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.