Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Jane Elliott, a primary school teacher in a small predominantly white town in the state of Iowa, decided to help her third grader students (Year 4 in the UK) understand how society can influence our beliefs about our own identities and the identities of our neighbours. Feeling that her students were not fully grasping what she was trying to teach them about racism, prejudice, and discrimination, Elliot designed a two-day blue eye/brown eye experiment in which she privileged students with one eye colour over the other, the blue-eyed students on the first day and the brown-eyed students on the second.
Members of the privileged group were told they were smarter, quicker, better behaved, and more respectful than their peers in the other group, and they received benefits such as longer break-time, access to the playground equipment, and second helpings at lunch. They were also instructed not to interact with classmates in the other group, who had to wear coloured collars to help distinguish them from a distance. In a short period of time, Elliott found that her once peaceful classroom became one in which many privileged students asserted their dominance through bullying and name calling. Many students in the less privileged group shrunk into themselves and disengaged from the lesson, while others became angry and physically violent.
Two years later, in 1970, documentary footage was shot of Elliott’s classroom experiment and later shown as part of a 1985 PBS Frontline episode, A Class Divided, in which eleven of her original students returned to Iowa, some with their families, to watch the classroom experiment that they had participated in fifteen years before.