In the PBS Frontline film A Class Divided a third-grade teacher, Jane Elliot, challenges her student’s perceived views on prejudice, racism, bigotry, and the act of discrimination. Originally conducted in the days following the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Elliott’s “blue eyes/brown eyes” exercise engaged the young children in her class to further explore the concepts of racism and prejudice by segregating the class into two distinct categories, one took the role of the dominant group and to the other group the role of minority was assigned.
By then giving them stereotypical labels, the film showcases the impact of discrimination and how negative and positive stereotypes can become self-fulfilling and detrimental. Elliot tells the dominant group of children that they are better, she praises them and provides them with benefits that the minority group is not allowed to partake in. She shows legislative controls in the forced segregation during recess, and by denying the minority group certain rights in the classroom.
She also shows marginalization with purposeful deconstruction of the minority groups’ self-esteem, by simply not allowing them to have as much at lunch, or rebuking them constantly with ambiguous statements applied to the group as a whole. The entire exercise also shows how much socialization affects prejudices with the children readily following their teacher’s example and joining in on the categorical thinking being applied to the children in the minority group. It is a successful example of just how much the Social Structure Origin of Prejudice can affect our children and their actions.
During the experiment three main types of personalities are shown in what can be defined with Robert Merton’s Prejudice and Discrimination Typology. Some children show immediately that they are prone to being an Active Bigot; some are obviously taking the role of the Timid Bigot. While others who hang back, but still follow the group as a whole, are taking on the tendencies of a Fair-Weather Liberal. When the two boys at recess argue and then fight, emotional prejudice is shown, and also could be seen as a violation of Martin Luther King Jr.
’s principles of non-violent resistance. The child who was part of the dominant group was acting as an Active Bigot in his teasing of the child in the minority group. This boy then punches the other boy, showing how minority groups can reach a point of standing up to the oppressiveness of their Dominant counterparts in societal groupings. If the child who was being teased for being brown-eyed, and therefore inferior, had controlled his emotions and suffered the prejudice of his oppressor though, there might not have been raised the key point of violence solving nothing.
An important point of the exercise was shown with the little boy admitting that he did not feel any better having acted out in violence. There was a short clip of the brown-eyed girls at recess standing apart, with their heads down, clearly depressed and hurt by the events of the day. The Anomie, and in a way the culture shock, these children must have felt is almost uncomfortable to watch and this was mere hours from the start of the exercise. There were times in the film where the camera would settle on a child’s face for a prolonged moment, highlighting their lost and confused feelings.
The children’s norms and even some mores were completely turned upside down in a matter of minutes, resulting in the typical Social Cohesion of the classroom being broken down and forgotten with a few acts of prejudice. On the second day of the experiment while using the cards for a phonics lesson, the children who had done poorly the previous day, who were then the minority, showed a vast improvement on the second day while being part of the dominant group.
And the reversed roles for the other children had the same results; the dominant group of the previous day had done better when they were the superior group than they had on the second day, when they were assigned the minority label. Simply being released from the strains of bigotry and oppression, or having the prejudices imposed on them, the children showed a marked improvement or deterioration in their learning skills. One of the most beautiful and touching parts of the film comes when Elliot instructs her children to throw away the collars that they were forced to wear to identify more clearly the minority group.
When she tells them to all come and sit together again, and points out how there is no differences in the group that mark them as less or more than another, the children are so happy and joyful at being reunited. This glimpse into how society could be without racism, discrimination, and bigotry is an astonishing insight into what we should be striving towards instead of still holding onto the unfortunate American “value” of racism and discrimination against others who are different. When the class is reunited 14 years later the former students are able to tell Elliot for the first time just how much her lesson had impacted them.
She asks them “Is the learning worth the agony? ” and they unanimously reply “Yes! ” The students are able to voice how much their views on peoples of other races and backgrounds are more open minded now because of her exercise. The lesson really seems to have stuck with them throughout their adult lives and has helped shaped them into what might be considered All-Weather Liberals in their outlooks on live. If you take a Functionalistic outlook while viewing this film, you can bring away numerous lessons and insight into how prejudice affects Society and groups.
The dysfunction that arises from the children being forcibly segregated and pitted against each other is apparent and obvious. These dysfunctions show a reflection of prejudice against other races and the racial stratification that is rampant in the United States. It is hard to say for certain if this exercise should be repeated for all schools. The consequences of the discrimination that is shown throughout the lesson could be highly harmful to a young child’s impressionable mind.
When Elliot is asked for her opinion on this she states that she doesn’t think every teacher could do this exercise without proper training in how to do it. I have to agree with her on this point. Another issue is that in this day and age the level of violence and hostility that might arise in the classroom would have to be considered. Children these days have a different set of values and norms than did the children of 1968, and I think the experiment would have to be updated to reflect those changes.
Unfortunately, I do think there is a great need for some sort of educational example in racism and discrimination. Of all of the American values that are attributed to the United States, I truly believe that racism is the ugliest. As a society we continue to stereotype peoples of other cultures, we continue to place a higher value on one person’s skin color than that of another, we continue to constantly operate with prejudices shaping our everyday lives. Isn’t it time for that to change?
Do we want to forever be known as the country that acts out in discrimination, never acting as an interconnected and unified society? Maybe if this exercise was put to use throughout the nation we would see a turn around, and maybe that would be worth the temporarily hurt self-esteem of our children, as long as it could be done in the right manner and with the proper expertise. It would need to be assured that no lasting damage was done, only the wonderful knowledge of what open mindedness and tolerance could bring.