In 1968, Jane Elliott was teaching a class of 8-year-olds, and one of them asked why "that King" had been shot, referring to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Elliott was unsure how to explain the context of what happened to elementary school children in Riceville, Iowa, so she made up an impromptu exercise.
The Blue Eyes and the Brown Eyes
Elliott had all the blue-eyed children line up at one side of the room. She told the kids that blue-eyed children weren't as good as brown-eyed or green-eyed ones. Grasping for a scientific explanation, she ended up claiming that melanin makes eyes darker, and makes people smarter and more hard-working. The blue-eyed kids were put in one section of the class, and were given extra recess time. From then on, the kids made up their own explanations. When Elliott said the blue-eyed kids had to drink using paper cups, a brown-eyed child said they would infect the rest of the class. When a child asked why Elliott was a teacher, since she had blue eyes, another child said that if she'd had brown eyes she'd have been a principal.
The group dynamic of the class changed instantly. Brown-eyed kids picked on blue-eyed ones, and banded together against them. More startlingly, individual kids changed. Blue-eyed students forgot skills they had had the day before. Brown-eyed kids who had been shy became gregarious and bossy. Elliott reversed the experiment the next day, when she had brown-eyed children be the pariahs, but the social behavior of the class didn't completely flip. Either the blue-eyed kids had developed empathy, and didn't want to put their peers through what they had been through, or the experiment was not entirely repeatable.
Notoriety and Controversy
At first the experiment was a great success. Elliott, when reading essays written by the kids at the end of each day, was satisfied that they were beginning to understand the demoralizing effects of bigotry. Many parents, upon receiving the essays, seemed to approve of the exercise. Word spread, and Elliott was in newspapers, and on Johnny Carson. She repeated the experiment again the next year, and the next.
Her exercise wasn't the first to look at how even small children form into factions and develop an irrational contempt for others. In 1961, psychologist Muzafer Sherif had two groups of 12-year-old boys camp out in Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma. After getting each group to bond within the group, Sherif had the groups compete in a tournament, with games like tug-of-war or baseball. The winning group got pocket knives. That was an ill-advised prize. The two groups started turf wars, seizing playing fields, burning each other's flags, ransacking each other's cabins, and getting so violent that the psychologists had to separate them. The Robber's Cave study was disturbing, but it wasn't quite like Elliott's experiment. While each group of boys thought they were superior, neither was told they were, and neither was told they were inferior.
Elliott continued to conduct the exercise in her classroom for nearly a decade before moving to middle school and conducting it there. In the early days, many people violently opposed it purely because it championed civil rights. Now, it would probably earn a backlash because of the fact that it made any child, even temporarily, feel part of an inferior group.
The Ongoing Blue-Eye Exercises
The exercises still do happen, and Elliott is the one conducting them. Over the years, Elliott became a diversity educator and activist, and went around the world conducting the experiments with adults. In an interview, she insisted that adults in Berlin or Australia, for example, in the new millennium behaved no differently from children in 1968.
Elliott has made a few tweaks to the experiment itself. On top of the idea of segregation of blue-eyed people, she's added a surveillance culture. She puts the blue-eyed people in the middle of the group, so that brown-eyed people can keep watch over them at all times. She's also eliminated a key element of the initial exercise — she no longer switches the group that gets degraded on the second day. Young children might need the switch to restore their self-esteem, and get the class back in order, but Elliott contends that giving each group a turn would make it a game, not a hard learning experience. In the real world, she argues, no group gets a turn at being on top after they've been kicked around.