Monday, April 14, 2008

False prejudice

I guess a lot of people have already heard of this, but I picked it up from a book the other day. It's the best example I've ever seen of how prejudice can change people.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jane tried a more direct exercise to bring the truth home about racial discrimination. It was an exercise which was to change her life.

Jane Elliott told her pupils a pseudo-scientific explanation of how eye colour defined people: blue eyes showed people who were cleverer, quicker, more likely to succeed. They were superior to people with brown eyes, who were described untrustworthy, lazy and stupid1. She then divided the class according to who had brown eyes and who had blue eyes. To ensure clarity of divisions - given that some eye colours might be subject to dispute, she used ribbons to mark out the 'inferior' brown-eyed children (those with clearly different eye colours acted as bystanders). To reinforce the situation, she gave the superior group extra classroom privileges, and would not let the brown-eyed children drink from the same water fountain. She made a point of praising the blue-eyed children, and being more negative to the browns.

Jane Elliott was amazed at the speedy transformation in her class. The superior blue-eyed children became arrogant, and were bossy and unpleasant to their brown-eyed class mates. The brown eyes quickly became cowed and timid, even those that had previously dominated the class. But what really astounded Jane was the difference academically. Blue-eyed children improved their grades, and managed mathematical and reading tasks that had proved out of their grasp before. Brown-eyed high-flyers stumbled over simple questions.

A few days later, Jane Elliott told her class that she had the information about melanin the wrong way round, and swapped the colour superiorities over. The brown-eyed children tore off their now-hated ribbons, and the situations quickly reversed.

Jane Elliott had proved - more dramatically than she had ever thought possible - how much discrimination is soaked up subconsciously, by both the oppressor and the oppressed. She had not told her pupils to treat each other differently, only that they were different; and yet they developed the characteristic responses of discrimination.

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