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?

Philip Graves

16 Comments

  1. Chen

    Carl F. Horowitz discusses Elliot & her race hustle here:

    “You cannot over-estimate the damage to race relations that “diversity awareness” training is causing in this country. It’s having the opposite effect to that intended, causing divisions, resentment, and an increase in judgments based on race, where previously such things were actually quite rare. How do I know this? I was involved in putting together a diversity “toolkit” for a government department, and saw first-hand the effect it had as it was rammed down the throats of staff….

    Elliott’s crusade against racism, launched from the far Left, is about manipulation and punishment of Caucasians. It provides no encounter with serious ideas, something she derisively terms “intellectualizing.” Whites are evil and parasitic; blacks are downtrodden unappreciated fountainheads of creativity. In a 1998 interview with an Australian Internet magazine, Webfronds, she pontificated:

    You’re all sitting here writing in a language [English] that white people didn’t come up with. You’re all sitting here writing on paper that white people didn’t invent. Most of you are wearing clothes made out of cloth that white people didn’t come up with. We stole these ideas from other people. If you’re a Christian, you’re believing in a philosophy that came to us from people of color.

    White people, she added, “invented racism.” At least Susan Sontag, in her infamous diatribe of some 40 years ago likening the white race to “the cancer of human history,” credited whites with producing, among other things, Mozart, Kant, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare and parliamentary government. Elliott credits whites with virtually nothing except oppression of people of color. Less a heartland Susan Sontag than a white Louis Farrakhan, Elliott is consumed with the need to force whites to experience shame and atonement. She’s in good company. As Ryan O’Donnell pointed out in these pages nearly four years ago, virtually all the early leaders of the diversity industry began as hard-Left activists in the Sixties.”

  2. Las Vegas Boomer Dating Expert

    Hi Phil,

    this is indeed a fascinating post and exercise.
    because that kind of prejudice, well, I attended a major seminar at Auschwitz Birkenau the summer of the 50 anniversary of its release.
    Racism/ethnocentrism is about any kind of fear belief system and indeed about human behavior.

    ok, and on ANOTHER level
    The Milgrim experiment.
    Part of what is SO fascinating.
    is these were volunteers.
    notice all who allowed it?
    everyone who participated in it
    and even those who allowed themselves to be removed from the room?
    without taking everyone with them?
    I love studying the nuances of Milgram’s authority experiments.
    there are so many nuances and applications in life.

    And you thought I was just blonde and blogged about dating 😉

    Most intriguing, Phil.

    Happy Dating and Relationships,

    April Braswell
    Single Boomer Dating Expert

  3. Don Shepherd

    Hi Phil, glad you took on a lite subject that was so easily commented on! i don’t believe racism will ever go away. there are certain people that feel it is their obligation to ensure that it remains and flourishes. There are even groups of whites who are against whites!
    when the human mind can decide if it likes someone just by hearing a name and never meeting the person how on earth are people to overcome racism!

    Don Shepherd
    cENTRAL oREGON eXPERT

  4. David

    Did Wanda Summers really know what the exercise was about? I think not! all she seems to be concerned was how jane elliot was treating everyone. yes she was hard but this was her role that she needed to play, hard and no shit taking. the world needs more of this woman take a good look and the youth of today and society we let small things out of our hands and only deal with them when its a big problem for everyone else. thanks wanda for being the brain dead person that you are. you stuffed it up for so many people bacause you weren’t LISTENING! and now we will never know the true outcome.

    1. Shafi

       I don’t think Ms Wanda understood the point of the exercise – she sabotaged it.
      I really hope that Wanda like people are a minority.
      Here behaviour show and undermines the system of racism, tht you have actually people whoo sabotge things in order to protect the existing system.

  5. Philip Graves

    @David David, all I can say is that you and I clearly have a very different interpretation of what took place.

