Jane Elliott

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For other people named Jane Elliott, see Jane Elliott (disambiguation).
Jane Elliott
Born (1933-05-27) May 27, 1933 (age 81)
Riceville, Iowa
Nationality American
Ethnicity Caucasian
Occupation Social equality and anti-racism activist, diversity trainer
Known for "Blue-eyed/Brown-eyed" exercise

Jane Elliott (born May 27, 1933, Riceville, Iowa)[1] is an American former schoolteacher, recognized most prominently as an anti-racism activist and educator. She is also known as a feminist and LGBT activist. Elliott created the famous "blue-eyed/brown-eyed" exercise, first done with third-grade school children in the 1960s, which later became the basis for her career in diversity training. The exercise was conducted the day following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. The purpose of the exercise was to try to teach her students the effects of being a minority.[2] Her exercise, and the subsequent controversy, became the basis for the television documentaries Eye of the Storm (1970) and A Class Divided (1985). Elliott was also recipient of the National Mental Health Association Award for Excellence in Education and many other awards.[1][3]

Origin of the idea[edit]

While there are variations of the story, the exercise Elliott developed for her third-grade class in Riceville, Iowa was a result of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. According to one biographer, on the evening of April 4, 1968, Elliott turned on her television and learned of the assassination. She says she vividly remembers a scene in which a white reporter with the microphone pointed toward a local black leader asked, "When our leader (John F. Kennedy) was killed several years ago, his widow held us together. Who's going to control your people?" She then decided to combine a lesson she had planned about Native Americans with a lesson she had planned about Martin Luther King Jr. for February's Hero of the Month project. To tie the two together, she used the Sioux prayer "Oh Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."[1]

The following day, she had a class discussion about the lesson and racism in general. She later said: "I could see that they weren't internalizing a thing. They were doing what white people do. When white people sit down to discuss racism what they are experiencing is shared ignorance." The original idea for the exercise came from Leon Uris's novel Mila 18, published in 1961, about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. One of the ways the Nazis decided who went to the gas chamber, according to the novel, was eye color. Most of Elliott's 8-year-old students were, like her, born and raised in a small town in Iowa and were not normally exposed to black people. She felt that simply talking about racism would not allow her all-white class to fully comprehend racism's meaning and effects.[1]

The first exercise[edit]

On April 5, 1968, Steven Armstrong was the first child to arrive in Elliott's classroom,[1] asking why "that King" (referring to Martin Luther King, Jr.) was murdered. After the rest of the class arrived, Elliott asked what they knew about black people. She then asked the children if they would like to try an exercise to feel what it would be like to be treated the way a person of color is treated in America. She decided to base the exercise on eye color rather than skin color to show the children what segregation would be like. The children agreed to try the exercise.[1]

On that first day of the exercise, she designated the blue-eyed children as the superior group. Elliott provided brown fabric collars and asked the blue-eyed students to wrap them around the necks of their brown-eyed peers as a method to easily identify the minority group. She gave the blue-eyed children extra privileges, such as second helpings at lunch, access to the new jungle gym, and five extra minutes at recess. The blue-eyed children sat in the front of the classroom, and the brown-eyed children were sent to sit in the back rows. The blue-eyed children were encouraged to play only with other blue-eyed children and to ignore those with brown eyes. Elliott would not allow brown-eyed and blue-eyed children to drink from the same water fountain and often chastised the brown-eyed students when they did not follow the exercise's rules or made mistakes. She often exemplified the differences between the two groups by singling out students and would use negative aspects of brown-eyed children to emphasize a point.

At first, there was resistance among the students in the minority group to the idea that blue-eyed children were better than brown-eyed children. To counter this, Elliott lied to the children by stating that melanin is responsible for making children blue-eyed and was also linked to their higher intelligence and learning ability. Shortly thereafter, this initial resistance fell away. Those who were deemed "superior" became arrogant, bossy, and otherwise unpleasant to their "inferior" classmates. Their grades also improved, and they completed mathematical and reading tasks that had seemed outside their ability before. The "inferior" classmates also transformed – into timid and subservient children who even during recess isolated themselves,[4] including those who had previously been dominant in the class. These children's academic performance suffered, even with tasks that had been simple before.

