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Controversial discrimination exercise had lasting impact

Dr. Sylvester Perez1

January 28, 2013

Dear SAISD Staff,

Having just observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day last week, I think today’s message is a timely one, drawing from the works of Jane Elliott and William Peters.

Elliott was a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, who conducted the original and controversial blue eyes/brown eyes discrimination exercise with her students in 1968, for two days after Dr. King was killed. Elliott went on to use the exercise on successive classes of students, and Peters was the producer who filmed it in 1970 and produced an award-winning documentary titled “The Eye of the Storm.” Years later, he went on to produce a program on the subject for PBS/FRONTLINE.

Here’s how the exercise worked: On the first day, brown-eyed children were declared “superior,” given special privileges and encouraged to discriminate against their suddenly “inferior” blue-eyed classmates. The next day, the roles were reversed – brown-eyed students became superior and blue-eyed students became inferior.

What happened astonished both the students and the teacher. On both days, children labeled inferior behaved as such and performed at a lower level than they had the previous day, before they had ever been given such a label. The superior students, on the other hand, excelled in their work and delighted in discriminating against their classmates.

In his book about this exercise, titled “A Class Divided: Then and Now,” Peters’ foreword makes reference to the phrase “You have to be taught to hate.” He later states that “Unfortunately, it has become increasingly clear that in a society in which racism is pervasive, it is easier to teach children prejudices than to teach sensitivity for other human beings.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court stated in its historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that racially segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and psychologically damaged the victims of such organized racism, one would have expected that educational institutions would be in the forefront, leading Americans away from racism. Peters makes the point that in that time in history, while educators for the most part did not directly teach our children to be cruel to others who differed in skin color, their silence and rationalizations made them accessories to the continued hostilities of children who were taught by their parents to resist school desegregation.

The main message in the book demonstrates that it is possible to counter the teaching of hatred by having children experience and understand the deep hurt inevitably associated with discrimination and rejection by others.

A most notable finding from Elliott’s exercise was that the positive influence on those children was not temporary. She kept in touch with former students, who revealed that their attitudes, sensitivity and social maturity remained intact. The experiences of personal hurt and rejection continued to have a positive effect on their ability to empathize with others, even though the exercise that exposed them to discrimination had been for only a short period of time all those years prior.

According to Peters, “Teachers should be taught the foundations, significance and educational value of human and race relations. They must be able to communicate and teach these humane values to their students not only by their words but also by their actions.”

Dr. Sylvester Perez
Interim Superintendent

“Who is more foolish, the child afraid of the dark or the man afraid of the light?” – Maurice Freehill


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