The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Jane Elliott listened to her Grade 3 students calmly make racist remarks, and decided to teach them a lesson.
“What I had racked my brain [for] was a way of letting my children find out for themselves, personally, deeply, what discrimination was really like,” she would later tell PBS.
More than 40 years later, the internet is loving her for it. A video of Jane Elliott’s 1968 social experiment in an all-white Iowa town has gone viral. In the video, Elliott makes an announcement: today, the blue-eyed kids come first – they get five minutes more at recess, and second helpings in the cafeteria. The brown-eyed kids (who have to wear identifying scarves) aren’t allowed to play with them at recess. She spends the day poking at the brown-eyed kids in front of the class, insinuating that they learn more slowly than their blue-eyed peers.
The next day, she reverses the experiment – with the brown-eyed kids on top.
What’s riveting – and disconcerting – about the video is the speed with which the students fall into their new social identities. One boy calls another “brown-eyes” on the playground and gets punched in the stomach. One girl is shown sitting alone in the playground since she can’t play with her friends, whose eyes are a different colour. On the second day, when a boy completes a test more slowly than the day before, he tells Elliott it’s because he was thinking about his shameful blue eyes.
It’s compelling stuff, considering it’s a grainy footage, mostly of a teacher leading a classroom discussion. Elliott herself is watchable: clearly a fantastic teacher, she allows the kids to produce their own answers and guides the conversation without lecturing.
The video is actually taken from a 1970 documentary about Elliott’s exercise for ABC news, which was later turned in a documentary for PBS.
By modern standards, Elliott’s experiment is harsh, and over the years it has sparked considerable debate. She gave students a reason to bully each other - at a very young age.
At the time, Elliott was shunned by other teaches in her Ohio town. But she was defiant: “Why are we so worried about the fragile egos of white children who experience a couples hours of make-up racism one day when blacks experience real racism every day of their lives?”
All told, the lesson, and Jane Elliott’s legacy, remain. “I've never forgotten the exercise,” student Malinda Whisenhunt later said. "It changed my life.”