The impending appearance this week of the BNP leader Nick Griffin on BBC's Question Time has raised once more the spectre of racism and its continuing role in British society. But while Griffin may personify an overt form of prejudice, the kind that draws near universal scorn, it's the unconscious, sublimated or throwaway manifestation of racism that tends to receive most institutional focus.
Later this month a Manifesto Club report entitled The Myth of Racist Kids will argue that primary schoolchildren are being subject to a counterproductive level of anti-racist vigilance, in which childish insults are scrutinised for racism. The report's author, Adrian Hart, says: "Such anti-racist policies can create divisions where none had existed by turning every-day playground spats into 'race issues'… There are a small number of cases of sustained targeted bullying, and schools certainly need to deal with those. But most of these 'racist incidents' are just kids falling out. They don't need re-educating out of their prejudice – they and their teachers need to be left alone."
It would be hard to reach a conclusion more at variance with the position of Jane Elliott. A former primary schoolteacher from Iowa, Elliott is the godmother of modern diversity training. In 1968, the year of race riots in America and Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech in this country, Elliott taught third-grade (eight- and nine-year-olds) in a school in Riceville, a small all-white community in Iowa. On 5 April of that year, the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Elliott organised an exercise to show her class how racial discrimination worked.
She was convinced that the best way to tackle the problem was with the very young, so she divided her all-white children into two groups based on eye colour. She told the blue-eyed children that they were superior to their brown-eyed classmates, and she told the brown-eyed, who had to wear identifying collars, that they were less intelligent and poorly behaved. The result, according to her, was that blue-eyed children began to behave arrogantly and, after a short while, the brown-eyed children began to accept their lower position.
The next day she reversed the experiment, and the results reversed, although this time the brown-eyed children, having already experienced discrimination, were more sensitive to the suffering of their blue-eyed peers. The idea was simple and effective. Something as genetically incidental as eye colour became an analogue for the genetic superficiality of skin colour, and it was shown that when one group was favoured over the other, both groups quickly assumed their designated roles as oppressed and oppressor.
Word spread of this impromptu psychological test, and Elliott found herself explaining her theories on the Johnny Carson Show. She was also called to the White House, and later an influential TV documentary, The Eye of the Storm, was made about her school experiment, followed thereafter by two books. Elliott had gone from being a midwestern schoolteacher to the pioneer of a global industry of diversity awareness and training.
She has gone on to repeat the blue eye-brown eye experiment on countless occasions, first at her school and then in workshops for adults, businesses and government offices throughout America and the world. Most recently she re-ran the exercise in this country for a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary that forms part of a season on science and race. This time the participants were made up of a multi-racial adult group. And the result, in Elliott's own words, "wasn't as successful as I am accustomed to being". It's a fractious, disjointed affair, in which few of the volunteers seem prepared to accept or play the roles assigned to them. The "oppressed" don't want to be oppressed and their "oppressors" show little appetite for oppressing.
Part of the problem is that the blue-eyed group is exclusively white, while the brown-eyed group is predominantly non-white, so that eye colour is no longer an analogue or metaphor for race but a direct referent. The division is not random but instead largely racial. And in this age of racial awareness, it's not that easy to find white people who are willing to role-play on a basis that assumes they are racist.
In The Eye of the Storm, made in 1971, we see Elliott as a beehived schoolmarm, firm but not unlikable, a sort of strict Marge Simpson. Nowadays, grey-haired and mean-eyed, she's honed her shtick to that of a drill sergeant or prison commandant. She describes herself as the "resident bitch for the day", and speaks to the blue-eyed contingent as though they were criminally stupid or stupidly criminal. "Keep your fucking mouth shut," she tells one smiling blue-eyed young man. "I don't play second banana."
The performance suggests someone who would be a natural in a Maoist re-education camp: self-righteous, vindictive and unswervingly convinced of her case. "This exercise is an inoculation against racism," she tells the brown-eyed group.
But is it? In the event, two of the brown-eyed group decide they are not prepared to take part in the humiliation of the blue-eyed group and are therefore told to leave. Elliott tells me it's "really difficult to get people of colour to play the role of the oppressor during the exercise. It takes a long time and a lot of work to get them to act white". It's a curious comment from someone who is supposedly an enemy of racial stereotyping, not least because, as I remind her, the two who refuse to "act white" are in fact white. "Uh-huh, well that doesn't usually happen. And how many white brown-eyed didn't walk out?" she asks, as if the fact that some white people stayed was testament to their willingness to play the oppressor.
In truth, no one plays their roles particularly convincingly, and the experiment ends in ill-feeling and confusion. Elliott puts the failure down to the presence of TV cameras and says she won't allow the exercise to be filmed again. But perhaps the real problem is that all the participants are genuine volunteers, and role-play works best when there is some form of coercion, for example, when you are obliged to attend by your employer. In that circumstance, Elliott wields some real power and, as footage shows in the documentary, she can be savage, reducing grown men and women to tears, all along in the certain conviction that it is good for them. "Many people go away knowing a whole lot more than they did when they came in," she says. "And not just white people. Many people of colour think the whole thing is an accident. It's not an accident. It's what we do. It's how we perpetuate our power."
Leaving aside exactly why this self-perpetuating white power structure would institute diversity training and employ people such as Elliott, it still doesn't explain why she needs to target individuals with such ferocity in her exercises. Her best answer is that it makes them think twice about what they say. "I think people of colour have had to watch their mouths around us for years and it's a new experience for white folks to have to watch their mouths. At the end of the exercise, in corporations, invariably some white male turns to the person beside him and says, 'Does this mean I'm gonna have to watch what I say for the rest of my life? And I say, 'Absolutely'."
