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Jane Elliott (born 1933 in Riceville, Iowa) is an American teacher and now anti-racism activist.
Elliott's method for exploring racism in the context of an all-white classroom consisted of dividing her students into two groups on the basis of eye color, blue or brown (those with other eye colors were assigned to the group that most closely matched their own.)
On the first day, Elliott told her students that possessing blue eyes indicated superiority in intelligence and conferred extra classroom privileges while having brown eyes indicated inferiority. Quickly, the students of the "superior" color began to oppress those of the "inferior" color, while those of the "inferior" color exhibited negative feelings of self-loathing and fear.
The next day, Elliott reversed the exercise, telling the students that her statements the previous day were untrue, and that the reverse situation now prevailed. The same children who had been oppressed the day before quickly took on the oppressing role, and vice versa.
As a school teacher in Riceville, Iowa, she tried to explain the meaning of King's death to her all white students. Riceville was and is today a predominantly white, Christian town with a population of 1,000 people. Elliott devised the exercise - this is not an experiment, she emphasizes - in which one day the brown eyed children are on top and the next day the blue eyed. "I chose a physical characteristic over which they had no control and attributed negative elements to this characteristic." Elliott chose eye color because she was under the impression that during the Second World War eye color was one of the ways for the Nazis to determine if someone was sent to the gas chamber or not.
According to Elliott, while the exercise proved to be awakening for her students, it did not go over well with many residents of her hometown. She and her children were harassed, she says, and were called names such as "nigger lover". Furthermore, she claims, residents even began boycotting a business run by one of Jane Elliott's family members. Eventually, she moved to a nearby community.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Elliott has gone on to lead students and employees of corporations in her blue eyes/brown eyes exercise.
Many years after the experiment Jane Elliott held a class reunion, and many of the participants reported that their experience had had a profound effect on their attitudes.
In 1970, a half-hour documentary film about the experience was produced by ABC News, entitled The Eye of the Storm.
Public Broadcasting Service's Frontline TV series also produced a one-hour documentary called A Class Divided that showed, in addition to the 3rd grade experiment, the method applied to correctional facility employees.
A more recent documentary about her work is Blue Eyed (1995). "Blue Eyed is by far the most comprehensive and useful video on my work available; it sums up 28 years of experience in schools, universities and corporations." (Jane Elliott). In 2001 another documentary, entitled The Angry Eye, was released.
Indecently Exposed (2004) is a documentary on the racial attitudes of Canadians towards Native Canadians. It is the first time that Jane Elliot has brought the exercise to Canada. It was filmed in Regina, Saskatchewan.
This exercise was also featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, whereby the format involved having the guest audience split along eye color lines, with markedly different treatment by ushers and other staff according to same, culminating in discussion about the 'newly researched' superiority/inferiority according to eye color, even eliciting unsolicited commentary from the audience, including those who 'always suspected they were smarter' and likewise, and not exposing the true nature of the exercise for some time afterward.
Two British professors expressed concern with the ethics of the experiment because the children were not told the true purpose of the experiment beforehand.
- Jane Elliott's home page
- Jane Elliott page at Admire Entertainment (contains links to available videos)
- A Class Divided - The Frontline documentary
- Smithsonian.com: A Lesson of a Lifetime
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