The Event. How Racist Are You?

[BPSDB]This programme was a rerun of Jane Elliot’s famous experiment that demonstrated that “superiority” and “inferiority” of different groups is a social construct.

In brief: forty years ago, Elliot divided her class of (entirely white) schoolchildren into two groups based on eyecolour and then told them that blue-eyed children were inferior in every way to brown-eyed children. The children went along with this: the brown-eyed began looking down on the blue-eyed and, more significantly, the blue-eyed began doing less well in their schoolwork. Elliot did not set up a control group where the brown-eyed were deemed inferior. A pity, because if she had, and the brown-eyed in that group had begun to slide academically, this would have increased the strength of the thesis that the worth of a person cannot be deduced from a physical attribute and that any differences that do manifest are social constructs. Such an experiment will not be done now as it is rather unlikely that any ethics committee would pass it.

Nevertheless, Elliot made a valid point: the discrimination on the basis of eye-colour was purely arbitrary yet acting on it caused real problems for the blue-eyed. The obvious inference from this is that the arbitrary division of society by skin colour is going to result in the group deemed inferior not achieving as much and that this difference also is a social construct.

The experiment as shown on Channel 4 used 21st century British adults, not 1960s American schoolchildren. One might expect that this would have some effect on the way the victims experimental subjects reacted to the scenario but regretably, this does not seem to have occurred to Elliot, who was plainly thrown whenever anybody departed from the script she carried in her head.

She had a very aggressive attitude to the subjects (who, until the experiment started, had no idea what was going to happen; they had merely been told that it was a “social experiment”), particulary the blue-eyed. At first I assumed that she was merely acting her part but in the post “experiment” interview, she continued to exhibit the same attitude. Nastiness is obviously her default setting. When the groups were separated at the start, she explained to the brown-eyed how they were going to be the superior group. At this point, one young man stated that he had no wish to be an aggressor and requested to be transferred to the other group. To my mind, this suggested that modern adults are less likely to accept arbitrary authority than 1960s schoolchildren but it would appear that Elliot did not want to consider this. She had him thrown out of the study.

It became increasingly plain that Elliot had a preconceived notion: “whites are racist”. She kept banging on about whites needing to be shown what being on the receiving end of discrimination was like. Now I will admit that, as a white male in a white-majority society that is run by whites, I have no direct experience of discrimination and the same can be said of the white subjects. However, this is a long way from saying we are racist.

Ironically, Elliot appeared to be so focussed on ‘white equals racist’ that she missed evidence that supported the idea that priveleging one group arbitrarily can lead to discriminatory behaviour; possibly because the person exhibiting the behaviour was black.

Pearl, the black woman in question, said that whites “needed to be taught a lesson” – plainly feeling that the blue-eyed were responsible for racism she had experienced simply because they were white. Guilt by association. Blood guilt even. I’m so glad she’s not my boss.

At the end of the experiment, all subjects were given an intelligence test. Elliot plainly wanted to demonstrate that a priveleged group holding the levers of power will rig things to look like they deserve their priveleges. However, she did this very crudely by giving the brown-eyed the answers in advance. A woman in this group kicked up at this and pointed out that the results were meaningless as Elliot had cheated.

At this point Elliot truely demonstrated that she was no scientist. The objector was an experimental subject so her reactions were an outcome of the experiment. Elliot did not see it and castigated her for “preventing the group from learning anything”.

The conclusions I draw from the programme (which was no doubt carefully editted) was that if you privelege any group members of that group are going to oppress the non-priveleged (yes, Pearl, I am looking at you now) and that some people will object to injustice – even if they are beneficiaries of the injustice. Society has moved on at least a little in the last four decades. Elliot plainly has not.

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8 Responses to “The Event. How Racist Are You?”

  1. endlesspsych Says:

    See if I was on badscience blogs you could have read my lovely blog post about the same thing:

    http://andyourelectronmicroscope.wordpress.com/2009/10/30/the-event-how-racist-are-you/

    The important thing to note is that this was not an experiment, it never was an experiment. It has been lauded as such in some social psychology textbooks and mentioned in almost glowing terms in others as a step forward in many, many more. But it is by no stretch an experiment.

    It’s also to my mind a highly flawed way of confronting racism and predjudice. See blog post for more details ;)

  2. Neuroskeptic Says:

    I haven’t watched the show, but it does sound like it was overblown and directed towards finding a “we’re racist” outcome. I suppose that’s inevitable when you have what is explicitly meant to be a replication of the earlier event. Of course it’s going to end up replicating it.

    That said, the procedure clearly has the potential to give some really important insights into how people behave when they’re on the receiving end of discrimination. The brown-eyed group are just playing a role they’ve been assigned. But the way the blue-eyed people tells us a lot about the dynamics of discrimination, assuming they’re not simply playing a role (which depends on how “real” they think the whole thing is.)

    • endlesspsych Says:

      I’d suggest it’s fairly “real” people discriminate (to verying degrees granted) on the flimsiest of group differences.

  3. jan molyneux Says:

    I saw the original Jane Elliot “blue eyes / brown eyes ” on video many years ago. How would I go about getting a copy of this video ?

  4. gatherdust Says:

    It seems silly to bumble along and leave comments about a post that’s over three years old but then again the damned post is still here luring unsuspecting bots, trolls, and whatnots into its eyeball nets.

    You’re certainly correct that the original exercise (and that’s how Elliot describes it, an exercise, not an experiment) was about demonstrating how racial inequality is a socially constructed affair. And how easy it is to create this self-fulfilling prophecy in miniature. Forty years ago that insight was about as challenging as solving simultaneous equations. Still is.

    Elliot branched out – and significantly – she altered the focus of the exercise to underscoring the experience of discrimination and prejudice through role-reversal. Elliot was way ahead of us insofar as she used the privilege of whiteness, the prosaic and mundane forms of daily life racial discrimination, as the vehicle to deliver the experience of racism to the blue-eyed subjects.

    But insight becomes detached from your posting as you get all sensitive about white people and how unfair it is to tar ‘em all as racists. I think pretty much everything else you said emanates from this half-assed acknowledgement: “…as a white male in a white-majority society that is run by whites, I have no direct experience of discrimination…” and that makes you an expert to evaluate pretty much everything.

    You’re really clueless and after 40 years Elliot has just run out of patience for this bullshit.

    Only the insipid jerk would ask – to steal from Tom Lehrer – residents of Pompeii for humorous comments about lava.

    Oh my, society has moved on, hasn’t it? So here we have a white guy indicating it’s distaste for others who object to white racism. What’s remarkable is that despite all of the change and movement in society, white men can remain so proud of their stationary existence.

    • jaycueaitch Says:

      Exactly where am I showing any “distaste for others who object to white racism”?

      You have made a lot of assumptions based on the knowledge that I am white. You presume certain attitudes that I simply do not have.

  5. omalone1 Says:

    g wiz. have you seen the tape of her appearance on Oprah? any views

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