A Class Divided
June 23, 2020 1:15 PM   Subscribe

The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, Jane Elliott, a teacher in a small, all-white Iowa town, divided her third-grade class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed groups and gave them a daring lesson in discrimination. This is the story of that lesson, its lasting impact on the children, and its enduring power 30 years later.

In 1985, PBS's Frontline returned, with Miss Elliott, to the school to interview the adults who had been her third-grade class in 1968.

In addition to just teaching a class full of white children what actual discrimination felt like, there are lessons to be learned about unconscious bias and the effects it can have on personal performance.
posted by hanov3r (30 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Previously, but it’s been a while and is sadly still relevant. I remember that first post very clearly and distressingly.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 1:29 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]

it’s been a while

2005. Real and Windows Media! DivX torrents! Mefites arguing about whether racism is real!
posted by zamboni at 1:33 PM on June 23 [23 favorites]

I had never seen this.

Thank you.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:54 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

So I really thought I had seen some decent criticism of this and I went looking for it last night and could NOT find it. Does anyone else know what I'm talking about? Did I imagine it? I'm happy to be wrong, fyi.
posted by cooker girl at 1:55 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]

I think some psychologists criticized her for this. She mentions it as an aside in her interview that I just linked.
posted by jj's.mama at 1:58 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

This interview of her (which I found linked in the YouTube video comments) about the history of this and what she's up to today is a great read, and talks a lot about systemic racism.

The first I heard of this experiment I thought it was a little simplistic, but this woman knows her stuff and continues to do variations on these experiments on (her words) "so-called adults" today.
posted by knownassociate at 2:00 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]

Ooh! And she's also the woman in this video making the rounds these days, about asking white people to stand up if they want to be treated the way Black people are treated in this country.
posted by knownassociate at 2:03 PM on June 23 [9 favorites]

What I take away from this is that most White folks don't understand what it feels like to be "othered".
posted by jj's.mama at 2:04 PM on June 23 [15 favorites]

What I take away from this is that most White folks don't understand what it feels like to be "othered".

I think that is completely accurate. Especially to be othered from the moment you walk in the room.
posted by PMdixon at 2:14 PM on June 23 [17 favorites]

A substitute teacher in our 6th grade class came in, and said he would be rearranging our seating. A smaller group of maybe 1/6th of the class was "set aside".

Then he started this whole "what is wrong with these people?" discussion, referring to the selected group, following the discussion into very personal attacks on the sub-group, including that someone called one of them "queer" and we got into that whole discussion. "Queer? What do you mean queer?". Some of those poor kids were crying.

At the end of class, having stoked antagonism against the "others", he disclosed that the division was by eye color.

Apparently it was memorable enough for me decades later.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:20 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

Mm yeah, I like this kind of thing in theory but I feel like it could go lord-of-flies quickly if the teacher isn't on their game.

I still remember, I think it was grade 7? we were learning about the Holocaust and the teacher basically pointed out all the people who would not have been acceptable to the Nazis, including all us black and brown kids plus some of the darker-skinned white kids. So yeah, memorable -- but in retrospect, probably kind of problematic.
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:44 PM on June 23 [8 favorites]

A grade school teacher of mine did a similar exercise with us based on Naziism that I still remember vividly. Another teacher I had (one of the few Black teachers I had until college) invited me to come to a “diversity club” she was starting at school for students to talk through racism. It was the first time in my life I was the only white person in a room of people, and when my teacher looked at me and said “how you feel now is how the other girls in this room feel all the time in school,” it was the first time I started to get it.

Educational interventions can make a lifelong difference.
posted by sallybrown at 2:48 PM on June 23 [23 favorites]

I've always been fascinated by this whole thing.

Kind of reminds me of reading "The Wave" while in school at some point too.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:49 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]

Maybe we can use all the empty pedestals where confederate generals used to stand to place statues of Jane Elliott.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:03 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]


The Nazis went by ancestry for defining Jewishness, so some of the Jews they killed were blond and blue-eyed.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:13 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]

So, we did this is somewhere between 2nd and 5th grade (I'm guessing because of the linked Frontline thing, since it came out when I was in Kindergarten), and it absolutely did not go as planned.

We got divided up by eye color, and since there was less people with blue eyes, me and the other blue eye kids were the disadvantaged group, and the brown eyed kids where the privileged.

The first part went the expected way, where the kids started treated us like shit after following the teacher's example. Those kids definitely caught onto the lesson pretty quickly. However, the main lesson the my group learned was that dreams of future extreme violence is the only sustenance a beaten down soul ever needs.

