Experimenting with Discrimination

On April 5th, 1968, the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination, Jane Elliot conducted an experiment with her third grade classroom. She divided her class based on the color of their eyes and treated them as if one eye color was more superior to the other. Within the next 48 hours, Elliot “watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third graders.”

This quarter’s theme in the ARCTIC Zone is Take a Stand. In Humanities, we are looking into various forms of discrimination, prejudice, stereotypes, and bias. In an attempt to provide another’s pair of shoes for my students to “step into” for a day, I recently conducted my own version of the eye color experiment from above with each of my classes. I had little idea of what to expect with a group of 6th and 7th graders, but like usual, my students surprised and impressed me in many ways.

What Elliot did over the course of two days, I crammed into two class periods. For the first hour, I explained how people with blue eyes are superior to all others. The blue-eyed group received special treatment and praise from me, while the brown-eyed group remained in the back of the room adorned with white handkerchiefs around their necks so they would be easily recognizable from across the room. I looked for opportunities to criticize the brown-eyed group while praising the blue-eyed group for the same behaviors. During the second hour, I admitted my dishonesty with the group and revealed the “truth” about superiority – that brown eyes are truly superior to blue, and the roles reversed.

Most interesting to me that day was witnessing how differently each group responded to the “experiment.” Within each of the three sessions, I saw a variety of the following reactions:

  • The inferior group very quickly began to display physical and social responses (slouching, frowning, opting out of participating for fear of rejection or criticism).
  • Some within the superior group took advantage of the opportunity and let the “power” get to their heads a bit, speaking with arrogance and negativity toward the other group (following my lead).
  • Some members of the inferior group made attempts to stand up for themselves, removing their handkerchiefs and threatening to storm out.
  • Some members of the superior group made attempts to stand up for the other group, choosing to stand in the back of the room with them.
  • In all sessions, there was discomfort, anger, frustration, confusion, and in some cases, there were tears.

My favorite part of the experiment with all groups were the debriefing sessions that followed. Students admitted they knew it wasn’t real, but that didn’t change their emotional responses. They couldn’t understand why they still got so upset. Some were shocked at each others’ behaviors, and others admitted their embarrassment at how they had acted.

The big-picture connection to real-life discrimination that continues to occur around us every day was, I think, a powerful one. The empathy they showed that day and continue to speak and demonstrate is moving. The feedback I have heard from parents has been inspiring, as well. Conversations are being had at home, which is powerful in itself, but that shows me it’s something my students want to talk about. As our discussions have turned toward various forms of discrimination (racism, lookism, ableism, sizeism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.), they often refer back to the eye-color activity to better understand or explain their thinking.

This is a link to the Frontline episode, A Class Divided, documenting Jane Elliot’s experiment with her third graders, which we watched as a class after our own experiment (we only watched the first 12 minutes or so). The rest of the video, however, includes a second experiment she conducted with a group of adults whose reactions are similar, and in many ways, worse than those of her third graders. It just goes to show, no matter your age or background, feelings of discrimination and prejudice are real, they are hurtful, and they need to continue to be discussed.

Image result for discrimination


3 thoughts on “Experimenting with Discrimination

  1. SZ says:

    Thank you for sharing, this study has always fascinated me. This will make for a great conversation at home. I’m curious to hear my child’s response.


  2. Abby says:

    Because we always were told that this was wrong, I was very scared when this happened. Ms. McMahon is such a good actor that I couldn’t really tell if it was real or not. When I was part of the superior group, towards the end of that hour, I went to stand with the inferior group because I felt that: this is wrong, and you’re telling me that none of these people care about this? It was scary to be in the inferior group because I felt that I was constantly being judged on how or what I was doing, mostly negatively. Because my friend felt the same way, thankfully someone stood by me for the second half when I was in the inferior group. So, I really hope that I never have to do that again. I really hated it, but I think it was a good lesson.


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