Published Online:

Bigotry: A Teacher's Voyage Into the 'Eye of the Storm'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Twenty years ago this week, a 3rd-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, watched with disbelief as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. unfolded on the evening news.

"I was just sick inside,'' Jane Elliott recalled in an interview last week. "It was a visceral reaction. I was horrified, and I was frightened, and I was intensely angry.''

Unwilling to let the racial animosity laid bare by the civil-rights leader's death and its bitter aftermath go unchallenged, Ms. Elliott decided to create a lesson in discrimination that her students would never forget.

The result was a two-day exercise, called "Discrimination Day,'' that soon attracted attention nationwide. Eventually, it became the subject of two highly acclaimed television documentaries and a best-selling 1971 book.

A Class Divided: Then and Now--an updated edition of the book--was released this year by the Yale University Press. It recounts the teacher's harrowing experience with that first lesson in 1968, and explores her subsequent repetitions of the lesson and the conclusions she draws from it.

The book's author, William Peters, also wrote, produced, and directed the two films.

Ms. Elliott began the lesson by asking her all-white class in Riceville, a town of 898 inhabitants, what they knew or had heard about Negroes.

"They had been conditioned to believe--and they said--that blacks aren't as smart as white people, they aren't as clean, they aren't as civilized,'' Ms. Elliott recalled last week. "They riot, they loot, they kill people. You can't trust them.''

"And these were children in an all-white, rural community in Northeast Iowa,'' she added, "where the nearest black community was 70 miles away.''

Could they imagine how it would feel to be a black boy or girl?, the 35-year-old teacher asked.

"I mean, it would be hard to know, really, unless we actually experienced discrimination ourselves, wouldn't it?'' she told them. "Well, would you like to find out?''

For the next two days, Jane Elliott divided her students into two groups based on the color of their eyes.

For the first day, the "brown eyes''--who included eight brown-eyed and three green-eyed children--would be "superior.'' On the second day, their roles would be reversed, and the 17 "blue eyes'' would be on top.

The assumptions and ground rules governing the first day's class were simple, Mr. Peters explains in A Class Divided: Brown-eyed people were better, cleaner, more civilized, and smarter. They could use the drinking fountain in the room, while the blue-eyed children would have to use paper cups.

Brown eyes could have five extra minutes of recess, go to lunch first, choose their lunch-line partners, and go back for seconds. Blue eyes could not.

Brown eyes could sit in the front of the room and be row leaders. Blue eyes could not play with them unless asked, and they could not play on the big playground equipment at recess or take the small playground equipment out of the room.

During the first day, when a blue-eyed child had problems with a lesson or made a mistake, Ms. Elliott would shake her head and ask a brown-eyed child to make the correction. When a brown-eyed child had difficulty, she helped.

"Long before noon,'' she told Mr. Peters, "I was sick. I wished I had never started it.''

"By the lunch hour, there was no need to think before identifying a child as blue- or brown-eyed. I could tell simply by looking at them.''

"The brown-eyed children were happy, alert, having the time of their lives,'' she said. "And they were doing far better work than they had ever done before.''

In contrast, she said, the blue-eyed children were "miserable.''

"Their posture, their expressions, their entire attitudes were those of defeat,'' the teacher said. "Their classroom work regressed sharply from that of the day before. Inside of an hour or so, they looked and acted as though they were, in fact, inferior. It was shocking.''

"But even more frightening,'' she told the filmmaker, "was the way the brown-eyed children turned on their friends of the day before, the way they accepted almost immediately as true what had originally been described as an exercise.''

"For there was no question, after an hour or so, that they actually believed they were superior.''

Scared about what she had done, and uncertain whether she could or should continue, Ms. Elliott went to the teachers' lounge in midmorning to seek the advice of fellow teachers.

Twenty years later, she could still remember what they said.

"One of them said to me, 'I don't know how you can teach all this other stuff. It's all I have time to do to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic,''' she recalled.

"And the other said, 'I don't know why you're doing that. I thought it was about time somebody killed that son-of-a-bitch.' And that's an exact quote.''

"I was so appalled at that,'' Ms. Elliott said last week, "that I determined that no child would ever leave my classroom with that kind of attitude unchallenged.''

She decided to continue the lesson.

By the end of the first day, the blue-eyed children had been devastated. And the brown-eyed children were enthralled.

At the end of the second day, Ms. Elliott and her students were drained. Friends had turned on each other. There had been several fights during recess.

The only real difference, Ms. Elliott told Mr. Peters, was that the blue-eyed children--who were superior on day two--were "noticeably less vicious in their treatment of the underlings than the latter had been to them.''

She said she hoped that was because of their experience the previous day.