The next Monday,[1] Elliott reversed the exercise, making the brown-eyed children superior. While the brown-eyed children did taunt the blue-eyed children in ways similar to what had occurred the previous day, Elliott reports it was much less intense. At 2:30 on that Wednesday, Elliott told the blue-eyed children to take off their collars. To reflect on the experience, she asked the children to write down what they had learned.[1]

Reactions and public attention[edit]

The compositions that the children wrote about the experience were printed in the Riceville Recorder on page 4 on April 18, 1968 under the headline "How Discrimination Feels," and the story was picked up by the Associated Press.[1]

Because of the Associated Press article, Elliott was invited to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. After she spoke about her exercise in a short interview segment, the audience reaction was instant as hundreds of calls came into the show's telephone switchboard, most of the reaction being negative.[1] An often-quoted letter stated, "How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children."[1]

Elliott has said that the exercise and the publicity that it was getting did not make her popular with some local citizens. When Elliott walked into the teacher's lounge the day after being on the Johnny Carson show, several teachers walked out. Of all her coworkers, Elliott states that only one of them continued to speak to her after her exercise went public. The only teacher who kept speaking to her, Ruth Setka, said that she did realize she was the only one who kept speaking to her. Setka believed that the reason Eliott's exercise got so much backlash was because the students were very young, and she believed the experiment should have been done on at least junior high school aged students.[1] To this day, Elliot says that the community in Riceville knows her as the woman who created the "blue eyes/brown eyes exercise" and won't let it go.[5] Elliott also claims that even her own children were taunted or assaulted by other students.[citation needed]

However, not all the reaction was negative. As news of her exercise spread, she appeared on more television shows and started to repeat the exercise in professional training days for adults. On December 15, 1970, Elliott staged the experience to adult educators at a White House Conference on Children and Youth.[1]

In 1971, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) aired a documentary about her called The Eye of the Storm and made her even more nationally known. Subsequently, William Peters wrote two books—A Class Divided and A Class Divided: Then and Now—about her and the exercise.[1] A Class Divided was turned into a PBS Frontline documentary in 1985 and included a reunion of the schoolchildren featured in The Eye of the Storm. A televised edition of the exercise was shown in the United Kingdom on October 29, 2009 on Channel 4 entitled The Event: How Racist Are You?[6] This documentary was intended, according to the producers in their agreement with Jane Elliott, to create an awareness of the effects of racist behaviors by using UK citizens. After the exercise, Elliott said that the result "wasn't as successful as I am accustomed to being."[7]

Elliott was featured by Peter Jennings on ABC as "Person of the Week" on April 24, 1992.[8] She is listed on the timeline of 30 notable educators by textbook editor McGraw-Hill along with Confucius, Plato, Booker T. Washington, and Maria Montessori.[1] She has been invited to speak at 350 colleges and universities and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show five times.[1]

Origin of workplace diversity training[edit]

Elliott is considered to be the "foremother" of diversity training,[9] with the blue-eyed/brown-eyed scenario as the basis of much of what is called diversity training.[citation needed] She has done such training for corporations such as General Electric, Exxon, AT&T, and IBM, as well as lectured to the FBI, IRS, US Navy, US Department of Education, and US Postal Service.[1]

The Riceville school system granted Elliott unpaid leave to conduct workshops and training that were based on her exercise to organizations outside of her school system. However, the increasing demands to be away from the classroom eventually caused problems with her public school teaching career.[1] Elliott left teaching in the mid 1980s to devote herself full-time to corporate training. Her standard fee since then has been at least $6,000 per day for companies and governmental institutions.[10]

The exercise that Elliott developed for her classroom was redeveloped for the corporate world and was promoted positively as a way to promote teamwork, profits, and a "winning together" atmosphere. On the negative side, it was claimed that not doing such diversity training could make these same companies open to bad publicity, boycotts, and lawsuits.[10] For this corporate exercise, Elliott divides a multiracial group based on the color of their eyes and then subjects the blue-eyed individuals to a withering regime of humiliation and contempt. In only a few hours, Elliott's treatment makes the blue-eyed workers become distracted and despondent, stumbling over the simplest commands.[11]

Companies found the idea of offering such training attractive, not only because in the 1970s and 1980s there were increasing numbers of people of color in their organizations, but also because of U.S. court rulings and federal policies to promote multiculturalism brought about by pressure from civil rights groups during the same two decades.[10]

Many companies at that time came to see diversity training as a way to ward off negative legal action and publicity. Elliott said, "If you can't think of any other reason for getting rid of racism, think of it as a real money saver."[12] Elliott-inspired diversity training has been used outside the United States as well. Diversity training was little-known in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the 1990s; however, when The Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 passed in the UK, it listed 100 diversity training firms in the Diversity Directory. According to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 70% of firms have diversity policies in which diversity training plays a major role. Many of these courses are designed to have a "lighter touch" than Elliott's approach, but those based solidly on Elliott's model are also promoted.[12] Elliott has personally held workshops in Australia, focusing on racial issues brought up by Pauline Hanson and the lack of acknowledgment of contributions made by aborigines in that country. Elliott also sells videos and other materials to be used by diversity trainers on her website.

