue eyed people remember what they have been taught?” In a chorus, the brown eyed children replied, “NO!”

Then Elliott listed the rules for the day, saying blue-eyed kids had to use paper cups if they drank from the water fountain. "Why?" one girl asked. "Because we might catch something," a brown-eyed boy said. Everyone looked at Mrs. Elliott. She nodded. As the morning wore on, brown-eyed kids berated their blue-eyed classmates. "Well, what do you expect from him, Mrs. Elliott," a brown-eyed student said as a blue-eyed student got an arithmetic problem wrong. "He's a bluey!”

You can see how this is going. Then, the inevitable question came: "Hey, Mrs. Elliott, how come you're the teacher if you've got blue eyes?" a brown-eyed boy asked. Before she could answer, another boy piped up: "If she didn't have blue eyes, she'd be the principal or the superintendent.”

At lunch she talked about her exercise and asked her colleagues what they were doing to highlight the assignation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Silence filled the room. The answer was nothing.

Back in the classroom, Elliott's experiment had taken on a life of its own. A smart blue-eyed girl who had never had problems with multiplication tables started making mistakes. She slumped. At recess, three brown-eyed girls ganged up on her. "You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we're better than you are," one of the brownies said. The blue-eyed girl apologized.

When the class returned on the following day, Elliott reversed the exercise, and the brown-eyed kids were told how shifty, dumb and lazy they were. Later, it would occur to Elliott that the blueys were much less nasty than the brown-eyed kids had been, perhaps because the blue-eyed kids had felt the sting of being ostracized and didn't want to inflict it on their former tormentors.

When the exercise came to completion Elliott reminded the children the reason for all of this had been the King assassination. She asked them to take out pencils and paper and write down what they had learned. Responses were varied but most reported that the people in Mrs. Elliotts room with brown eyes got to discriminate against people who had blue. If they had brown eyes they felt like hitting the blue eyed students. Some said that because of eye color they had more recess time. The next day when the tables were turned, some comments were"I felt like quitting school. . . . I felt mad. That's what it feels like when you're discriminated against.” A powerful lesson learned.

Her work was featured in major media articles and she appeared on television talking about her exercise. As her work became better known friends and family all agreed, she was an excellent teacher, but she had a way about her, she stirred folks up! Well, good for her. We are at a time when we need to stir folks up again! Jane Elliot is proof that vision and tenacity get results. We need both.

A critic once said: “It's cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage.” Elliott replied, "Why are we so worried about the fragile egos of white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism one day when blacks experience real racism every day of their lives?”

Yes, why.