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Jane Elliott is an educator and social activist from the United States. She conducted the “Blue eyes-Brown eyes” exercise the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to teach her students about discrimination and racism. Jane Elliott filmed her third trial of the experiment, turning it into a movie titled The Eye of the Storm. She still conducts the blue eye brown eye experiment around the U.S. and lectures about its effects around the world.

Biography of Jane Elliott

Jane Elliott was born on May 27, 1933, in Riceville, Iowa, on the Elliott family farm. She was the fourth of five offspring to an Irish-American father and her mother. They did not have electricity or running water on the farm until 1943 and she attended school in the city’s one-room schoolhouse. Elliott received a Bachelors from the University of Iowa.[1]

The Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., occurred on April 4, 1968. That evening Jane Elliott watched the news and the white reporter questioned a local African-American community leader saying, “When our leader was killed several years ago, his widow held us together. Who’s going to control your people?” referring to the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The idea of JFK only being a leader for white U.S. citizens shocked and enraged Elliott, so she decided to address it in her classroom.

Elliott changed the next day’s lesson plan to be about Martin Luther King, Jr. She decided this while ironing a teepee for the formally planned lesson on Native Americans and recalled the Sioux prayer, “Oh great spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked in his moccasins.”[2] She wanted to show her all-white, small-town students what it would be like to walk in a “colored child's moccasins for a day.”[3]

The First Blue Eye, Brown Eye Experiment

Jane Elliott used many of the same derogatory stereotypes associated with African-Americans to turn the brown eye students against the blue eye students in her third-grade class.

On Friday, April 5, 1968, Jane Elliott began her third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa with a question, “How do you think it would feel to be a Negro boy or girl?” She then separated the class into children with blue eyes and children with brown or green eyes, giving the children with blue eyes a special color. Elliott then stated, "The brown-eyed people are the better people in this room. They are cleaner and they are smarter.”[4]

Elliott informed her students this difference came from the chemical Melanin. She explained Melanin controlled a person’s skin color, hair color, and eye color, and that it also affected their intelligence, that later of which is not true. She created the schism between her students by saying, “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."[5]

The students quickly adapted to these new ideas and brown-eyed students began discriminating against the blue-eyed students. They began stating that people with blue eyes do not remember what they’re taught, that they could catch something from the blue-eyed kids if they shared the same water fountain, and reiterated the fact that if a blue-eyed student got a question wrong it was because of the stupidity accompanying their blue-eyes.

Usually poor-performing, brown-eyed students started to excel and high-academic blue-eyed students started to fail. Three of the girls with brown eyes verbally assaulted one of the smart, brown-eyed girls during recess and forced her to apologize by saying, “You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we're better than you are.”[6]

When the students returned to school on Monday, Jane Elliott reversed her prior claims and stated that the brown-eyed students were lazy and stupid. The students with blue eyes discriminated against the students with brown eyes, but not to the extent the brown-eyed children did. Elliott hypothesized this was because the blue-eyed students already experienced the discrimination.

Elliott ended the angry eyes exercise and reminded her students about why they did it in the first place. She asked them to write down what they learned and how they felt. One student, Debbie Hughes, wrote, “The people in Mrs. Elliott's room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I have brown eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five minutes extra of recess.” When she became a part of the minority that changed, “I felt like quitting school… I felt mad. That's what it feels like when you're discriminated against.”[7]

Public Reactions

Jane Elliott submitted the collection of her third-grade students’ experience with the Blue Eye Brown Eye Experiment to the Riceville Recorder. They were published under the title “How Discrimination Feels” on April 18, 1968, and the Associated Press picked it up. Johnny Carson hosted her on The Tonight Show, where she described the exercise and received wholly negative responses from the public. They condemned her as being cruel to white children and stated she would cause psychological damage. She countered this by saying, “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?”[8]

Elliott and her family faced significant backlash from her coworkers and the community in Riceville. Children beat up her oldest son, wrote nasty words about her daughter on the bathroom mirror, and taunted another daughter about Elliott sleeping with African-American men. This did not stop Elliott however, and she continued to teach in Riceville and to conduct the Blue Eyes Brown Eyes exercise. She taught third grade for nine more years and then seventh and eighth grade for another eight years.[9]

In 1970, Jane Elliott recorded the third time she conducted the exercise and it was turned into the film, The Eye of the Storm. In 1984, that third-grade class reunited to watch themselves during the exercise and discuss the impact of the experiment on how they view bigotry in their own lives. PBS made this into a documentary entitled, A Class Divided.[10]

Later Career

The impact of Jane Elliott’s Blue Eye, Brown Eye experiment can still be felt today through the diversity training required by United States companies.

Jane Elliott left Riceville, Iowa in 1985 to bring the angry eyes exercise to groups across the U.S. Her Blue Eyes Brown Eyes exercise is the basis for most modern diversity training in the workplace. She’s provided training for big corporations and organizations like IBM, AT&T, Exxon, General Electric, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Postal Service, and the IRS.[11]

References

Bibliography

Bloom, S. G. (2005, September). Lesson of a Lifetime. Smithsonian Magazine.[1]


Peters, W. (1985, March 26). A Class Divided. PBS - Frontline.[2]

Footnotes

  1. Bloom, 2005
  2. Peters, 1985
  3. Bloom, 2005
  4. Bloom, 2005
  5. Bloom, 2005
  6. Bloom, 2005
  7. Bloom, 2005
  8. Bloom, 2005
  9. Bloom, 2005
  10. Peters, 1985
  11. Bloom, 2005

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