In 1968 Jane Elliot, in reaction to the assassination of Martin Luther King the day before, introduced her all-white third graders to racism and prejudice by carrying out an activity which has become widely replicated in varying degrees.
What did she do? She divided her class by eye color and then told the children that those with brown eyes were cleaner and brighter than the blue-eyed children. Throughout the day the brown-eyed children were told they were smarter and rewarded, while the blue-eyed children were berated and shunned. They were made to wear green armbands and use a paper cup to drink from the fountain because they might carry germs. By the end of the day the blue-eyed children were slumped in their seats and making mistakes on their schoolwork, and the brown-eyed children, even ones who were not strong students, were showing increased confidence. On the following school day she reversed the exercise with the blue eyed children being treated as clean and bright and privileged.
After the exercise Elliot had her students write about how they felt. One student with brown eyes wrote that on the first day she "felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five minutes extra of recess." But when the roles were reversed on the second day she "felt like quitting school. . . . I felt mad. That's what it feels like when you're discriminated against." (Smithsonian Magazine, September 2005)
Elliot received accolades for developing this landmark lesson, especially after she appeared on Jimmy Carson's Tonight Show, but she also received criticism for subjecting white children to such cruelty. She was called Orwellian and evil and sadistic for subjecting children to such treatment. She was shunned and reviled by people in the small Iowa town she taught in.
In response Elliott has said: "Why are we so worried about the fragile egos of white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism for one day, when blacks experience real racism every day of their lives?"
In this video Jane Elliot carries out the exercise in a college classroom and powerfully makes the point that until white people understand that black people live with racism every day of their lives, solely because of the color of their skin, nothing will change.
For other activities to address racism in the classroom see our TPN lessons