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Blog » Jane Elliott: The Anatomy of Prejudice


3 Sep 2007

This article reports on a seminar, The Anatomy of Prejudice, hosted by Jane Elliott in Guildford, UK.

Elliott is best know for the “brown-eyes blue-eyes” exercise she developed in the sixties as a primary school teacher, and has carried out repeatedly since, to give people a sense of what it feels like to experience colour prejudice. The idea came to her when she heard the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and felt that there must be something she could do to help her class better understand the realities of racial prejudice in the USA. This exercise involved dividing her all-white third-grade class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed groups and, on two successive days, treating the blue-eyed people as superior to the brown-eyed and then vice versa. She now spends her time as a diversity trainer and public speaker.

As a speaker Jane Elliott is a feisty and sometimes abrasive character who appears not to suffer fools gladly. She pulls no punches, and is angrily scathing those groups whom she feels use their power irresponsibly, in a way reminiscent of of Lord Reith's statement when he was Director-General of the BBC, "There are some people whom it is one's duty to offend."

Firstly, Elliott talked about prejudice of various kinds – sex, colour, age – using two volunteers, a coloured female student and a white College tutor, to illustrate differences. She highlighted the subtleties with which our prejudices can emerge, for example people saying things like "I get on so well with you, I don't think of you as black". She said that racism is more than just prejudice but also includes power, and that prejudice without power can be mostly fuelled by anger. She warned against imposing our own views on others, using abortion as an example. She said that it was one thing to hold a view on whether abortion was right or wrong for oneself, but that that didn't give anyone the right to impose that view on others "That's between them and God, not between me, them and God." She attacked the hypocrisy of those who put their efforts into opposing abortion, but then shirk their consequent responsibilities to devote their own time, resources or energies into make sure that any resulting children are properly cared for and well looked after.

Elliott suggested that some prejudices such as white superiority are so ingrained that they pop up in many ways in which we don't notice. As an example, she pointed out that the map that is typically used in schools to portray the world, the Mercator map, distorts the world in such a way that the sizes of Europe and North America are disproportionally large compared to the rest of the world, and puts the equator two-thirds of the way down the map so that those Northern hemisphere land masses look much bigger than, rather than smaller than, land in the Southern hemisphere. She compared this to other representations such as the Peters map (below) which distorts shapes but represents land mass sizes accurately.

She talked about the dangers of imposing our world view on others, and warned us to beware of the erosion of our rights by groups with their own agenda, like the right-wing evangelical mid-West and "White House religion", and she gave out an amusing handout “Let’s Get Literal”, highlighting the absurdity of quoting from the Bible to defending prejudices, in which the author agonises over whether he can own Canadians [Lev. 25:44], whether his aunt should be stoned for wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/ polyester blend) [Lev. 19:19], how great an abomination it might be to eat shellfish [Lev. 11:10] and what might be a fair price for selling his daughter into slavery [Exodus 21:7].

She warned that we should all be on our guard against encroachments on our rights and the rights of others, quoting Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

Elliott criticised the tendency towards "political correctness" as being an exasperating behavioural facade behind which the same old prejudicial attitudes could hide and thrive. Strangely, for someone with sensitivity to the subtle nuances of prejudices in terms of colour, religion, sex and sexuality, she seemed to be at her ease characterising men in ways that she may well have found unacceptable in a male speaker talking about women, for example calling her own husband "well-trained" in a way that made him sound rather like a performing monkey.

She finished up by showing a video of the brown-eye/blue-eye exercise, in which Elliott heightened the sense of discrimination by giving preferential treatment to the "superior" group, making the inferior group wear collars and denying them access to playground equipment and drinking fountains. She also reinforced their sense of inequality by bringing to the attention of the group the failings of the inferior group and the successes of the superior group, and by attributing these failings to eye-colour:

Elliott: Russell, where are your glasses?

Russell: I forgot them.

Elliott: You forgot them. And what colour are your eyes?

Russell: Blue.

Class: [Laughter]

Elliott: Susan Ginder has brown eyes. She didn't forget her glasses. Russell Ring has blue eyes and what about his glasses?

Children: He forgot them.

Elliott: He forgot them. Yesterday we were visiting and Greg said, "Boy, I like to hit my little sister as hard as I can, that's fun." What does that tell you about blue-eyed people?

Children: They're naughty...in fact, they fight a lot...

Elliott chose eye-colour as an attribute over which people have no control or choice. She pointed out that this is not as absurd as it might seem, and that in reality even eye-colour has been a real and dangerous source of prejudice, with many people of Germanic background sent to the gas chambers in Nazi Germany exactly because their brown eyes led to doubts as to their ethnic background.

She talked about her shock at how easily the children could turn from a group of happy co-operative people to a sharply divided community. One big change was that the groups lived up or down to the expectations on them, performing better or worse than usual depending on their status. What had shocked her most, though, was how quickly the behaviour of the "superior" group could degenerate into outright racism. She used this to demonstrate that racism is a learned behaviour and that it can be unlearned. Another other lesson conveyed by the exercise was the importance of teaching and encouraging our children to always be ready to question the Thou-Shalts that come down to them from authority figures, and to listen to their own hearts. She said that although they'd found it distressing at the time, the overwhelming feedback she'd had from the participants was that they valued the experience highly. Her own experience of the exercise was one of feeling sick to her stomach, as it forced her to act for the duration of the exercise in a way in which she was deeply uncomfortable.

As a member of the audience, the part that affected me most profoundly was when Elliott talked about her own experiences as a result of the experiment, of how she was boycotted and ignored by the other school staff, of how the 1000-strong all-white all-Christian Ohio community that she lived in turned against her, calling her a "nigger-lover", and of their attacking her family and bankrupting her father's business by boycotting it. It was these, her own traumatic experiences of attack and prejudice and the heartache she had suffered in standing up for what she believed in, more than any research she might had done, that gave her words a sense of personal authority.

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