School Climate & Safety

How to Trick Students Into Understanding Racism

By Ross Brenneman — June 28, 2013 2 min read
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Sometimes, what’s old is new again. The website Upworthy specializes in propelling various Internet content into mainstream awareness (not unlike Buzzfeed or Reddit). This week, that content happens to be this video from PBS’ Frontline program. It’s about a teacher, Jane Elliott, who, one day in 1968, divided her students up based on whether they had blue or brown eyes. (Green-eyed people didn’t exist in the ‘60s.) Elliott designed the experiment in response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination the day before, in order to teach her students about discimination.

Here’s the first part of the video:

But let’s add some context.

There are two striking things about this video: First, like with the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, the pace at which students accept roles assigned to them is somewhat astounding. After an authority figure repeatedly asserts differences between two sets of children, the children accept those differences. Relationships are damaged. Fights break out.

The other striking thing is, what are the odds that this teaching experiment would happen today? I don’t think this is necessarily a particularly uncommon experiment so far as intention goes; I remember doing something mildly akin to this in school, only it was a much shorter lesson that didn’t extend beyond the class period.

But that a teacher knowingly sets students against each other in a ploy which, at least initially, ends with open hostility, physical confrontation, and discrimination? Well, you’d probably be hearing about it on our Teaching Now Blog.

And then some: Elliott thrust her class and town into the national spotlight, getting berated for what many decried as a cruel experiment. She is still alive and well, and has actually been demonstrating the exercise for decades, although primarily using adults since she left teaching in 1985. (She doesn’t perform the same kind of role reversal as she did with the children.)

In a 2002 PBS interview PBS, Elliott stuck by her work.

“Doing that exercise for me is to deny everything that I believe in for three hours or five hours or however long the exercise takes,” she said. “Every time I do it I end up with a migraine headache. I absolutely hate this exercise. But more than I hate the exercise, I hate the necessity for something like this in the year 2002. And the worst of it is that the exercise is as necessary today as it was in 1968.”

As we’re all pretty much aware of by now, the Supreme Court, over the last five days, has handed down decisions on affirmative action, voting rights, and same-sex marriage. (And there’s been that whole Paula Deen thing.) So maybe it’s not a surprise to see Elliott’s work crop up again across social media this week.

But here’s the question: How do you teach discrimination now?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.