Eyes on the prize

Stephen G Bloom, Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes: A cautionary tale of race and brutality, University of California Press, Oakland CA, 2021, pp. xviii and 263.

Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite

On the first Friday morning of April 1968, in the small Iowa town of Riceville (around 1000 inhabitants, none of them Black), a teacher at the town’s Elementary Community School separated her class of eight and nine-year-old pupils into two groups: those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes.

She told the children with blue eyes that they were genetically inferior to those with brown eyes. Blue eyed children couldn’t enjoy as many activities at break times, nor get second helpings at lunch. Throughout the day, she demeaned them in front of their classmates.

After the weekend, the teacher – Jane Elliott – switched the roles. Now it was the brown eyed children who were inferior, their rights curtailed and their schoolwork ridiculed.

Finally, as Monday’s lessons drew to a close, Elliott explained to all the children that the two days had been a way to demonstrate ‘discrimination’. Her intention had been to show the children what it felt like to be Black in America, in an immediate response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior.

To conclude the ‘discrimination days’, Elliott got the children to sign a condolence letter which she had written to the widowed Coretta Scott King, and to write their own short compositions about their feelings about the exercise.

The editor of the local newspaper was ‘bowled over’ by the children’s writing, and published excerpts in the Riceville Recorder.

The story was picked up more widely, and a few weeks later Elliott was called into the head teacher’s office to take a long-distance phone call from New York: an invitation to be interviewed by Johnny Carson on nationwide television. The Tonight Show’s editors and presenters seemed to think that the small-town teacher’s unusual lesson would suit the spot in the programme given over to quirky and curious stories.

Elliott gave her live-interview slot an entirely different tone. Dignified, assertive and powerful, she spoke clearly about the need to challenge racism and how she had gone about educating her children about the way Black people feel. Carson was wrongfooted and unsure how to handle things: ‘no way’ could he take his usual approach of cracking jokes and light-hearted comments: ‘not with this guest, not with what she was saying, not with the King assassination raw on everyone’s mind’. The studio audience sensed that something different and important was happening, as the producer switched to commercials early.

Elliott’s six minutes on television generated nationwide debate and controversy. People phoned NBC to complain. Teachers from around the country contacted her to find out more ‘about the eye-colour’ experiment, wanting to use it themselves.

In Riceville itself, many parents focussed the unease they already felt about what their children had been put through into downright opposition: Elliott had ‘experimented’ on their children, upsetting and confusing them without permission. During the ‘discrimination days’, fistfights had erupted between blue eyed and brown eyed children. Elliott had done nothing to stop these. In fact, she had ‘encouraged them, based on the children’s newly granted superiority or inferiority. That was part of duping the children into thinking that the experiment was real’.

Over the following months and years, Elliott acquired two divergent reputations. A repeat of the discrimination days was filmed for Canadian television. A television programme followed – ‘Eye of the Storm’. Invited to participate in a panel at a 1970 White House conference on education, she took over the session, running her ‘exercise’ with the delegates there, ensuring that Elliott’s reputation continued to grow. She started ‘appearing as a headline speaker at seminars held for employees at banks, utility companies, school districts, and government entities interested in importing the unconventional prejudice-abatement experiment’.

At home, the accolades – and fees – which Elliott was accumulating only generated further resentment: ‘as her success burgeoned, the reaction in Riceville grew testier’. Some local people called her ‘a cult leader’ who had used innocent children as ‘guinea pigs’, making them a means towards her ‘travelling the world, making herself an authority on race, becoming a millionaire’. Others didn’t like the way that Elliott used what she had done ‘to make herself better than the rest’. Riceville residents boycotted the restaurant that her parents operated. Elliott’s children were bullied. The family’s dog was poisoned. False rumours spread that when she was away at conferences and speaking engagements, Elliott was having sex with Black men.

Throughout these years, Elliott continued to work as a teacher in Riceville, regularly repeating the famous activity with her classes of third-graders, and then moving to the local high school where she adapted it for thirteen and fourteen-year-olds. Colleagues did not find her an easy colleague, but she could rely on her nationwide fame to protect her from excessive control: however many parents complained or withdrew their children from lessons, her managers didn’t ‘tangle’ with her, and just ‘let Jane do what she does’.

In 1985, however, her headteacher put her in the position of having to choose between continuing in teaching or taking up a lucrative offer to run her programme on an extensive basis with employees of Mountain Bell / US West, the large telecommunications corporation. From that point on, Elliott worked as an anti-racist trainer, running versions of ‘blue eyes, brown eyes’ and related activities with tens of thousands of adults in workshops in the USA, Canada and other countries: ‘during the dawning era of multiculturalism, hundreds of corporations used the experiment on their workers’. Many found her workshops powerful and stimulating: many others reacted negatively, finding Elliott’s provocations counter-productive.

Stephen Bloom’s lively and well-written book is shaped by detailed descriptions of what happened in Classroom number 10 in April 1968; the television appearance with Johnny Carson; workshops with adults which went ‘horribly awry’ as the ‘obsessive’, ‘messianic’ Elliott inflicted ‘gut-wrenching, emotional pain on participants’; and several legal controversies.

