TESS interview: Jane Elliott
The American teacher who devised the famous Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, as a way of showing how prejudice forms, has been credited with inventing diversity training. Interview by Henry Hepburn
What was the motivation for your exercise?
The Holocaust - one of the ways they decided who went into the gas chamber was eye colour. When Martin Luther King died, I had to find a way to put my students through an exclusion exercise that would let these nice, white Christian children know how it felt to be discriminated against on the basis of something as stupid as the colour of their skin or eyes.
What happened the first time you ran it?
It was horrendous. The blue-eyed children were going on the bottom the first day, and immediately a brown-eyed student, a nine-year-old girl, looked up at me and said: “How come you’re the teacher here if you’ve got blue eyes?” She had the power over me in that instant, just because of a little physical characteristic over which neither of us had any control. I pulled down a map of the world that morning, the ring slipped and it went around and around. That same little girl snarled at me and said: “Well, whadya expect, you’ve got blue eyes, haven’t ya?” As God is my judge, I’ve never felt like this before or since: just for an instant, I could see myself backhanding that little brown-eyed witch against the wall. I learned an awful lot about my own frail ego, and violence and frustration. It taught me something about how it must be to tolerate that kind of remark every day.
Were you surprised by the way the children reacted?
I was astounded. I had no idea that my students, who had never been in the company of a person of colour, would know how to discriminate. They knew exactly how to act, and the vocabulary to use - it was totally frightening. They had been conditioned to the myth of superiority.
Were you ever tempted to cut short the exercise?
Oh yeah, that first time. Then I realised I couldn’t end it, because then people on the top wouldn’t experience being on the bottom. The following Monday I reversed the exercise and the same ugly things happened as the previous Friday, but the blue-eyed people were much less vicious. I hoped it was because they found out how it felt and didn’t want to put anybody else through it. What they learned made them, in their knowledge of human behaviour and relations, superior to any teacher in the community. They knew more than the teachers did - after two days. It not only changed the way they saw the world but also the way they saw their academic ability, peers, teachers and parents.
Did you ever worry that children were too young, at eight, for the exercise?
I thought about that, but then I remembered the little black kids who walked on the street and got spit on - four-year-olds. And I thought about Emmett Till, who was murdered because he spoke to a white woman - he was too young for that.
What was the reaction like in the town?
Twenty per cent of people were absolutely viciously, overtly furious. Eighty per cent of them sat back and watched, and didn’t contribute, didn’t defend me.
And from other teachers?
I think they were so angry because, if I was right, then they were wrong: when I say to mistreat children on the basis of physical characteristics over which they have no control is absolutely unacceptable, I’m right. When news got out and I was on the Johnny Carson show, instead of being angry because it reflected badly on them, it was a matter of jealousy.
Why did you leave teaching?
There was a class reunion film for PBS in 1984. Several corporations asked if I would do the exercise with their adult population.
What is the worst thing to do in a Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise?
Every teacher has a kind of child that he or she doesn’t really like to teach. The danger is that that teacher will wreak vengeance upon that kind of person.
Some academics dispute that your work had long-term benefits, and claim it may have caused psychological damage. How do you respond?
They should be worried about psychological damage to children - to black children, who are having the exercise run on them every day. The kids who came back for the reunion said it was the most important thing that ever happened in their lives and they’d never forget it. One former student said last week that he saw something that made him apply the exercise every day. Nathan Rutstein said: “Prejudice is an emotional commitment to ignorance.” This exercise is an attempt to educate students so they are not as ignorant as their teachers.
You once said ‘After 30 years of dealing with this subject of racism, I am no longer a sweet, gentle person.’ Why is that?
I don’t suffer fools gladly. Elie Wiesel, a brilliant man who was in Auschwitz, said: “You must not tolerate the intolerable.” So I lost my sweetness. I love little babies and I love old people, but I have a real problem with people who make these horribly ignorant statements and respond to all these ugly stereotypes, and don’t question them - so I force them to question them.
What was your reaction when Barack Obama took office?
Did you ever see a grown, grey-haired woman dance up and down and decide to run out on the street?
Born: Riceville, Iowa, 1933
Education: Enrolled in “fits and starts” from 1952-85 at the University of Northern Iowa, gaining a BA in elementary education and working on an MA in education administration, dropping out because she was not allowed to write theses on dyslexia - “it wasn’t real” - or the eye-colour exercise - “it was a fluke”.
Career: Schoolteacher from 1953-85; has since taught in boardrooms, lecture halls, civic organisations and on military installations at home and abroad.