Group Prejudice: Jane Elliott's Brown Eyes vs. Blue Eyes Experiment

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  • 0:05 Jane Elliott
  • 1:10 The Blue Eyes/Brown…
  • 2:25 Impact on Psychology
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Jane Elliott is an educator whose famous blue eyes/brown eyes exercise showed social psychologists (and her students) the impact that racism has on education and how social psychology can be applied to real-world situations. In this lesson, we'll learn about the exercise and its impact on social psychology.

Jane Elliot

Jane Elliot was a white teacher from Iowa who wanted to help all men and women achieve equality.
Jane Elliot

In the 1960s, America was a country divided. The black civil rights movement had swept across the country, and as more and more African Americans fought for equality, many racists fought against them.

In the midst of this movement, Jane Elliott, a white teacher from a mostly white town in Iowa, watched as the world around her battled on the streets of cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Washington D.C. She, too, wanted to be involved in gaining equality for all men and women, regardless of race. But how?

And then, one night in April 1968, a shot rang out in Memphis, Tennessee. As Jane Elliott watched the media coverage of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she felt appalled by the way the white reporters could not seem to understand what the black community was going through.

Elliott realized that the problem was the disconnect between what whites knew about racism and what blacks experienced. So, Elliott developed an exercise to change the way her white students thought about racism.

The Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise

One morning after King's assassination, Elliott informed her class that they were going to change the way things were done. Blue-eyed children were given pride of place in the classroom. They were given extra recess time, a second helping of food at lunch, and they were allowed to sit at the front of the classroom and participate in class discussions.

Brown-eyed children, meanwhile, were forced to sit at the back of the class and were more severely reprimanded for the same type of behavior that blue-eyed children got away with. Elliott even made up a scientific 'fact' that the melanin that caused blue eyes had been found to be linked with a higher intelligence.

The blue eyes/brown eyes exercise affected how students performed on assignments.
Eye Color Experiment

The results were stunning. By the end of the day, the blue-eyed children viciously put down the brown-eyed children. Not only that, but the quiet, struggling blue-eyed students did much better on class assignments, and the louder, successful brown-eyed students did not do as well.

The next day, Elliott reversed the exercise, promoting brown eyes as better than blue eyes. Much of the same results happened, though the brown-eyed students didn't taunt their blue-eyed classmates quite as viciously. By the end of the second day, when the exercise ended, the blue-eyed and brown-eyed children hugged and cried with each other. A class of all-white students had learned what racism felt like.

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Additional Activities

Group Prejudice

Activity 1:

In this lesson you read about Jane Elliot's blue eyes/brown eyes experiment. Do you think this would be a useful activity for all children in elementary school to experience? List at least three pros and three cons to having this activity in all elementary school classrooms. For example, a pro could be that, with greater awareness of prejudice, children are less likely to perpetuate it in the real world. A con could be that experiencing prejudice, even for a day, may not be transient but could make an indelible impression on a young mind.

Activity 2:

Stereotype threat is when a person performs more poorly due to a stereotype of a group to which the person belongs. Insidiously, this is even the case if a person is reminded of being in a group but not of the stereotype. For example, Asian women who are reminded of their "femaleness" perform worse on a math test than Asian women who are reminded of their "Asianness," even if a stereotyped idea—that females are stereotyped to be bad at math and Asians are stereotyped to be good at math—is not explicitly stated. Can you think of a stereotype of a group to which you belong which might affect your performance? For example, overweight people are often stereotyped as being followers rather than leaders. African Americans are often stereotyped as being athletically gifted. Write a reflective journal entry about a stereotyped group to which you belong, and how that stereotype might affect your performance.

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