“Oh Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”
After Martin Luther King Jr.’s death April 4, 1968, elementary school teacher Jane Elliot created an exercise for her students to learn discrimination. With no formal training in psychology, she created the famous “blue-eyed/brown-eyed” exercise, first done with grade school children in the 1960s, and which later became the basis for her career in diversity training and critical pedagogy.
In the all-white, all-Christian town of Riceville, Iowa, Elliot created an exercise in which students would discriminate against other students based on eye color. The “blue eye/brown eye” exercise, as shown in the video, pitted blue-eyed children against brown-eyed children.
Elliot’s experiences with the exercises were turned into a documentary and book, The Eye of the Storm. 14 years later the children participating in the experiment watch the original video. What’s most interesting is how, although the children spent less than a week being discriminated against, how traumatized and positively changed they were due to this experience.
The video, a segment of PBS Frontline, also includes a diversity training session with adults(who work at a prison) using the same principles.
Elliott was invited to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. At the commercial break, audience reaction to her was instant as hundreds of calls came into the show’s switchboard, most of the reaction was negative.) The most often-quoted letter states “How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children.”
The exercise and the publicity that it was getting did not make her popular with her neighbors. When Elliott walked into the teacher’s lounge the day after being on the Johnny Carson show, several teachers walked out. Her children were taunted and/or assaulted by other children. Her family was shunned, forcing her father into bankruptcy as her parents’ store was boycotted. All of this convinced Elliott of the need for her exercise. She felt that it would be wrong to do nothing and the people’s lack of understanding and fear of change allows racism to exist and grow.