Toward the end of the second day, Ms. Elliott told her class that the assumptions of the lesson had all been lies. On the following day she led a discussion of what they had learned and asked each child to write a paper defining "discrimination,'' describing how he or she had felt during the two days, and telling who Martin Luther King Jr. was.

On the second day, wrote brown-eyed Debbie Anderson, "I felt mad and I wanted to tie the people with blue eyes up and quit school because they got to do everything first and we had to do everything last. I felt dirty. And I did not feel as smart as I did on Friday.''

"Discrimination is no fun,'' the girl concluded. "Martin Luther King did not like discrimination against Negroes.''

One of her classmates, Billy Thompson, wrote: "Martin Luther King died trying to save colored people from discrimination. White people at least could treat colored people like any other people.''

Each year that Ms. Elliott repeated the lesson, the pattern was the same: With the exception of one or two children who steadfastly stood up to authority, refusing to believe that people were superior based on the color of their eyes, the students accepted the teacher's statements as gospel.

The "superior'' children "actually enjoyed what they were doing for that day,'' Ms. Elliott said last week. "They more than cooperated.''

"It was obeying the authority figure's instructions and following her lead,'' she added. "And it was being able to discriminate and abuse other people without any fear of retribution whatsoever.''

Although the teacher found much of what was happening deeply upsetting, she never allowed herself to comfort a child, to end the lesson halfway, or to tell the students that everything she had said earlier was not true.

"I would not do it during that lesson, and I do not do that now,'' said Ms. Elliott, who repeated the exercise almost every year until she left teaching in 1986, and who continues to convey the lesson to groups of adults today.

"We do not comfort minority-group members, and we do not comfort women,'' she explained. "We do not take minority-group members aside and say, 'This is only a game. It will all be over. We're only doing this for your own good.'''

"If you think for one minute that white people don't enjoy discriminating against others,'' she added, "you'd better think again, because if we didn't enjoy doing it, we would have stopped doing it a long time ago.''

Word of Ms. Elliott's original lesson spread quickly, and two weeks later, a story about it appeared in the Riceville Recorder, a local weekly. The story was picked up by a wire service, and then by Johnny Carson, who asked Ms. Elliott to appear on the "Tonight'' show.

Letters--both favorable and unfavorable--began pouring in from all over the country.

"The second year,'' Ms. Elliott recalled, "I had sort of decided not to do the lesson. And then the race riots started in Waterloo, Iowa, which was 70 miles from us. There was no way I could not do it.''

"Every year, something would happen that would make it impossible not for me to do the exercise.''

In 1970, when Ms. Elliott taught the lesson for a third time, ABC News sent a producer and two camera crews to film the experience for a network documentary.

The film, "The Eye of the Storm,'' aired four times that year, receiving the George Foster Peabody Award and numerous other honors.

In 1984, members of Ms. Elliott's 1970 class gathered for a reunion, and Mr. Peters filmed them again. Their discussion of what they had learned from the
Elliott had conducted with adults working in correctional institutions--was broadcast on the PBS series "Frontline'' in March 1985, also to national acclaim.

Perhaps the most striking sustained effects of Ms. Elliott's lesson about racial prejudice were its apparent impact on students' academic performance and on their attitudes toward others.

Ms. Elliott was struck by the improved learning curve of some students in the months following the 1970 lesson--an observation borne out by their scores on the Stanford Achievement Test that April.

One student, for example, had gained two years in reading ability and four or five years in every other area in a single year.

To verify her observations, in subsequent years the teacher gave students an informal test two weeks before the exercise. She would test them again each day that the exercise took place, and two weeks after it ended.

"Almost without exception,'' she said last week, "the kids' scores go up the day they're on the top. They go down the day they're on the bottom. And they stay up after the exercise is over.''

In a way, she suggested, the lesson teaches students about their true potential.

"I doubt that any white child ever lives up to his or her true potential, because they don't know what it is, and it isn't necessary'' when they are constantly told that they belong to a "superior'' race, she argued.

"And I doubt that any child of color ever lives up to his or her true potential,'' she added, "because they are not expected to succeed.''

In addition to raising students' estimates of their academic potential, "Discrimination Day'' also appeared to increase their awareness of others' feelings.

In the months following each lesson, parents of many of the 3rd graders told the teacher how much kinder the children were to their younger siblings, and how much more thoughtful.

And when students from the 1970 class gathered 14 years later, their opposition to prejudice remained strong.

One young woman from that class, Ms. Elliott recalled, said that if her own children learned to be racist or prejudiced, "they would not learn it from us.''

"As a 3rd-grade teacher,'' Ms. Elliott said, "if you can get your kids to remember the multiplication table until the following year, you have done a real good job. ... This lesson had become a part of them.''