Though his approach involves a lot of imaginative reconstruction and speculation, describing what Elliott’s thoughts and considerations ‘must have been’, Bloom makes good use of a range of sources, including interviews with many of his subject’s former colleagues and pupils. This generates an extremely interesting portrait of Elliott. Bloom’s view is that she ‘relished being the centre of attention’, and ‘delighted in being different’. Beginning with a detailed account of her family and childhood, he considers why she developed ‘a giant chip on her small-frame shoulders’.

After studying in Cedar Falls, seventy-five miles from Riceville, Elliott married and worked at a succession of teaching jobs around the state before coming ‘back home’. In 1964, just before moving back to Riceville from Waterloo in Black Hawk County, she had a short phone conversation which stirred up important feelings and emotions. Elliott and her husband were considering renting out their property. When a prospective tenant, ‘who to Jane sounded Black, called and asked, “Do you rent to coloureds?”, Jane staunchly replied, “This is an all-white neighbourhood”. The caller promptly hung up’.

Elliott didn’t feel good about her response. It made her feel ‘like a snake. I knew what I should have done – I should have said that the neighbourhood was white, but that he could come and look if he wanted’. Instead, Elliott felt that she had responded ‘out of fear of my neighbour’s opinions’.

Her resulting remorse fed into one aspect of her personality: an increasing determination to change things, and to encourage small-town children to be ambitious and curious (more ambitious and curious than many of the other teachers thought was good for them). She had an innovative, imaginative style, even if she sometimes seemed wilfully eccentric, advising her pupils to talk to houseplants, railing against television, and seeking (unsuccessfully) to get chocolate milk banned from the school canteen. Elliott got the children to run their own classroom shop so that they could understand money, credit and debt. To give them a sense of what a million was, she got her class to spend time every day counting out rice grains until they got to a million.

Pushing the boundaries far beyond what passed for ‘normal’ at Riceville Elementary, ‘Elliott seemed to take pride in shocking not just the other teachers and administrators, but also her students and their parents’. Many former colleagues remember her as dogmatic, forceful and domineering, with an ‘oversized ego’: she spoke ‘with certainty, in absolutes’.

At the same time, they acknowledge that Elliott gave time, care and attention to children who were not doing well, such as those who would today be diagnosed with dyslexia or autism. Children who were ‘failing’ in other classes were routinely transferred to hers, and did much better with their lessons, and became happier at school (and this was noticed and appreciated by parents, including many who were unhappy or uneasy about the ‘eyes’ exercise). Even when Bloom is criticising Elliott, he communicates a sense that she always had great respect for the children she was teaching.

There’s also evidence that her ‘abrasiveness’ was understandable, not only as a personal defence strategy to handle the experience of being a ‘prophet not honoured in their own country’, but as part of sustaining herself whilst pushing a fundamentally progressive agenda in a hostile context. At least for a few years, Elliott was working in an environment where the bluntest expressions of racism were routine and tolerated: the most experienced teacher in the school reacted to the original ‘discrimination days’ by telling their colleagues in the staffroom that there was no call for a lesson about racism in the wake of Martin Luther King’s death: ‘I thought it was about time someone shot that son of a bitch’.

Peoples’ mixed feelings about Elliott are reflected in the author’s own changing relationship with her. Bloom first wrote about Elliott when she contacted him to help promote her work. He did a little research, wrote a short article, and left it at that. A dozen years later, ‘on a whim’, he went to see her speak and recognised that her personality and her work and its effects were more complex than his old article had conveyed. He took up his research again, this time considering the reasons that so many people had negative views about Elliott. She heard of his renewed work and contacted him again, this time instructing him to stop: if he continued, the result would be an unauthorised biography, which she stated she would try to block through legal action.

We can be grateful that Bloom was not put off, and instead took Elliott’s ‘attempts at intimidation’ as a reason to ‘dig deeper’. Just at the point that his criticisms of his subject begin to become overly repetitive, Bloom concludes his book with useful chapters which assess Eliott’s work in the context of wider debates about anti-racist training. He raises questions about Elliott’s personal integrity which are interesting and provocative in themselves, and which connect to important principles about honesty and good practice in consultancy and training.

This reviewer regrets that Bloom does not develop such themes so as to really do justice to his book’s subtitle. The space he gives to closely analysing Elliott’s life, times and work is not matched by any substantial explanation of whether he thinks that ‘Blue Eyes Brown Eyes’ was actually an example of ‘brutality’. Nor is it really clear what he thinks needs ‘cautioning’ against: his considerations about whether Elliott’s approach was effective, or not, generate arguments for carefulness in countering racism, and he suggests the value of approaches centred on ‘kindness and compassion instead of insult and shock’. But such insights are never distilled into a proposal for how we might effectively counter harmful prejudices and oppressive attitudes in ways which avoid moments of confrontation and challenge of the kind which some of Elliott’s workshop attendees found upsetting and which others found educative.

Review published January 2022.