When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

13 December 2006

Brown eyes good, blue eyes bad

Retired teacher Jane Elliott recalls a teaching experiment she ran with a third-grade class in an all-white school in rural Iowa, in 1968. The occasion was the assassination of Martin Luther King, and she was trying to answer her students' questions about racism.

Since I'm blue-eyed and most of the kids were blue-eyed, I first put blue-eyed people at the bottom of the hierarchy, giving them armbands and setting them apart from the brown-eyed and green-eyed kids. I told them the brown-eyed are the better people, cleaner and smarter. I wrote "melanin" on the blackboard and said it was what caused intelligence. The more you had, and the dark-eyed people had more, the smarter you were.

I told them blue-eyed people were stupid, that they sat around doing nothing, and if you gave them nice things, they wrecked them. I could feel gaps opening up in the classroom. I even said blue-eyed people had to drink from paper cups if they used the water fountain - and asked the kids why. One answered that the brown-eyed children might catch something from the blue-eyed.

Then one kid asked me: "How come you're the teacher then if you've got blue eyes?" Another piped up: "If she had brown eyes, she'd be principal or superintendent because they've both got brown eyes."...

...Years later, the now grown-up children tell me they never forgot the exercise.

But there's more. The first time I did the exercise there were seven dyslexic boys in the class, and four of them were brown-eyed. On the day the brown-eyed children were on top, they read words I knew they couldn't read and spelled words I knew they couldn't spell. I also watched the Lutheran minister's brilliant daughter fall to pieces because she just could not succeed on the day she had the wrong colour eyes. I watched the kids finding out that teachers lied to them about their abilities - and saw them decide that they were never going to live down to teachers' lies again. What stereotyping does to learning has already been studied elsewhere, but when it comes to race we don't apply it.

An unforgettable lesson, New Scientist, December 9, 2006 (subscription required)

No comments: