Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, teacher Jane Elliott knew she had to do something. Riceville, Iowa, the town in which she lived, was totally homogeneous and, as a result, she realized that her students had no firsthand experience with discrimination. A Class Divided: Then and Now chronicles Elliott's courageous experiment and the life-altering impact it had on her students.
On the day after King's assassination, Elliott segregated her class according to eye color. Students with brown eyes were considered superior to those with blue eyes. They were afforded extra time at recess, a second helping at lunch and the sense of self-worth that goes along with feeling above everyone else. The blue-eyed students wore collars so that their eye color could be distinguished from afar. The following day, Elliott turned the tables by giving the blue-eyed students privileges and making the brown-eyed students second class citizens. Elliott watched with fascination as her classroom became a microcosm of society. The superior group quickly embraced their elite status and turned on the inferior group. They readily adopted the "propaganda" Elliott spouted about the other group's habits and ethics. Word of Elliott's lesson spread, and in 1970, she found herself with a camera crew in her classroom to document what few other teachers of the day were willing to confront.
In 1984, the class reunited to watch the documentary and talk about the life lessons they learned fourteen years earlier. Elliott's former students spoke of how they are accepting of others in a town where discrimination still reared its ugly head. They talked about teaching their children tolerance and acceptance in a town where those values were not standard practice. The book and documentary also record Elliott's training of guards in the Iowa Department of Corrections. It is fascinating to learn that adults fall right into the same pattern of discrimination as the third graders had.
Author William Peters penned A Class Divided: Then and Now (1987) several years after the first edition of A Class Divided (1971) was published. The book is based on the 1970 ABC News documentary The Eye of the Storm. The book and the documentary are still widely used today in schools across America.
Everyone is likely to experience some form of discrimination or prejudice; as is anyone capable of acting prejudiced towards others. On April 5th, 1968, a teacher in Riceville, Iowa named Jane Elliot conducted an experiment with her third grade class that dealt with the concept of discrimination; and was documented in Peters’ 1985 ‘A Class Divided’. The exercise originally took place the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated. The documentary is an eye opener to the world of racism and discrimination. Bucher (2010) describes racism as “discrimination based on the belief that one race is superior to another” (97). According to Bucher (2010) “discrimination is defined as the unequal treatment of people on the basis of their group membership” (100). Bucher goes on to say “treatment varies because of race, age, gender, social class or any number of other dimensions of diversity” (100). ‘A Class Divided’ exposes that discrimination doesn’t just go to the extent to the color of skin, culture or ethnicity, but discrimination can fall into any physical characteristics, social status, having a developmental disability, simply being a woman, and in this case the color of your eyes.
The concept Elliot is teaching, is that racism is a learned behavior and not part of human genetics. This blue eyed versus brown eyed people experiment establishes that thinking and acting racist is learned. She also proves it can be unlearned. She wants us to see through the myth of white superiority. How we are told to believe that racism no longer exists and that it’s not as simple as the KKK. Today racism and discrimination go much further and are more complex. It’s being able to vote; it’s the stereotypes “an unverified and oversimplified generalization about an entire group of people” (Bucher, 2010, 86), children learn growing up; it’s portraying the colored people as the bad ones and the white people as victims; it’s not having the equal rights and opportunities. Elliot’s exercise with her class shows the effects of when there is a distinguished group of superiors and inferiors.
A month from now I will recall several scenes from the movie. Especially all the faces and emotions the children went through when part of the inferior group. When Mrs. Elliot told her class that brown eyed people are not to get second helpings at lunch time, one little brown eyed girl looked utterly heartbroken. The scene that I’ll probably remember most is when Ms. Elliot did the test on the adults. It was shocking and interesting to see how adults act in such a situation as being discriminated against. Another scene that stood out was when the superior group of children felt like they were in power; they completely turned on the other group with no remorse. Best friends became worst enemies, and they didn’t even think twice about it.
Elliot conducted this experiment on her third grade class based on students having blues eyes or brown eyes. The first day the blue eyed children would be superiors, because blue eyed people are better and smarter than brown eyed people, thus they were given extra privileges. For example, the superior blue eyed children were entitled to seconds for lunch, but the inferior brown eyed children were not, in fears they might take too much food. The superior group received unearned privileges, defined by Bucher (2010) as “those benefits in life that we have through no effort of our own” (135), like five extra minutes at recess and being allowed to play on the playground equipment. Just as blacks were forced to use segregated restrooms and water fountains, the inferior brown eyed people could not drink directly from the fountain; they were required to use a cup. The brown eyed children were also made to wear a collar around their necks, that way, they could be told apart, just as African Americans can be discriminated against from a distance.
Elliot gave recognition to the blue eyed kids on being hard working, fast learners, while the brown eyed children were found at fault and told they were not as smart. On the day blue eyed people were superior; she brings up the point that blue eyed fathers never kick their children, like one brown eyed boy’s father had done the prior week. But when blue eyed Russell forgot his glasses the following day, it had to be because he has blue eyes, since Susan, whom has brown eyes, remembered her glasses. Elliot also led the children to decide that since blue eyed Greg said he likes to hit his litter sister, this conveys blue eyed people are naughty.
From here, we witness some of superior blue eyed kids began to act arrogant and bossy to the inferior brown eyed kids. Blue eyed Russell was taunting John at recess, calling him ‘brown eyes’ and John retaliated by hitting him. After the two boys fought at recess the teacher asked if responding with violence made him feel better, he replied no. His answer goes to show that responding with violence is ineffective and a waste of time and energy. They compared it to someone calling a black man the N-word.
Even academic achievement goes up when the children were in the superior group. When doing the card packs the first day the brown eyed children spent five and half minutes to go through the deck, while the superior blue eyed children spent only three minutes, the following day the superior group of brown eyed students took only two and a half minutes compared to the four minutes and eighteen seconds of the inferior blue eyed group.
In the documentary the kids didn’t refuse to obey their teacher, even during the exercise, but surprisingly when doing the exercise with the adults, they also followed along with her every order. Not even one of the adults stood their ground, as Ms. Elliot kept throwing out negative comments, the adults never really argued with her. This is because if they would have argued it would have made them seem argumentative and disobedient which would have just made the situation worse. When being discriminated against, one feels hopeless. Maybe they felt as if their words wouldn’t mean anything, even if spoken. While in the prison seminar, one of the white woman said that all people face some kind of discrimination, another woman disagrees by saying that whites can’t really know what it’s like to face discrimination every day. There is no way that a white person will ever feel or know what it’s like to face the discrimination that African Americans have experienced.
Watching ‘A Class Divided’ really brought along a lot of different feelings. First and foremost I learned from watching the kid’s scene that you work better when you feel better and when you feel confident. Ms. Elliot’s way of showing these kids about discrimination and racism was very effective and taught the kids that no one person is different from the next, we all were created equal and it isn’t right to judge. It is important for every child to learn in the early stages of life that everybody under the sun is created equally. We may not look the same, or dress the same, some of us may have a higher social status than others, but at the end of the day we still walk the same Earth, nobody is better than the next. The biggest impact from seeing the video is that it shows how easily discrimination can be taught to a young impressionable child. As Elliot explains that we adults train our children to think this way when we past judgment and then they see it and grow up to be familiar with it and think of it as ordinary.
Bucher, R. D. (2010). Diversity Consciousness Third Edition: opening our minds to people, cultures, and opportunities. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Peters, W. (Director). (1985). A class divided. Washington, DC: PBS Video [Frontline].