Jane Elliot spent her career trying to give white people the slightest taste of the discrimination and racism that people of colour experience throughout their entire lives. It started in 1968, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when she devised an exercise for the students in her third grade classroom in which she separated the class by eye colour. It was the beginning of a social experiment that she hoped would illustrate the experience of discrimination, and it’s an exercise that we—and our kids—can still learn from today.
The basic gist is this: She separates a group of people (in the video below, it’s a group of college students who are there to get an extra credit) by eye colour. The brown-eyed participants are considered superior; they are fed, they are given comfortable seating, they are treated with respect and dignity. The blue- and green-eyed participants are considered inferior; they are made to wait in a room with very few seats, they are ridiculed, they are bossed around. You can see how quickly their emotions escalate, even though every person in the room knows this is an exercise:
One white woman even walks out when she becomes so upset over Elliot’s treatment of her; when she tries to rejoin the group, Elliot says:
No, you don’t come back in here until you’ve apologised to every person in this room. Because you just exercised a freedom that none of these people of colour have. When these people of colour get tired of racism, they can’t just walk out because there is no place in this country where they are not going to be exposed to racism … but you, as a white female, when you get tired of being judged and treated unfairly on the basis of your eye colour, you can walk out that door, and you know it won’t happen out there. You exercised a freedom they don’t have. If you’re going to be in here, you’re going to apologise to every black person in this room.
The woman ultimately left, rather than apologise. The whole exercise is uncomfortable to watch, and that’s exactly why we should—and why our older kids and teenagers should watch it, too. It serves as a powerful illustration that allows kids to better empathise with those who are discriminated against.
Better than simply saying, “Imagine how it would feel if you were judged because of the colour of your skin,” they get to actually see that discrimination in action in a way they never would out in the world.