Teach the Children About Racism Using the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes Exercise

Jane Elliot has spent her career trying to give white people a taste of the discrimination and racism that people of color face throughout their lives. It began in 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when she devised an exercise for her third grade students in which she divided classes by eye color. It was the beginning of a social experiment that she hoped would illustrate the experience of discrimination, an exercise that we – and our children – can still learn today.

The main point is this: it divides a group of people ( in the video below this is a group of college students who want to get an extra point) by eye color. Brown-eyed competitors are considered the best; they are fed, they are given comfortable chairs, they are treated with respect and dignity. Blue-eyed and green-eyed participants are considered inferior; they are made to wait in a room with very few seats, they are ridiculed, they are commanded. You can see how quickly their emotions build up, even if everyone in the room knows this is an exercise:

One white woman even walks away when she is so upset about Elliot’s attitude towards her; when she tries to join the group, Elliot says:

No, you won’t come back here until you apologize to everyone in this room. Because you just took advantage of a freedom that none of these people of color have. When these people of color get tired of racism, they can’t just leave because there is no place in this country where they would not be racist … but you, as a white woman, when you get tired of being unfairly judged and treating you because of the color of your eyes, you can walk out that door and know that it won’t. You have taken advantage of a freedom they don’t have. If you’re going to be here, you apologize to every black man in this room.

In the end, the woman left but did not apologize. The exercise as a whole is uncomfortable to watch, and that is why we must do it – and why our older children and adolescents must watch it too. It serves as a compelling illustration that allows children to better empathize with those who are being discriminated against.

Better than just saying, “Imagine how you would feel if you were judged because of your skin color,” they will truly see this discrimination in action in a way they would never have seen in this world.

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