    History is littered with examples where people have been told authoritatively that they should do something morally reprehensible and have gone along with it. If more people were like Wanda Summers fewer bad things would happen.

    The “true outcome” is the outcome that took place (the fact that it failed to make Jane Elliot’s point doesn’t make what occurred invalid, nor does it make Jane Elliot’s original thesis invalid).

    From my perspective Wanda Summer’s brain was the only one shown to be morally alive in the brown-eyed group.

  6. Mike

    Did anyone find Terry Taylor (the schoolteacher)’s comments immensely disturbing?

    Her response to “Statistics show…You’re 8 times more likely to be stopped and searched” is “it’s just statistics… you’re not unique” followed by a “What’d I like to hear more is what YOU propose to change all this”. (~28:52)

    When confronted with her phrasing and accusation of “victim blaming”, she claims that it was “what do we do”. You even hear her muttering “Who’s the victim” under her breath.

    And during the dining social conversations, “I admit, I was slightly surprised, where she scraped all her face, it’s all pink underneath”.

    The last one, and for me, the most disturbing quote of all, considering everything else she’s quoted before is:

    “I didn’t need to change my opinions”

    1. René

      Yes Mike, 
           I noticed her comments, and was utterly disturbed by them.  I think the main lesson learned in this experiment was the power struggle. The people who were in the blue-eyed group were inevitably supposed to give up control and participate in an exercise they volunteered for.  Comparing this experiment to others, the blue-eyed group here REFUSED to give up any power and let the experiment continue. That speaks volumes! I would be interested to know opinions of the experiment from that standpoint.

  7. LaKita

    I’m very familiar with this experiment and the many times it’s been performed. I think that people like Wanda, while demonstrating great and inspiring humanity during the experiment by refusing to participate in the degrading of others (which is what the experiment aims to accomplish), massively and ultimately fail in showing humanity in real life (and in this experiment) by refusing to even acknowledge that the kind of discrimination experienced by the “blue eyed” group is a replica of what minorities experience in the real world–even you Phil, seem to refuse to admit that. So, why are you so impressed with Wanda if you ignore what happens in the real world? Stating, “there needs to be sensitivity on behalf of the victim.” I agree with that statement, but you have to be aware of when actual racism occurs as well. Is the racism in the real world simply too settle for you? This whole thing is ironic. People like Wanda stand up against discrimination while simultaneously denying it exist. Racism won’t always be that blatant, but Jane Elliot derived the “bullying” from direct treatment and practices performed by Whites against minorities in America and throughout the world. Now, I can feel the “Wanda” in you ready, not to stand up against the discrimination, but stand up against my “accusation”. Do you not see the irony? What if the brown-eyed group had simply denied that Jane was mistreating the blue-eyed group? What if the brown-eyed group said things like, “I don’t understand how you guys are upset, when we are discriminated against too. Just earlier, she made me switch places with that guy simply because I’m a woman. So, I don’t know why you guys are complaining.” Or, “I don’t know how it is discrimination to give you guys sandwiches when clearly, we all got something to eat. Not every brown-eyed person got the same amount of salad as other brown-eyed people. So, how can you really know if it’s about discrimination. Lots of people go through things.” Then, we would have something more akin to what happens in real life and to what Wanda represents–a simultaneous display of humanity and disgrace. I agree that not every bit of discrimination experienced by minorities is based on racism, but like you implied of Mrs. Elliot’s experiment with the school children, there are bound to be profound psychological affects resulting from her experiment. In real life, there is NO EXPERIMENT. That’s the point. How can you point out the effects on one hand, yet deny them on the other? Is it just about “white blame?”

