In April 1968, Jane Elliott was an elementary school teacher in Randall, Iowa.
The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, one of the eight-year-olds in her (entirely white) class asked her ‘why’d they shoot that King?’
So she asked the class if they’d like to try an experiment.
On day one, she divided the children into two groups: those with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. The blue-eyed children had to wear blue fabric collars, so they would be easier to identify.
Then she told the class the brown-eyed children were superior – and, because of that, were entitled to extra privileges, such as second helpings at lunch, longer breaktimes, access to the new jungle gym.
The brown-eyed children sat at the front of the class, while the blue-eyed ones sat at the back.
Blue-eyed children weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountain as brown-eyed children – they had to use one further away.
And brown-eyed children were given more leeway in their behaviour, while the slightest transgression by a blue-eyed child was seized on and condemned.
The results were striking. Very quickly, the brown-eyed children became bossy and assertive. Their test scores improved, but they became ‘nastier’ to their blue-eyed classmates, mocking them for their inferiority.
The blue-eyed group, by contrast, became more withdrawn. They lost confidence, isolated themselves at breaktimes and performed worse in tests.
The following Monday, Mrs Elliott reversed the experiment – explaining that she had made a mistake and it was actually the blue-eyed group that was superior. The results were the same, with the brown-eyed group faring worse this time and the blue-eyes doing better. The one difference was that, having experienced discrimination themselves, the blue-eyed children were notably less nasty to their ‘inferior’ classmates.
Opinion was divided about Mrs Elliott’s experiment. Most of the parents were furious. The other teachers refused to speak to her. Her family were abused in the streets. And some psychologists said the effects might be traumatising for young children (which, when you think about it, says quite a lot about why the experiment was needed in the first place).
But it quickly gained national – and then international – interest, when letters by the children explaining what they had learned were published in a local newspaper.
The ‘blue eyes / brown eyes’ experiment has since been picked up and repeated all over the world – and is still often used in diversity training.
The point – the thing Jane Elliott instinctively realised – is that it’s hard for someone to understand a concept like discrimination without experiencing it themselves.
That’s why ‘white privilege’ is such a tricky issue. Most of us who enjoy it (me included) simply don’t recognise it as anything other than normal.
At a more mundane level, it’s also why so much organisational change doesn’t work (over 70% of change programmes fail to achieve their goals, according to research by McKinsey & Company).
It’s difficult to persuade people they need to change when everything feels fine as it is. Especially when change can be chaotic and unsettling – and often means more work, at least in the short term.
If you want people to engage with change, you have to help them understand it. You have to bring it to life, so they vividly feel what the benefits will be for them – and what will happen if things stay the same.
You have to open their eyes. If you don’t, nothing will change.