Teaching Sensitivity Can Be A Disgraceful Exercise
Linda Seebach, Rocky Mountain News, Jun. 19
One of the more sadistic exercises practiced by some operators who drive the diversity machine goes by the name “Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes.” You may have heard of it, because an elementary-school teacher in Iowa first perpetrated it on her fourth-graders in 1968 and it quickly became notorious.
Jane Elliott divided her students into two groups based on their eye color. The blue-eyed children were forced to wear collars symbolizing inferiority, and were constantly humiliated by the brown-eyed children, egged on by their teacher.
Elliott once told an interviewer, “It was just horrifying how quickly they became what I told them they were.” She described how one of the blue-eyed girls changed from a “brilliant, self-confident carefree, excited little girl to a frightened, timid, uncertain little almost-person.”
You would think that any normal person would realize that she had just done an evil thing. But not Elliott. She repeated the abuse with subsequent classes, and finally turned it into a fully commercial enterprise, hawking workshops, lectures, books and videos. You can find her on the Web, but I won’t give you the address because she is a disgrace.
Here’s how her Web site advertises the workshop: “This is a one-day seminar in which participants will be exposed to an exercise in discrimination based on eye color. Blue-eyed participants will be identified as the inferior group and all the negative stereotypes ordinarily applied to people of color and women by white people and men will be applied to them. Those people having green or hazel eyes will be designated inferior or superior as the instructor sees fit.”
One of the many companies that sell her videos describes the results this way: “In just a few hours, we watch grown professionals become distracted and despondent, stumbling over the simplest commands.”
Why am I telling you about this now? Because an extremely and righteously angry woman wrote me recently that her son, a ninth-grader at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, had been subjected to this abusive treatment in his English literature class, which was studying Othello.
“The teacher made my son wear a blue card on a string around his neck. He was required to smile ingratiatingly, bow his head, and beg people to tie his shoes for him,” she wrote. “The teacher wore a yellow card, that of the superior race, and she petted and made much of the other yellow-card students.”
In a particularly nasty wrinkle, the teacher told the students chosen for the subordinate group that they would all receive Fs for their work that day and that the failing grades would be on their final transcript. And she sent them home still believing that lie.
If that had been done to me in ninth grade, little Miss Perfectionist that I was, I’d have gone home and killed myself.
“Teaching children about abuse should never include abusing them,” the mother wrote. “Committing a hate crime should not be the way we teach our youngsters about hate crimes.”
I’m inclined to give the school an institutional pass on this; the exercise was certainly not part of official policy, though the teacher did it in more than one class, and school administrators didn’t know about it until the mother complained. Secondary principal Tony Fontana said it is school policy to inform parents and get their consent for anything controversial, and if he didn’t know before that this is controversial, he does now.
But the teacher, and the counselor who aided and abetted her, should have their heads examined.
No, scratch that — they should have their heads handed to them.
It’s bad enough to do this to adults in mandatory corporate diversity training, who at least know it is an exercise and are partly prepared for it. Forcing it on children, with no warning that it is an exercise, is unconscionable.
A school might try to justify showing the video, with parental consent, but even that strikes me as akin to using Josef Mengele’s medical data.
Yet many companies do use this type of exercise, and the question that troubles me is why so many people think this is a good thing. The companies peddling diversity-training material say things like this in their pitches: “Jane Elliott’s method is based on her belief that people can best be motivated to fight discrimination by experiencing it themselves — if only for a few hours in a controlled environment.”
I doubt that. All my experience with corporate diversity training suggests that it is often abusive or silly, and moreover highly counterproductive, but everybody lies about it because they think they have to.
“Jane Elliott’s ‘blue-eyed, brown-eyed exercise’ is one of the most acclaimed and most widely used diversity training tools ever developed,” says another vendor. “Thousands of copies are in use in colleges, government agencies and corporations across the country.”
I don’t doubt that’s true. But it shouldn’t be.