  8. LaKita

    I’m very familiar with this experiment and the many times it’s been performed. I think that people like Wanda, while demonstrating great and inspiring humanity during the experiment by refusing to participate in the degrading of others (which is what the experiment aims to accomplish), massively and ultimately fail in showing humanity in real life (and in this experiment) by refusing to even acknowledge that the kind of discrimination experienced by the “blue eyed” group is a replica of what minorities experience in the real world–even you Phil, seem to refuse to admit that. So, why are you so impressed with Wanda if you ignore what happens in the real world? Stating, “there needs to be sensitivity on behalf of the victim.” I agree with that statement, but you have to be aware of when actual racism occurs as well. Is the racism in the real world simply too settle for you? This whole thing is ironic. People like Wanda stand up against discrimination while simultaneously denying it exist. Racism won’t always be that blatant, but Jane Elliot derived the “bullying” from direct treatment and practices performed by Whites against minorities in America and throughout the world. Now, I can feel the “Wanda” in you ready, not to stand up against the discrimination, but stand up against my “accusation”. Do you not see the irony? What if the brown-eyed group had simply denied that Jane was mistreating the blue-eyed group? What if the brown-eyed group said things like, “I don’t understand how you guys are upset, when we are discriminated against too. Just earlier, she made me switch places with that guy simply because I’m a woman. So, I don’t know why you guys are complaining.” Or, “I don’t know how it is discrimination to give you guys sandwiches when clearly, we all got something to eat. Not every brown-eyed person got the same amount of salad as other brown-eyed people. So, how can you really know if it’s about discrimination. Lots of people go through things.” Then, we would have something more akin to what happens in real life and to what Wanda represents–a simultaneous display of humanity and disgrace. I agree that not every bit of discrimination experienced by minorities is based on racism, but like you implied of Mrs. Elliot’s experiment with the school children, there are bound to be profound psychological affects resulting from her experiment. In real life, there is NO EXPERIMENT. That’s the point. How can you point out the effects on one hand, yet deny them on the other? Is it just about “white blame?”

  9. Nick edwards

    I cannot believe that anyone could watch this and not be disturbed by the response of the ‘blue eyed’ group more than the response of the ‘brown eyed’ group. 

    Their defensiveness from the start; the refusa to admit that racism might exist. The man who said ‘I’ve spent two hours with these people, none of them are racist’… Er… How do you know? Because they weren’t walking around with white sheets on their heads and lynching people of colour?  The woman who denied every statistic about stop and search. ‘White people are just as likely to be stopped. It happens to all of us.’ Really? Is she being serious? Has her son/daughter REALLY been stopped and searched? The sheer ignorance to the words that are acceptable in society in this day and age. The use of the words ‘them and us’ – not in the context of brown and blue eyed people, but in the context of white and non-white people. The teacher who mentioned ‘a third of my class are black, and some are half-caste… ‘ and then the comment about the ‘beautiful’ (make sure you drop that word in there before you make the racist comment of course) girl with the pink flesh under her brown skin.

    What this programme taught me (having already watched the experiment being done in other group settings much more successfully) is the horror of the British people. Their outright refusal to accept that there is a problem with racism.

    The fact that you took the message that someone like Wanda, refusing to admit that there could ever be a problem – as a white woman – with prejudice in society is really sad and a good reflection of all those people in this particular experiment. Wanda hated the explicitness of the ‘racism’ in this experiment. She hated how clear different groups were being treated differently. She refused to hear the words of pretty much every person of colour in that room who stated that they are treated differently every single day.

  10. Patricia Hollister

    Some of the comments here seem to be focused on the idea that when Wanda told that her group had been given the answers to the test, that it meant she spoiled the experiment, that she’d “disturbed the order of things” and therefore didn’t stay in character, one might say.  Isn’t that exactly what is supposed to be taken from this lesson– that we should all endeavor to step out of our roles and change the narrative?       I hope that was why Wanda spoke up, it seems to me that was her intention and that was encouraging, in my opinion.   What’s up with this idea that she spoiled the lesson?   The lesson, ( in life, and  interactions between races) “experiment”  can only be changed if we individually change expectations of how we are “supposed” to respond  within the confines of the “experiment”.  

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