Summary: This video features Jane Elliott's famous, yet controversial, "Blue Eyes / Brown Eyes" exercise. Elliott originally designed the exercise in the 1960s as a way to illustrate the inhumanity, the irrationality, and the immorality of racism, a system that, as her experiment has shown, people quite readily endorse. At that time, Elliott was a third grade school teacher in an all-white Iowa town, and she wanted her students to understand the arbitrary and unfair treatment associated with judging people based on the color of their skin. To do this, she developed an exercise that subjected her white students to this type of treatment, so they could experience it first-hand. While her original exercise was developed during a time of overt racism characterized by 1960s America, her contemporary workshops reveal how racism continues to operate in more covert ways in present-day multicultural societies. This clip features a recent workshop conducted in Britain, and is supplemented by footage from her exercise with children in the 1960s, as well as commentary from two psychologists, Professor Dominic Abrams and Dr. Funké Baffour. As demonstrated in the video, Elliott divides workshop participants according to eye color; those with brown eyes are given a privileged majority status, while blue-eyed participants are segregated, treated harshly, and subjected to constant surveillance. The aim is to simulate a racist apartheid-style regime, and throughout the exercise Elliott is the authoritative leader. After she segregates the group by eye color, the next phase of the exercise is to get the brown-eyed group to turn against the blue-eyed group. While Elliott has been conducting this exercise with adults for over 40 years throughout the world, we learn from the video that the workshop in Britain was a bit anomalous in that the brown-eyed group was less vocal than past groups, and the blue-eyed group was more defiant. What is strikingly clear, however, is how white people in the blued-eyed group end up defending the current racial system, revealing their ignorance around their own racial privilege and their obliviousness around the profound discrimination experienced by people of color. Elliott's exercise is controversial and confrontational, and her abrasive approach to authority has been criticized as a form of bullying. At the end of the clip, Krishnan Guru-Murthy interviews Elliott about her methods and some of the critiques surrounding her approach. This exchange would be useful in a discussion about research methods and ethics, and whether Elliot's workshop inflicts any harm upon the human subjects involved. More broadly, this video is useful for teaching about racism, discrimination, and white supremacy. Elliott's exercise is also documented in an award-winning PBS FRONTLINE program, A Class Divided (1985), available for free online here. There is also a website dedicated to the exercise, which features additional learning resources.
Submitted By: Valerie Chepp