In psychological terms, context is almost everything. Much as we like to think that we know how we will act and react in a given situation, without the richness of...
Last night I watched Channel 4’s documentary in which American school teacher Jane Elliot conducted a demonstration of how racism feels by dividing a group of volunteers along lines of eye colour and discriminating against the blue-eyed group.
From the outset the blue-eyed group were treated badly by Ms Elliot, being put down and ridiculed by the fierce moderator herself, segregated into an uncomfortable room for two hours, before being put with the brown-eyed group who she had attempted to prime to treat the blue-eyed group as inferior.
Her original aim had been to demonstrate to her own class of all white children how it felt to be discrminated against for something as arbitrary as eye-colour is unfair and illogical. She described that in her original exercise… “I watched how what had been marvelous, wonderful, thoughtful, co-operative children turn into nasty, viscous, discriminating little third-graders.”
Leaving aside how unethical her experiment with the school children placed in her care may have been psychologically, the programme provided a fascinating insight into human behaviour, though to my eyes not the one Jane Elliot intended.
The difficulty is that confirmation bias is part of the human condition. One of the brown-eyed group who contained a number of non-white people who were very sensitive to the focal issue of the exercise, explained to the blue-eyed group that they could have no idea what it would feel like to be standing at a shop counter, next in line, and be ignored in deference to someone else who was behind you in the queue because of the colour of your skin.[It’s probably fair to say that the exercise was compromised by the fact that the blue-eyed group was all white and the brown-eyed group predominantly non-white.]
Of course, most people have been over-looked in a queue whatever the colour of their skin; the issue is to what one attributes the event and what significance one attaches to it. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen as a result of racism, or in any way excusing something so abhorrent, but the issue is as much one of racial sensitivity in the part of the ‘victim’ as it is racism on the part of the ‘perpetrator’.
For me the programme was much more interesting as an exercise in group behaviour; all of the problems that make market research focus group were in evidence: polarised opinions, people moderating their position before becoming more extreme when they felt support existed for their stance, and so on.
The most positive aspect of the exercise were the people who refused to be drawn into it. One of the blue-eyed group stood up to the bullying Ms Elliot and was made to leave so as to enable the exercise to continue. His willingness to stand up to authority in an environment in which someone else was clearly controlling and authoritative is what gives me hope for society.
Most impressive of all was Wanda Summers, a brown-eyed shop manager who despite staying with the process for the duration of the exercise found it so unpleasant, upsetting and unjust that, after battling with her conscience for several hours elegantly undermined the exercise by revealing to the whole group that the brown-eyed people had been given the answers to a test in advance.
Here was someone who couldn’t and wouldn’t sit silently by when injustice was taking place.
She was, in the edit of the programme shown, the only one of the brown-eyed group to do this, but even so it was enormously heartening to see.
Society hasn’t come anywhere near to resolving the problems of racial divide and, given that we humans have a long and lousy history of fear and abuse towards other races, nations and creeds, it’s inevitably going to take some time.
But I can’t help believing that what the world needs is more Wanda Summers, not more Jane Elliots. Is there an exercise someone can design to create more people like her, I wonder?