The teacher apparently thought the disadvantaged kids would just accept their lot in life, and everyone would learn a lesson about how arbitrary discrimination is, etc. etc.. The was originally some plan where the roles would be switched, but that got canceled since it was real clear my group was getting ready to just beat on the other kids (well, as much as 8-9 year olds can beat each other up) rather than use the lesson to treat the newly disadvantaged kids better since we had just been in their shoes and whatnot.

Anyway, probably my earliest memory of a "man, adults are just fucking stupid, aren't they?" experience.

On preview:

Mm yeah, I like this kind of thing in theory but I feel like it could go lord-of-flies quickly if the teacher isn't on their game.

Yep. Took about 15 mins.
posted by sideshow at 3:27 PM on June 23 [13 favorites]

Just dropped in to say I'm a star-bellied Sneetch.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 3:42 PM on June 23 [14 favorites]

I can tell you that my third grade teacher did this to us.

I’m sure her intentions were good—she was a hippie and also read us Jonathan Livingston Seagull and had “compliment circles” and all sorts of fuzzy bullshit you didn’t usually see in early 80s small town Arizona.

What you did see in small town Arizona in the 80s is a lot of Latino kids though, almost all of whom had brown eyes—so it ended up feeling extremely gross and racist and a couple of us are still really fucking mad about it even though we’re all 46ish years old now.

It comes up on Facebook every once in a while for us to pick scabs over all over again.
posted by padraigin at 3:43 PM on June 23 [13 favorites]

We did this in my (all-white, rural) third grade class. Then we watched the 1970 film and some short documentary about the Stanford prison experiment. Our teacher wasn’t quite as committed to it as Jane Elliot, though, so I don’t know if it had the same kind of impact on most of us.

I mean, I know what the practical problems with school integration have been, but I’ve got to think that a big part of the problem is how many white people grow up never knowing any people who look different from them. I didn’t meet a Black, Hispanic, or Asian person until I was in my teens. From Kindergarten through University, I never had an instructor who wasn’t white. The first time I was the only white person in the room I was in my 20s. And, although I hate to admit it, it did make me uncomfortable. Even at the time, I hated the fact that it made me uncomfortable, but I can’t pretend it didn’t. And immediately I thought, this must be how that one Black kid in my high school felt. There has to be some kind of way we can improve that situation. And it would be better for everybody, I think, if it could happen when we’re younger as opposed to when we’re older.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:00 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]

I had a teacher do a version of this, and I guess it was meaningful to the extent I still remember it, but it kind of fell apart for me in two significant ways. The first was that I basically figured out pretty quickly what she was doing, that our normally nice and caring teacher didn't suddenly become an asshole for no reason and was doing this to make a point about injustice and racism and Nazis. And realizing that (did the rest of the class not come to that realization when I did? I'm still not sure) meant that I engaged with it more as an observer than a participant, purposefully not speaking up because I didn't want to ruin her lesson.

Which led to the broader realization that this isn't how systems of oppression really work, that there's more to it than a normally compassionate person suddenly showing up to work one day deciding to manifest in an exaggerated fashion a particular form of bigotry, that this was a particularly poor substitute for the lessons that come from actually existing in a truly diverse environment. Maybe that would have been more meaningful if it was followed up by a deeper examination of past and current forms of oppression rather than leaving the lesson at the almost cartoonish level we experienced in the classroom.
posted by zachlipton at 4:22 PM on June 23 [5 favorites]

We were shown this film when I was pretty young. It really affected me and I've thought about it often throughout my life and there have been so many moments where I wanted to sit someone I knew down in front of it. I'm glad it's still around and accessible.
posted by myfavoriteband at 4:55 PM on June 23

I saw, I think, the previous post about this, and commented then and comment now that I would never do anything like that with my own elementary or middle school students, maybe not until 8th grade. Role play appeals to a certain kind of teacher because it can be powerful, but if it's done wholeheartedly it can be way too powerful. Children, even more than adults, adopt the mindset of their role far too easily, and can't detach from the "identity" they have taken on. Even more, children model themselves on the behavior they see from other children and from adults, and if they see prejudice made acceptable they adopt it or internalize it. The children who see it for what it is are usually already enriched by a family environment that allows them to detach.
posted by Peach at 5:46 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]

I watched a bunch of these videos, including the Oprah one, a week or two ago. I think the part that's stuck with me the most has been this particular part of the college video arabidopsis linked above. The five or so minutes following the timestamp really hammered home for me a reality that, at best, I only acknowledged intellectually but don't really feel like I understood emotionally: at the end of the day, most of the people Jane Elliot subjects to ridicule and prejudice for the purposes of the exercise get to walk out of that room, free in the knowledge that whatever prejudice they faced in that room doesn't follow them outside that room.