Legacy of the original exercise[edit]

Elliott was included in Riceville's official chronicles, which were published to celebrate the town's 150th anniversary in 2005. Moreover, Dean Weaver, who was superintendent of Riceville schools from 1972–1979, thought she was an outstanding teacher who did things differently and made other teachers envious of her success. Ex-principal Steve Harnack commented that she was excellent at teaching academics and suggested she would have had fewer problems with the community if she had involved parents.[1]

Academic research into the "blue-eyed/brown-eyed" exercise[edit]

Academic research into Elliott's exercise shows moderate results in reducing long-term prejudice[13][14] but is inconclusive on the question of whether the possible psychological harm outweighs the potential benefits.[15][16] She has been accused of scaring people, breaking the school rules, humiliating children, being domineering, angry, and brainwashing. Two professors of education in England, Ivor F. Goodson and Pat Sikes, argue that what Elliott did was unethical, calling the exercise psychologically and emotionally damaging. They also stated ethical concerns connected to the fact that the children were not told of the purpose of the exercise beforehand.[1]

Measured results of the diversity training for adults are moderate. The outcomes of a 1990 research study by the Utah State University were that virtually all the subjects reported that the experience was meaningful for them. However, the statistical evidence supporting the effectiveness of the activity for prejudice reduction was moderate; and virtually all the participants, as well as the simulation facilitator, reported stress from the simulation.[14]

Another program evaluation in 2003, held by Georgia University professor Tracie Stewart, showed that white students got significantly more positive attitudes toward Asian American and Latino/Latina individuals but only marginally more positive attitudes toward African American individuals.[13] In some courses, participants can feel frustrated about "their inability to change" and instead begin to feel anger against the very groups to which they are supposed to be more sensitive. It can also lead to anxiety because people become hyper-sensitive about being offensive or being offended.[12][13][14] There are no good long-term outcome measures of effects, if any, of these training initiatives.[12]

As a result of the 1990 research, Murdoch University did not include the "Blue Eyes-Brown Eyes" method in their list of successful strategies to reduce racism.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Bloom, Stephen G (September 2005). "Lesson of a Lifetime". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2010-07-18. 
  2. ^ PBS, "Class Divided - FRONTLINE." Last modified 2006. Accessed April 10, 2014.
  3. ^ A Class Divided transcript
  4. ^ Peters, Williams. A Class Divided: Then and now: 1st Edition. Yale University Press, 1987
  5. ^ PBS, "Class Divided - FRONTLINE." Last modified January 2003. Accessed April 14, 2014.
  6. ^ "The Event: How Racist Are You?", channel4.com, accessed 2009-10-30
  7. ^ Jane Elliott, the American schoolmarm who would rid us of our racism, Andrew Anthony, The Observer, Sunday 18 October 2009
  8. ^ "ABC Evening News for Friday, Apr 24, 1992; Headline: Person of The Week (Jane Elliott)". Television New Archive. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved 25 October 2013. 
  9. ^ Watson, Jamal (January 2008). "When Diversity Training Goes Awry". Diverse Online. Retrieved 2014-03-12. 
  10. ^ a b c NLPC Special Report The Authoritarian Roots of Corporate Diversity Training by the National Legal and Policy Center by Dr. Carl F. Horowitz
  11. ^ The Essential Blue-Eyed, DVD-description by the official distributor's site for the DVD
  12. ^ a b c d Mirza, Munira (2005-12-12). "Ticking all the boxes". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 2008-05-30. 
  13. ^ a b c "Do the 'Eyes' Have It? A Program Evaluation of Jane Elliott's 'Blue-Eyes/Brown-Eyes' Diversity Training Exercise" by Tracie L. Stewart, Jacqueline R. Laduke, Charlotte Bracht, Brooke A. M. Sweet, Kristine E. Gamarel, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Volume 33, Issue 9, pages 1898–1921, September 2003
  14. ^ a b c The Effect of a Prejudice-Reduction Simulation on Attitude Change by Deborah A. Byrnes, Gary Kiger. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Volume 20, Issue 4, pages 341–356, March 1990
  15. ^ Prejudice-Reduction Simulations: Ethics, Evaluations, and Theory into Practice by Deborah A. Byrnes and Gary Kiger; Utah State University, Simulation & Gaming December 1992 vol. 23 no. 4 457-471
  16. ^ Prejudice-Reduction Simulations: Social Cognition, Intergroup Theory, and Ethics, by Angie Williams, Howard Giles, University of California, Simulation & Gaming, December 1992 vol. 23 no. 4 472-484
  17. ^ Anti-Racism – What Works? An evaluation of the effectiveness of anti-racism strategies; Prepared by the: Centre for Social Change & Social Equity; Murdoch University, Anne Pedersen, Iain Walker,Mark Rapley, & Mike Wise; March 2003; p78-80

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