A two-day science experiment shows how discrimination based on eye color affected friendships and performance in a previously cooperative and friendly class of third graders.
The teacher was Jane Elliott, of Riceville, Iowa. In honor of National Brotherhood Week she had planned to have her class build a teepee and learn a Sioux Prayer. But the day before, Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. So she made the difficult decision to lead her class through this painful experiment.
Here’s how PBS Frontline described her decision:
“I felt desperately,” she says, “that there had to be a way to do more as a teacher than simply tell children that racial prejudice is irrational, that racial discrimination is wrong. We’ve all been told those things. We know them, at least in the sense that we mouth them at appropriate times. Yet we continue to discriminate, or to tolerate it in others, or to do nothing to stop it. What I had racked my brain to think of the night before was a way of letting my children find out for themselves, personally, deeply, what discrimination was really like, how it felt, what it could do to you. Now the time had come to try it.”
What happened next in Jane Elliott’s classroom was, as far as she knew, a product of her own mind. She had never heard of anyone else who had done it. She was not even sure it was a good idea. She knew only that she had to do something, and this was all she had thought of to try.
Fourteen years later, Elliott held a reunion with her third graders to talk about how the lesson had affected their attitudes toward racism and their parenting strategies.
We just showed this to a rising fourth grader and a rising sixth grader … the sixth grader was appalled until we explained the roles would be reversed, and then she was still very upset. A painful way to learn what it’s like to be in the undergroup.