To see people who understand this implicitly, understand the point of the exercise, understand on some level that this is all an act, nevertheless strain to act normal under the barrage of abuse Elliot hurls at them? And then to ask yourself what it would be like if there was never any relief, no way to "leave the room"? I don't know that I really truly understood what that meant until I watched that clip. I'm still not sure I truly get it now, but I feel like the video opens the door a crack to understanding.
posted by chrominance at 7:24 PM on June 23 [13 favorites]

Dismissing the value of the exercise on the basis that you “figured out the point so it was ineffectual” or that it didn’t inspire you to treat your temporary oppressors well is to fundamentally misunderstand the intention. POC do feel angry when we experience racism, we do ideate enacting violence against our oppressors. And the fact that it took a group of white children fifteen minutes of a necessarily incomplete and mild simulation of actual discrimination to reach that point of wanting to physically fight back should tell you something, shouldn’t it?

Absolutely. For me, it wasn't that the exercise was ineffectual because I figured out the point; it's that I remember that I was thinking about it at the intellectual level of "this is an interesting experiment the teacher is doing and I'm curious where it will go" rather than the emotional reaction discussed upthread, and some of the enduring life-long lesson the exercise is supposed to impart is clearly based on that emotional reaction. And that's not the exercise's fault; that's my middle school-self's fault for overly intellectualizing it rather than experiencing it.
posted by zachlipton at 7:41 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

Maybe we can use all the empty pedestals where confederate generals used to stand to place statues of Jane Elliott.

is there some sort of minimum quota on the number of statues of white people?
posted by anem0ne at 8:29 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]

"POC do feel angry when we experience racism, we do ideate enacting violence against our oppressors..."
posted by arabidopsis at 8:22 PM

While I haven't read it all (yet), that part of your comment reminded me of the first parts of "Wretched of the Earth" by Franz Fanon (link to wiki) and the discussion of that boiling anger inside...

He gives it a palpable sense, and I think is a good thing for people to read. Even (especially) for those who consider themselves an ally, and those have already done a lot of work towards checking their privilege -- you will likely find yourself very defensive, even if you do things like understand riots and support them. This speaks to that inchoate rage and strikes you at the root in the same way you felt attacked by the initial claims of your privilege - before you began to understand privilege. The denial, the anger. The defensive mechanisms. Only... much stronger. Because the violence given in this writing is pointedly at those in privilege. And it goes beyond mere asking for reform of law.

It is not a book of love and tolerance and compassion, nor even about education. It is a book written from the place of "The Wretched". It is not written for your sensibilities. It is raw, real and truly a voice of the voiceless.
It's not about bridging a divide or assuaging guilt, or even working to end that oppression in a liberal order. It's a scream of snapped anger about the system that confers your privileges in a violently viscerally form, like a verbal brick aimed straight at the storefront of your id.

Like Elliott's experiment designed to convey the sense of otherness, the oppression that results - so does Fanon seeks to do with words - to evoke these emotions.
posted by symbioid at 9:55 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

Just dropped in to say I'm a star-bellied Sneetch.

Sure, for now. Stop by if you ever change your mind about that.

Bring cash.

-- Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
posted by panglos at 10:10 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]

OK, this is a bit weird. I did the original post in 2005, and earlier today I was thinking about doing an updated post. Glad you beat me to it!

I use a modified version of this to talk to my 8-year-old daughter about sexism and racism. It totally works still.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:34 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]

To add to the above: I would encourage those who have only seen the 3rd grade version of Jane Elliott’s exercise to watch this training she did with college students, also after having time to refine the technique—it shows her being deliberate and explicit and managing white students’ reactions in a way that I think is elucidating.

I think it's particularly interesting because college students are better at raising objections to the technique and better at arguing - but not as good as Elliott is. There's a bit where a student who I suspect might be LGBT - she identifies as a marginalised person - objects, because she feels like she knows what it's like to be marginalised and it's not like this. She loses that argument.

I find it interesting how uncomfortable I was. Intellectually I know a lot of this, but I know I've got a lot of work to do still.
posted by Merus at 5:00 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]

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