A classic experiment on discrimination was Jane Elliott’s Blue eyes/brown eyes experiment. Jane Elliott is a former third-grade teacher, with no research background to speak for. However, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, she decided to try a little experiment with her young, impressionable students.
What she did next was nothing short of fascinating.
On April 4, 1968, Jane Elliott was ironing a teepee for one of her classroom activities. On the television, she was watching news about the assassination of King. One white reported mentioned something that shocked Elliott:
“When our leader [John F. Kennedy] was killed several years ago, his widow held us together. Who’s going to control your people?”
Elliott could not believe that the white reported felt that Kennedy was a white-person leader, and that black people would now get out of control.
So she decided to twist her little Native American classroom exercise and replace teepees and moccasins with blue-eyed and brown-eyed students.
So, on the first day of her experiment, Elliott decided that since she had blue eyes and was the teacher, blue-eyed students were superior. The blue-eyed and the brown-eyed children were consequently separated based on something as superficial as their eye color.
Blue-eyed children were given brown collars to wrap around their brown-eyed peers. All the best to notice them with.
The blue-eyed children were then given extra helpings of food at lunchtime, five extra minutes at recess, chance to play at the new jungle gym at school. The brown-eyed children were left out of these activities. The blue-eyed children were also allowed to sit at the front of the class, while brown-eyed children were kept at the back.
Blue-eyed children were encouraged to play with other blue-eyeds, but told to ignore brown-eyed peers. Further, blue-eyed students were allowed to drink at the water fountain, while the brown-eyed ones were prohibited from doing so. If they forgot, they were chastised.
Now, of course the children resisted the idea that the blue-eyed students were superior somehow. Elliott countered eloquently, and with a lie: melanin is linked to blue eyes, as well as intelligence.
The students’ initial resistance wore out.
The blue-eyed “superior” students then became arrogant and bossy. They were mean, and excluded their brown-eyed peers. They thought themselves superior, simply on the basis of their eye color.
What’s even more interesting is that the blue-eyed students did better on some of their exams, and performed at higher ability on math and reading than they had previously. Just believing they were superior affected their grades positively.
Even more interesting, but perhaps not surprising, was what happened to the brown-eyed students:
They became shy, timid, and frighteningly, subservient. They did poorer on their tests, and during recess, kept themselves away from the blue-eyed children. Each group effectually grouped themselves according to their eye color.
The next week, Elliott added another twist to the experiment: she made the blue-eyed students inferior, and made the brown-eyed ones superior. Brown collars for the blue-eyeds now.
The brown-eyeds then began to act meanly towards the blue-eyed kids, though at a lesser intensity.
Several days later, the blue-eyed students were told they could remove their brown collars. She then had the students reflect on the experiment by writing down what they thought and had learned from the experiment.
Needless to say, the experiment had a major impact on her students. Elliott continued the experiment with her students for years after, and has appeared on Oprah and other venues, promoting anti-discrimination.
A documentary was filmed about her experiment, called Eye of the Storm.
A beautiful video about a modern re-enactment of the experiment can be found here.