Race and Racism Topic of Jane Elliot’s Presentation at CSUSB


By Staff Reports

(Victor Valley) – Jane Elliott, who in 1968 developed a classroom experiment for her all-white class of third graders to teach them about discrimination and racism by separating those with blue eyes from those with brown eyes, will speak at Cal State San Bernardino on Thursday, April 9.

“Jane Elliot on Race and Racism,” presented by the university’s Institute for Child Development and Family Relations, will take place in the Santos Manuel Student Union Events Center B and C. The public is invited to the free event; parking at the university is $5.

Elliott, who developed what has become known as the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., will show how people can recognize and identify disparities in the ways in which power is assigned and maintained.

No longer a classroom teacher, Elliot now works as a diversity trainer and lecturer who is most prominently recognized as an anti-racism activist and educator. She has been the focus of two television documentaries, “Eye of the Storm” in 1971 and “A Class Divided” in 1985, and has received many awards, including the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education.

Both documentaries focused on what Elliot did with her students the day after King was killed. Elliott spoke to her class about racism, but felt that her students, all from the small Iowa town of Riceville, didn’t comprehend how harmful racism could be. She asked her students if they wanted to participate in an exercise to see how discrimination worked. The students agreed.

The next day, she separated the children with blue eyes from the children with brown eyes. The blue-eyed children were told they were the superior group and given extra privileges such as more food portions at lunch, more playtime and they sat at the front of the class. The blue-eyed children were encouraged to play only with other blue-eyed children and ignore those with brown eyes.

The brown-eyed children wore collars made of fabric to identify them as a minority group and made to sit in the back rows. Elliott also reprimanded the brown-eyed students when they made mistakes or didn’t follow the rules.

The brown-eyed students initially resisted the notion that the blue-eyed students were better, but Elliott deliberately lied, telling them that the melanin responsible for making the students blue-eyed also gave them higher intelligence and learning ability.

As the experiment progressed, the blue-eyed students became arrogant, bossy and otherwise unpleasant to their “inferior” classmates. Their grades also improved. The brown-eyed “inferior” classmates changed into timid and subservient children, who isolated themselves during recess. Even their studies suffered.

The following week, Elliott reversed the exercise, making the brown-eyed children superior. While the brown-eyed children did taunt the blue-eyed ones in ways similar to what had occurred the previous day, it was not as intense.

At the end of the exercise, the students were asked to write down what they learned. The students wrote that it was not right to be judged by the color of their eyes and that the color of their eyes did not make a difference on the type of person they were.

The children’s compositions were printed in the local papers and the story was picked up by the national news media.  The story led to Elliott being invited to be a guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” to talk about the experiment and the children.

After her appearance, the “The Tonight Show” received hundreds of phone calls and letters, many of them complaining. An often-quoted letter states, “How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children?”

But not all the reaction was negative. As more people learned about the experiment, Elliott was asked to repeat the exercise and it eventually evolved into professional training for adults. In 1970, Elliott staged the exercise at a White House Conference on Children and Youth, staging it for adults.

Since then, Elliott has continued to do the Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed exercise, which is considered as the basis for diversity training. She has done training for corporations including General Electric, Exxon, AT&T and IBM. Elliott has also given lectures on diversity to the FBI, IRS, the U.S. Navy, the federal Department of Education and the U.S. Postal Service.

No stranger to Cal State San Bernardino, Elliott presented a diversity lecture on campus in 1998 as part of Conversations on Diversity lecture series, and as a guest speaker for a psychology class in 2014.

Visit Jane Elliott’s website for more information about her work.

For more information on the program, contact the Institute for Child Development and Family Relations at (909)-537-3679 or icdfr@csusb.edu.

For more information on Cal State San Bernardino, contact the university’s Office of Public Affairs at (909) 537-5007 and visit news.csusb.edu.

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