The significance of 1968 in America

An American teacher divided the class into two groups based on physical characteristics, the result of the work was surprising. An activity that became a documentary, repeated over the years so much so that it was also filmed by the Oprah Winfrey Show in the 1990s

1968 marked a tumultuous year in the United States, caught in the throes of various protest movements. From civil rights activism to anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and the stark realities faced by young Latinos and African Americans in segregated communities.

This was also the year that saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a pivotal moment that ignited widespread protests. King was killed by a sniper’s bullet from a 30-06 rifle—a deliberate act to silence a voice that had been empowering millions with dreams of justice and equality.

Blue eyes/Brown eyes

In the wake of King’s assassination on April 4th, Jane Elliott, an anti-racist educator, feminist, and LGBT+ activist, initiated an experiment in her Riceville elementary school classroom, now famously known as the “Blue eyes/Brown eyes” exercise. This experiment aimed to demonstrate the insidious nature of discrimination based on physical traits—specifically eye color—and its impact on self-esteem and performance.

Elliott divided her all-white students into two groups: those with blue eyes and those with brown. The blue-eyed students were treated as the “superior” group, enjoying privileges like front-row seats, extra food, longer breaks, and access to the new gym. They were also praised and encouraged to only interact among themselves.

Conversely, the brown-eyed group was deemed “inferior,” marginalized with restrictions like not being allowed to drink from the same water fountain as the blue-eyed group. They received negative reinforcement from Elliott and were discouraged from interacting with their blue-eyed peers. The roles were reversed the following day to observe the changes in behavior and self-perception.

The impact on self-esteem

The privileged group displayed increased confidence and arrogance, even among typically considerate children, while the timid ones, boosted by extra encouragement, ventured into leadership roles. On the other hand, those labeled as “inferior” saw a noticeable decline in self-esteem and school performance within just hours, with even the most outgoing students doubting their abilities due to the induced discrimination.

A phenomenal experiment

The results of this two-day experiment were published in the Riceville Recorder and faced significant criticism for exposing children to such harsh conditions. Yet, the harsh reality highlighted by Elliott was that similar discrimination was a daily occurrence for many children, not just in school settings.

This experiment attracted widespread media attention and was replicated numerous times, documented by the 1970 ABC documentary “Eye of the Storm” and the 1985 film “A Class Divided,” which revisited the original participants to reflect on the experiment’s long-term impact.

In 1992, the experiment was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, illustrating its enduring relevance and the unfortunate reality that such demonstrations of prejudice are still pertinent today.

Source: Jane Elliott

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