Citizen Voices

Jane Elliott explores: how racist are you?

Megan Whittington reviews a documentary directed by David Russell for publication on Channel 4. The documentary, entitled “The Event: How Racist Are You?” was produced in 2009 and explored Jane Elliott’s brown eye/blue eye exercise on a group of people in the United Kingdom. It was accessed here:

Elliott captured in a screenshot from the documentary 'How Racist Are You?' directed by David Russell.

A screenshot from the documentary ‘How Racist Are You?’ directed by David Russell.

I’m sorry to admit that I only discovered Jane Elliott this year. I met her in perhaps the least likely place: Facebook. A clip from a show she did on Oprah in 1992 (a year before I was born, so perhaps I’m forgiven?) has been making the rounds on social media. In the clip she states that racism is a “mental illness” and I, immediately drawn to her powerful words and feisty nature, have been looking up interviews and documentaries of her in my free time since. This documentary in particular, which is more like a social experiment, came up in the suggested bar in my Youtube account. The title includes the words: “how racist are you?” and I couldn’t resist clicking on the video.

Jane Elliott is a former American school teacher who is world renowned for her anti-racism activism. She famously developed the blue eyes/brown eyesexperiment, which she first applied in her classroom after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. She knew that institutionalised racism needed to be addressed and decided to divide her classroom into blue-eyed children and brown-eyed children. The blue-eyed children were given privileges, such as extra play time; while they brown-eyed children were forced to sit quietly. The following day, she reversed the exercise and gave the privileges to the brown-eyed children, while blue-eyed children were treated as inferior members of the classroom. At the end of the experiment, children who had previously turned on the group with different eye colours, came together and hugged and cried. Elliott had shown them what it was like to be black in a racist society.

Elliott knew that this experiment had the potential to educate, not only children, but perhaps more importantly, adults too, and so she began to apply it to sets of volunteers. This particular video shows Elliott’s exercise demonstrated by 30 British volunteers, ranging in age and gender. The volunteers were separated by eye colour — once again, blue-eyed and brown-eyed. Elliott joined the brown-eyed group and began to break down the blue-eyed group, encouraging them to join.

elliott antagonise

Elliott antagonises the blue-eyed group in this screen shot from the documentary.










Many of the members of the brown-eyed group were people of colour, and had therefore, experienced racism in their everyday lives. When the blue-eyed group entered the room, they were able to show the group what many black people go through due to the racist nature of society. Led by Elliott, the brown-eyed group constantly ridiculed and belittled the blue-eyed group, making many blue eyes feel uncomfortable and defensive.

As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think that this experiment, if applied in South Africa, would work as successfully as it has in the USA and UK. It would be different of course, as a country that has only been a democracy for just over two decades and has a recent history of extreme and intolerable racism. Perhaps this would make it even more applicable. I can’t count the number of times I have encountered ignorant and racist keyboard warriors who, even in a time of constitutionally-awarded equality, continue to label black people as “hooligans” and “animals”. It’s quite hopeless trying to argue and/or reason with these people, as their mentalities are so deeply engrained. Perhaps Elliott’s methods would force some South Africans to acknowledge white privilege as a fact.

Throughout the social experiment, the blue-eyed group makes the argument that they are not racist and therefore, should not be attacked by Elliott in the study. They fail to recognise that this is a learning experience, and that the aim is not to identify them as racists, but rather to demonstrate the institution itself as well as address the fact that institutionalised racism is very much present in society. The blue-eyed group is quick to come to the defence, rather than attempt to understand the purpose of the experiment and recognise that society teaches us to be racist.

After a black woman from the brown-eyed group, Pearl Jarrett, gets up and explains the challenges that her and her family face, simply for being black, a white woman in the blue-eyed group, Terry Taylor, grows defensive. The Jarrett uses a particular example of the fact that her child was constantly getting stop-and-searched by police, because he was automatically more suspicious to them as a black male. Doesn’t this still sound ever-relevant in current society? The Taylor proceeds to respond that all children were being stop-and-searched and after a brief argument, conceded: “What I’d like to hear more is what you propose to do to actually change all this?”

At this point, Elliott jumped in and explained that she was “blaming the victim” by expecting said victims to come up with a solution for a racist society in which their voices are considered less important. Go, Elliott!

Terry Taylor portrayed in a screen shot from the documentary.

Terry Taylor portrayed in a screen shot from the documentary.

The more I watch, the more the Taylor irks me. She doesn’t, at any point, seem to have realised what the purpose of the experiment is, and is stubbornly rejecting that her white privilege as a fact. She states that a mixed-race man being too uncomfortable to fetch his light-skinned daughter from school, because her classmates would then know that she isn’t white; can be compared to her white husband not wanting to fetch their children looking like a “scruff bag”. Taylor maintains that the way that black people feel the need to conform to a white, Westernised community can be likened to a person having to conform to a corporate dress-code. The level of ignorance is near intolerable, as is the fact that a large percentage of society would agree with her.

The argument is made that white people can experience racism too. I don’t believe this to be so, as racism is a mentality that was invented by white people to use against black people. I’m enjoying how this documentary is forcing me to think about these kinds of issues, which are often skirted around by white people, due to our inherent fear of feeling uncomfortable.

Apart from Elliott herself, the subject of this video who I found most impactful was participant and member of the brown-eyed group, Jarrett. “This controlled environment is about racism or is about being an underdog because of something you have no control over,” she said. “Sometimes the system is stacked against you and those in power may be operating in a way to put you in a disadvantaged position.”

Pearl Jarrett portrayed in a screen shot from the documentary.

Pearl Jarrett portrayed in a screen shot from the documentary.

Elliott concludes by stating that she doesn’t feel guilty for being white, because that isn’t something she had any control over. She emphasises that white people shouldn’t feel guilty about their skin colour, but rather about “white behaviours”. “But I don’t think you do those behaviours because you’re white, I think you do those things because you’re ignorant,” she explains.

White guilt is very apparent in our society, and I often see people say that they feel guilty for being white. This never sat well with me and thanks to Elliott, I understand why. Making racism about you feeling guilty about your skin colour is completely counterproductive and serves to take attention away from pain that is being felt by black people due to their skin colour. White people are very good at making issues about them and how they are effected when really we need to be acknowledging our privilege and participating in transformation. It’s interesting that we are more likely to take Elliott’s words seriously, because she is white. Another example of white privilege.

I found the documentary to be insightful and extremely relevant to the current state of our society. With transformation being such a hot topic and ignorance being a constant plague on social media, I think many of us need a bit more Jane Elliott in our lives.

For a similar video on the application of this exercise on American students, click this link.


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