What Jane Elliott had not expected was the strong--and sometimes vituperative--reaction of other adults, including some teachers.

"Teachers in my community were extremely threatened by what I had done,'' she said last week. "And they for the most part stopped speaking to me.''

Over the years, her own children were also subjected to physical and verbal abuse as a result of their mother's controversial lesson.

"For weeks, my 7th-grade son was chased home every night by five teen-agers in a car,'' she told Mr. Peters. "When they finally caught him, they got out and two of them beat him up while the others watched.''

"In high school,'' she continued, "my daughter's purse and other possessions were destroyed, and the word 'nigger-lover' was written with her own lipstick on the restroom mirror.''

"The acts of the young people who did these things were reprehensible,'' she said. "But the response of the teachers and school officials who condoned them was inhuman.''

"While I was teaching a few children that racism was wrong, some teachers and school administrators were, by their inaction, teaching the exact opposite,'' she maintained.

Although her family eventually moved to a nearby town, where her husband's job was located, Ms. Elliott remained a teacher in Riceville until 1986. She left when the number of requests from corporations, state and county governments, and other groups that wanted her to teach the lesson to adults began to conflict with her teaching commitments.

Looking back, she speculated that the harassment her children experienced--and the negative letters she received--were less harsh than such responses would be today.

"I think it would be worse today than it was then, because we have taken such gigantic steps backwards as far as racism, sexism, and ageism are concerned,'' she said last week.

"In 1968, there was an awareness that you had best watch your mouth,'' she continued. "There was an awareness that things were going to be done. There was the expectation that things were going to get better.''

"And you didn't have this white, and for the most part male, angry backlash that we're involved in now.''

"I talk to a lot of people every week, because I work with corporations all over the United States,'' she added. "There is no doubt about it. The racial epithets are much more acceptable now than they were eight years ago.''

To her knowledge, few teachers have replicated Ms. Elliott's explosive lesson. The 55-year-old instructor said that although she knows of several other teachers who have tried it--sometimes disastrously--most who have done so have remained quiet about it.

"They tend to keep a very low profile,'' she said. "Once you've had calls in the night threatening your life, and letters that you couldn't allow your offspring to read because they were so vicious ... you tend to think, maybe I'd best do this in a different way.''

In addition, she noted, her experience with the three school systems that have hired her to instruct teachers and administrators about racism suggests that school staffs themselves are among the most difficult audiences to work with.

"Teachers get very, very angry when they're exposed to this exercise,'' she said last week. "They're all convinced that they don't need it.''

She added: "Teachers are the ones who say first, 'I'm not prejudiced. I see all people. I don't see people as black or brown or red or yellow. I don't see colors.'''

"I don't think teachers are aware of what a racist statement it is,'' she said. "What they are saying is, 'I have a problem with your color ... therefore, I will pretend that you aren't black, in order for me to be able to relate to you.'''

"Black children and white children are not exactly alike--not on the outside and not on the inside,'' she added. "And they shouldn't have to be.''

Ms. Elliott said she would like to see all local school boards require teachers and administrators to participate in a lesson like her own. And she would like to see it incorporated into the curriculum at some grade level in every school.

But she cautioned that she would not encourage every teacher to use her exercise.

"Some teachers run this exercise every day of the year on kids, without calling it 'blue eyes-brown eyes,''' she said.

"They discriminate on the basis of the shade of a person's skin every day and damage a lot of kids by doing it,'' she continued. "They could severely damage even more children by doing this exercise for the wrong reason and in the wrong way.''

But she added: "I think of this exercise--when it's done well and done properly and done for the right reasons and in the right way--the same way as I think of the D.P.T. shots that I allowed my children to have when they were infants. I think of it as an inoculation against the disease of racism.''

"This exercise helps to guarantee that when children are exposed to racism, they will have some kind of defense against it,'' she argued, "and some kind of rationale for confronting or at least questioning it.''

"If this exercise is bad for little white children on a one-day basis,'' she concluded, "then my God, how bad is it for children of color every day for as long as they live in this country?''

Copies of the book, A Class Divided: Then and Now, by William Peters, are available from the Yale University Press, 92A Yale Station, New Haven, Conn. 06520, for $25 in hardback and $8.95 in paperback.

Information on videocassettes and 16mm film prints of the 1970 ABC News documentary, "The Eye of the Storm,'' can be obtained by writing Guidance Associates, The Center for Humanities, Communications Park, Box 3000, Mount Kisco, N.Y. 10549, or by calling (800) 431-1242.

Information on videocassettes and 16mm film prints of the 1985 documentary, "A Class Divided,'' can be obtained by writing PBS Video, 1320 Braddock Place, Alexandria, Va. 22314-1698, or by calling (800) 344-3337.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented