Bright Eyes

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Marcus made everyone around him uneasy. Those penetrating light blue eyes on a man with such dark skin seemed unnatural. Marcus was aware of his affect on people and often wore sweatshirts with a hood to enhance the effect. His ability to raise one eyebrow separately from the other was the icing on the cake. When he wore the "hoodies", he appeared rather thugish. In reality, he was a educated man with a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Iowa and he worked for the U.S. Department of Education.

First at college and later when working for the Department of Education, he attended a lecture by a third grade teacher from Riceville, Iowa. McGraw-Hill Publishers has her listed on a timeline of key educators along with Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Booker T. Washington and twenty-five other people. She was a guest on the Johnny Carson show. She was on Oprah Winfrey's show five times, and ABC Broadcasting did a documentary on her and a social experiment she did with her third grade class on the morning of Friday, April 5, 1968. Her name was Jane Elliott.

The day before, Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Since the news of it was all over the television, radio and papers, her students asked about it. On the spur of the moment, she asked her twenty-eight students if they would like to participate in an exercise that would help them understand more about the assassination. She asked them how do you think it would feel to be a Negro boy or girl? The third graders agreed to participate in the exercise.

She separated out the students who had blue eyes and had them wear arm bands of green construction paper. She then announced, "The browneyed people are the better people in this room. They are cleaner and smarter." Knowing that the third graders would want some scientific explanation for this statement, she explained that skin color, eye color, and hair color are caused by a chemical called Melanin. She went on to say that brown-eyed people had more of this chemical in their bodies. She also said that Melanin is what causes intelligence. So the darker the person's eyes the smarter the person is, and they are better than blue-eyed people. She finished with a statement about how blue-eyed people were lazy and just sat around doing nothing. She added that if you gave them something nice, they would just wreck it.

Elliott rattled off statements and rules the rest of the day. She asked if blue-eyed people remembered what they were taught, to be answered by the brown-eyed kids with a big," NO!" As the day progressed the brown-eyed kids berated their blue-eyed classmates. When a young boy got an arithmetic problem wrong on the board, a brown-eyed student shouted out, "What do you expect? He's a bluey!" At lunch Jane told the blue-eyed children they would have to use a paper cup if they drank from the fountain. When asked why, she told them the brown-eyed children might "catch something" from the blue-eyed kids. On the way out for recess later a blue-eyed girl was too slow in getting through the door, and three brown-eyed girls ganged up on her and said, "You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we're better than you are." The little blue-eyed girl did apologize and waited for the three girls to pass, before exiting. The brown-eyed children got an extra five minutes of recess.

On Monday the roles changed, and it was the brown-eyed students who had to wear the green arm bands and were told they were stupid and lazy. She noticed the blue-eyed students weren't as harsh on their brown-eyed counteparts, as they had been on Friday. She surmised it was because they had felt the pain of rejection, and weren't as anxious to inflict it on their fomer tormentors.

The next day, Elliott reminded them the exercise was to learn more about Dr. King and what discrimination was. She asked them all to write a paper about their experience. She received papers from brown-eyed students with comments like, "I felt like hitting the blue-eyed students any time I wanted because we are better." From the blue-eyed students, comments like, "I just wanted to quit school and go home. I was mad."

The story of the experiment was published in the local paper in the little town of 840 people. Associated Press picked up the story and interviewed Jane Elliott. She said that she was "dumbfounded" by the exercise's effectiveness. It was a month after that when Johnny Carson called to invite her to be on his show.

She was ostracized by her small town, for portraying them to the world as all being racist. A few psycologist and educators called her evil and her experiment cruel, but the overwhelming majority appreciated its effectiveness. Elliott went on to do training seminars for General Electric, AT&T, the IRS, Exxon, IBM, the U.S. Navy and spoke on the subject at more than 350 colleges and universities.

After hearing Jane Elliott in college, he made it a point to see her a second time when she spoke to the U.S. Department of Education. Her seminar had special meaning to this blue-eyed black man.


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