Racial prejudice has been part of America for 400 years. Some changes have occurred, but perhaps the most salient is the way that technology now permits capturing and publicly sharing longstanding racially abusive events.
While insidious and dangerous religious, regional, gender and more prejudices continue, racial discrimination has been the trump card. In some situations, personal characteristics that draw prejudice can be camouflaged or temporarily hidden; race is not one of those.
A half-century ago, a blue-eyed brown-eyed elementary school experiment was used to illustrate racial prejudice. Today’s environment makes it worth recalling.
In 1968, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, a Riceville, Iowa, third grader walked into class and asked his teacher, Jane Elliott, “Why’d they shoot that King?” Following that inquiry, Mrs. Elliott discussed racial discrimination with her class but suggested it would be hard to understand it without experiencing it. She asked the class if they’d like to find out; they readily agreed.
She then divided the class of white pupils by eye color. First, the brown eyed children were favored with second helpings at lunch, extra recess time and sitting in the front of the classroom. Ms. Elliott did not permit the two groups to interact and pointed out negatives about the blue-eyed group. The favored group became arrogant and bossy but did better on their academic work. The next day, she reversed the roles. After the experiment ended, the teacher asked the children to write down what they had learned.
Shortly after that, the Riceville Recorder, the small town’s newspaper, ran a page 4 story about the students’ reactions in “How Discrimination Feels.” It was picked up by the Associated Press. Fame and anger followed Mrs. Elliott, who was invited to be on the “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. One might think that this would have been a much-applauded exercise. Not in 1968, only four years after the Civil Rights Act was passed.
In 2005, The Smithsonian Magazine included an extensive article on this event illustrating that what began as a brief exposure to experiencing prejudice became an extensive emotional issue. One white adult said, “How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children? Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there’s no way they could possibly understand it. It’s cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage.” Mrs. Elliott responded, “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 racism every day of their lives?”
That racist quote was not an outlier. When Mrs. Elliott returned to school after her TV appearance, she reported that only one teacher talked with her regularly and others walked out of the teachers’ lounge when she walked in.
Decades later, she reported that about 20 percent of Riceville was still furious at her. Mrs. Elliott left teaching in the mid-1980s and her blue-eyed brown-eyed experience morphed into workplace diversity training.
All of us need to understand and experience the emotions that people feel when they endure constant discrimination based only on race. Americans should be well beyond the third-grade blue-eyed brown-eyed experiment level, but until recently that didn’t appear so.