Elliott is keen on verbal watchfulness. She believes that racism is in the eye of the beholder and therefore one needs to be ever-sensitive to the possibility of giving offence. "Perception is everything," she says. "If someone perceives something as racist then I am responsible for not saying that thing."
I mention the case of the official in the mayor's office in Washington DC who resigned some years ago after using the word "niggardly", because he had caused racial offence to colleagues. Elliott knows that the word has no racial connotations but she has little sympathy for the official. "There are synonyms for that word that are less volatile," she says, "and if you don't know a synonym then that's part of the problem, isn't it? It's kind of like holding a match in a dynamite factory."
There's an unforgiving quality to Elliott's approach, a puritanical zeal that, for all its good intentions, is hard to warm to. She sees no distinction between America and Britain in terms of racism – the differing histories of slavery and colonialism, the fact that mass immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon in Britain, and racial division has not been nearly so extreme or violent here, are all of small consequence to her.
"Racism is racism wherever you find it. White ignorance is the problem, and we white folks have now managed to export that problem all over the world."
She's reluctant to agree at first when I say that the situation has improved. After all, no one could imagine an African-American president 40 years ago. "But we didn't have the technology we have today," she retorts, "or the man of that calibre who was used to using the technology. We don't make history, history makes us."
If ever there was an argument in favour of accepting the status quo, and therefore against all that she is doing, then that must surely be it. Eventually she relents and agrees that there has been progress and, what's more, that she thinks it will continue.
"For one thing," she says, "the main thing, white people are rapidly losing their numerical majority in the United States of America. And so people of colour are going to be the people in positions in power in the future. White people are finally beginning to realise that. Some of them are scared to death."
There's a fierce, even admirable, relish in her words, but also the nagging suspicion that she's more excited by white fear than she is by black success.
The Event: How Racist Are You? is on C4 on Thursday 29 October at 10pm
One Saturday a few weeks ago, while having a documentary mini-marathon on my couch, I came across A Class Divided. What it showed was so fascinating (and sad) that I found myself searching for more information it ended. Given this week’s discussion on white hostility and violence toward blacks, I thought it would be an interesting topic to discuss.
Jane Elliot was a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The day following Dr. King’s murder, in an effort to make her young, all-white class understand the issue of racism, she divided the students into “blue-eyed” and “brown-eyed” groups. On the first day, blue-eyed people were superior. Brown-eyed students went to lunch last, were not allowed second helpings, had five fewer minutes of recess, could not use the drinking fountain (they could use paper cups), and were forced to sit at the back of the classroom. Students of different eye colors were not allowed to play with one another on the playground (brown-eyed students were not allowed on the playground equipment), and throughout the day Elliot made comments about the shortcomings and inferiority of brown-eyed students. The following day, the roles were reversed, with brown-eyed students prized as the superior group.
What she found shocked her. In group work (segregated by eye color), students’ abilities changed from day-to-day depending on their status. On the day in which they were the inferior group, it took the brown-eyed group five and a half minutes to get through a set of flash cards; the following day, as the superior group, it took them two and a half minutes. Equally, if not more, disturbing were the attitudes of the children in the “better” group. “I found what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in the space of 15 minutes,” she recalled.
She continued conducting the exercise for future classes. In its third year (1970), ABC News profiled the experiment for a documentary called Eye of the Storm. Fifteen years later, in 1985, the TV series Frontline made A Class Divided as a follow-up. In addition to the original footage, it includes a reunion with members of the third-grade class shown in the film, as well as Jane Elliot’s adaptation of the exercise for employees of Iowa’s Department of Corrections. In the years since A Class Divided, Elliot works primarily with adults doing the “blue-eyes/brown-eyes” experiment, albeit in a modified form, as part of workplace diversity training. In it, brown-eyed participants are recruited and encouraged by Elliot to actively participate in the discrimination of their blue-eyed colleagues (while the blue-eyed participants are in another room), and the roles are not reversed.
Whether with students or adults, however, the experiment is highly controversial. I admit, my first reaction was that Elliot would have a lawsuit filed against her in two seconds if she tried that experiment (as it was presented in 1970) today. She is still not welcome in the Iowa community in which she grew up and taught. Scholars, social/political commentators, and participants themselves differ as to how effective (or detrimental) the exercise is to those who take part in it. Elliot’s Wikipedia page has a fairly thorough discussion of the controversies if you’re interested in reading more. The full documentary is available on the PBS/Frontline website–it’s about an hour, but if you can find the time to watch at least a little, it’s really interested.
Is this sort of exercise acceptable or appropriate for third-grade students? For adults and employees? Do you think it’s an effective means of understanding racism, or does it limit discussion and dialogue?
 A Class Divided, PBS website. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/view.html>
 “Frequently Asked Questions,” A Class Divided, PBS website. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/faq.html>
 “Jane Elliot and the Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes Exercise,” BBC Edited Guide Entry. 19 August 2005. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1132480>
 Stephen G. Bloom, “Lesson of a Lifetime,” Smithsonian magazine (September 2005). <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/lesson_lifetime.html>
Photo credit: “Diversity in Education Discussions,” Brigham Young University website. <http://education.byu.edu/diversity/egua_discussions.html>