Jane Elliott's Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise

As per the story, Elliott got the idea of developing the exercise after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination when a white reporter asked a local black leader, “When our leader John F. Kennedy was killed, his widow held us together. Who will control your people?” Inspired by the event, Elliott restructured her lesson plan for the next day to focus on racism. Elliott’s class was homogenous and consisted only of white children raised in the small town of Iowa and the eight year olds had only seen people unlike themselves on TV or other media. Thus, she formulated the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise to explain the concept of racial discrimination to her class.

To conduct the exercise in the her class, Elliott segregated the children on the basis of eye color instead of skin color. She wanted to have students experience how it felt to be discriminated against at that time in America. Elliott bifurcated the class into two groups, namely, brown eyes and blue eyes. She gave colored bands to the blue-eyed students to wear so that they could be distinguished from their classmates at a distance.

The brown-eyed students were designated to be superior in comparison to blue-eyed students. The brown-eyed group was given extra benefits such as prolonged access to the playground, second helpings at lunch, extra minutes for lunchtime, and the advantage of drinking water at a better water fountain. The brown-eyed children were asked to talk to only students with brown eyes and ignore blue-eyed children. Elliott singled out blue-eyed children for not obeying the instructions and talked only of the superiority of the brown-eyed children. She would say the brown-eyed children were smarter and used pseudo-scientific theory which explained that there was a correlation between the melanin in brown-eyed children and their superior intelligence.

The experiment had a huge impact on the behavior of children in the two groups. The group which was deemed superior became bossy and arrogant, and they considered their classmates to be inferior. The performance of brown-eyed students improved, their mathematics and reading tasks also improved as compared to their earlier performance. On the other hand, the so-called inferior group behaved in a timid and subservient manner, and the behavior of blue-eyed children who were dominant in the class before the experiment became timid and their performances suffered. The inferior group performed poorly in academics and could not perform even the tasks which they considered simple before the experiment.

The next day, Elliott reversed the concept of superior and inferior groups, and made the blue-eyed students the superior group. The blue-eyed students were told to take off their colored bands and place them on a brown-eyed student. The blue-eyed students were made the superior group and asked to behave in a similar way as their brown-eyed counterparts in the previous day. Amazingly, the blue-eyed students were able to solve problems faster when they took much longer the previous day. It was also noteworthy that the brown-eyed children were not as mean and bossy when they given the upper hand, perhaps cognizant of how they were treated a day prior. At the end, Elliott highlighted how prejudice can divide the class, and people in general. Judging from the response of the children, it appeared that the children had learned a valuable lesson.

The experiment drew a lot of fire. The teachers of her school opposed her exercise, and parents of children were shocked to find out their children were subjected to such an exercise of discrimination and bigotry but the seniors at the school were supportive. Elliott explained how some brown-eyed shy children benefited during the exercise at the expense of blue-eyed classmates. Elliott’s colleagues expressed disbelief in regard to the outcome of the experiment.

Later, the children wrote about the exercise and their views on discrimination were printed by the local papers. Elliott appeared on Johnny Carson's TV show and there were instant reactions from the callers. She received many negative calls as well as some positive calls. Elliott explained about her experience at a children's youth conference where she faced violent opposition against her exercise.

Jane Elliott devised “diversity training” through the exercise, and now she conducts training for corporations and lectures at various defense and government agencies. She runs workshops in organizations which helps companies handle multicultural environment at workplaces, and promote teamwork. Her program enables companies to reduce cases of discrimination in their workplaces and ultimately promotes inter-office communication.