Both fascinating and horrifying.
Since 1968, Jane Elliott, an internationally known teacher, has been teaching people about racism, but her lessons don't go down easily. Her methods are confrontational, brutal, and difficult to take.
In response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Elliott came up with the controversial and shocking Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes exercise. This now-famous exercise labels participants as inferior or superior based solely on the colors of their eyes and exposes them to the experience of being a minority.
"On the day after Martin Luther King was killed, one of my students came into the room and said, 'They shot a king last night, Mrs. Elliott. Why'd they shoot that king?' I knew that night that it was time to deal with this in a concrete way, not just talking about it, because we had talked about racism since the first day of school.
But the shooting of Martin Luther King, who had been one of our heroes of the month in February, couldn't just be talked about and explained away," Elliott said in an interview for a Frontline documentary called A Class Divided. Elliot was also the subject of an earlier documentary called The Eye of the Storm.
"The next day, I introduced an eye color exercise in my classroom and split the class according to eye color. And I immediately created a microcosm of society in a third-grade classroom."
First, Elliott got the students to agree to the exercise and judge people by the color of their eyes. She then said that, since she was blue-eyed, the blue-eyed people would be on top over the brown-eyed people, especially since the blue-eyed people were better and smarter than the brow-eyed people.
The rules for the day were set up as follows: the blue-eyed kids got an extra five minutes of recess while the brown-eyed children had to stay in; the brown-eyed students also weren't allowed to use the water fountains and had to use paper cups. The brown-eyed people weren't allowed to play with the blue-eyed people because they weren't as good. The brown-eyed people had to wear collars so their eye color could be identified from a distance.
At recess, two of her students got into a fight over being called "brown-eyed" because it meant that they were stupid.
"I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes," Elliott said.
The next day, Elliott turned the tables and the brown-eyed children were the ones on top, saying that she had lied the day before. Once again, chaos ensued. Of course, this kind of lesson would never fly with parents today and is probably why Elliott travels the world teaching adults about racism.
"Eye color and skin color are caused by the same chemical: melanin. There's no logic in judging people by the amount of a chemical in their skin. Pigmentation should have nothing to do with how you treat another person but unfortunately, it does," Elliott said to Oprah.
This is the anti-racism experiment that transformed an Oprah Winfrey Show audience. You may not agree with Elliott's methods, but they are very effective in teaching people about what racism feels like.
In this video, British people are the subjects of Elliott's racism exercise.
When Elliott teaches, it's a lesson you're not likely to ever forget.