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Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes: Recognizing Privilege

An experiment conducted by third grade teacher Jane Elliot illustrates the idea of “invisible privilege” quite clearly. In this documentary, an educational experiment segregates the class on the basis of their eye colors to demonstrate the subconscious effects of discrimination.

On the first day of class, Miss Elliot recognizes “National Brotherhood Day”, questioning the young pupils of the meaning of brotherhood and going insofar as to question who, in America, are, in reality, not treated equally. The students respond as expected: “Native Americans and African Americans.” What I found most peculiar was how familiar the students were with society’s label of such races as strange, or, in the words of one of the young girls, “Look at them…*insert cringed face here*”. Miss Elliot continues the lesson by announcing that blue eyed individuals are more superior than brown eyed individuals, thereby extending the recess time of blue eyed students and providing them with the all the luxuries a grade schooler could have.

Notice how quickly the students turn against one another, and the reactions of the brown eyed students to the limitations they are now given. The “oppressed” subjects recognize this is unfair and express their lamentations towards these new rules: “They’re trying to keep us from our friends.” A fight ensues, in which the students explain that “Brown eyes”, the “inferior eye color” has become a taunt. The blue-eyed student who participated in the physical misconduct explains,”Well that’s what he is [brown-eyed]”, so as to say that rather than a taunt, it was a mere recognition of the individual’s physical trait.

Miss Elliot retorts, “Were you doing it because of that [because he was brown-eyed] or were you doing it to be mean?”

From a descriptive physical trait to an insult, the new stipulations Miss Elliot puts to practice presses the brown eyed students to believe that they are indeed inferior. This is reflected by their poor performance during the “timed flash card arithmetic” exercise.

As Miss Elliot continues the experiment throughout the week, instilling the idea that, rather than blue-eyed students, the brown eyed students are superior and the blue-eyed students are in fact inferior, the “oppressed” and “oppressor” group is reversed. During another timed flash card exercise, Miss Elliot questions the currently “superior” brown eyed students as to why they performed poorly the other day in contrast to today. A collective response indicated that “were were too busy thinkin’ about those collars.” (The “oppressed” group of children were made to wear collars to indicate their status from afar).

Prior to this experience, the children could not fathom any extent of the inequalities faced by discriminated racial groups. They merely recognized these unequally treated individuals as elements of the status quo. Following this educational experience, the third grade students recognized, to some extent, discrimination and their privilege as members of the white population. I find that it’s increasingly important to recognize one’s privilege in order to work towards the equality of all individuals. However, that isn’t to say that we must blame ourselves for the privileges we have.

The fact of the matter is, if an individual is privileged and recognizes their privilege, they mustn’t blame themselves for the inhumane treatment of the underprivileged who are unequal as a result of long-term stipulations. Likewise, an underprivileged individual cannot directly blame those groups with are more privileged than he. Rather, I believe it to be important that we acknowledge these differences and, rather than adamantly push to point fingers, we must work towards a common goal; that is, to eliminate such unequal treatment.


3 Comments

  1. balbojaw says:

    The experiment was very impressive and used a very powerful method to teach kids about discrimination: “How do you feel when others discriminate against you?” I believe no one can truly understand how it feels to be discriminated against unless they have personal experience. When others are different from us, that doesn’t mean we are better than them, and it doesn’t give us a right to be mean to them. Respect others the same way you want them to respect you. It was very nice of you to share this video.

  2. jasonjameson says:

    I’ve watched several documentaries on Jane Elliot’s experiment. They are VERY intriguing.

    The following in the conclusion to the same experiment with adults.


    [follow up with adults]

    It is amazing how Jane Elliot’s experiment works on both children and adults. I believe this is because people are generally only worried about their own interest. People are followers by nature and when they see injustice they do not stand up.

    When it comes down to it most people will NOT stop injustice or at least speak up. In my own experience it is difficult for me to stand up sometimes and I am a rather aggressive person. I am often not afraid to speak my mind, but I do not always speak up. Often when I do speak up it comes at the my own expense. The system does not like people “who rock the boat”. The system wants people to go along get along.

    I suppose part of the problem is that I do not always know what is going on. Another main problem is that I limited time. I must choose my battles and try to not fall victim to group think and the herd mentality.

    Today, I actively try to speak up when I see injustice and I will continue to speak up. However, I must also try to be more diplomatic and understanding of others.

  3. gomezale says:

    It’s so unfair that from such an early age kids know what discrimination is and act upon it. This case being something so simple as the color of their eyes. Kids should be educated by not only school teachers but also by their parents to accept everyone the way they are. If children were taught at a very early age to not discriminate then there would be less discrimination in adulthood. Great blog and thank’s for adding the video for further understanding.:)

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