Friday, October 30, 2009

Jane Elliott’s Hammer

Do you remember Jane Elliott? She was that terrifying teacher who divided her all-white class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed children to illustrate what it was like to be on the receiving end of racial discrimination. It was powerful stuff, almost unwatchable.

That famous progamme was made in Iowa in 1968. Amazingly, Elliott is still doing exactly the same thing forty years later. Last night Channel 4 featured her performing the exercise on a group of multi-ethnic British adults. Did it work in the modern context? No, it did not work, not at all. In an all-white class of Iowan schoolchildren, the eye colour divide would have been arbitrary; here it effectively put the whites (blue-eyed) in the oppressed role and the rest (brown-eyed) in the oppressor role, which made it look like some sort of revenge fantasy. And indeed it became clear that Elliott thinks that all whites are inherently racist, conditioned to feel superior from “even before they’re born”, and the purpose of the exercise was to make them see this and feel bad about it.

Time has not mellowed Elliott, it has made her madder (in both senses). The President of the United States is mixed race, but she doesn’t seem to think that the world has changed since Martin Luther King was murdered, or indeed, that there is such a thing as ‘mixed race’. She believes in reinforcing distinct racial categories: the pure whites and the rest. One chap in the brown-eyed group – himself mixed race - spoke about his concerns for his daughter (one-quarter black) if her schoolfriends found out about her ‘blackness’. Elliott made no comment about this, or whether the three-quarter white girl in question had been three-quarters conditioned to feel superior from even before she was born. Elliott’s vision of a post-racist world is one where the ‘whites’ are sufficiently racked with guilt and self-loathing that they’re basically too knackered to discriminate, rather than one where nobody gives a toss one way or the other about race because it has become unimportant as an identifier.

It was a sad thing to see. Elliott had one Big Idea in her life, which at the time was brave, brilliant and made her famous. She misunderstood her own Idea, and forty years later it has become a Very Bad Idea. But she’s still hammering away at it, hammering in the morning and in the evening and all over this land.

Talking of which, and on an otherwise completely unrelated note, read this humdinger of a Hoot.


Gaw said...

I think you may have converted me to Hootism.

malty said...

You could say that was very Hootie and the Blowfishish.
Turned that programme off last night, couldn't take any more, just add calcium carbide to water, the same effect can be achieved

Outa_Spaceman said...

Lummy, this takes me back...
During my ill-fated attempt to get a psychology A level at night school the teacher pulled this self same stunt on the (all white) class giving everybody with brown eyes a Mars bar. I've got blue eyes. I didn't get a Mars bar.
It didn't stop me wanting one though and it caused a lot of trouble when I returned from break with one I'd purchased from a vending machine.
'I'll take that' said the teacher, 'you're not allowed Mars bars'.
When I refused to hand over my snack I was accused of sabotaging the lecture and was asked to leave the class.
I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to have learnt from this experience, probably something about aspiration, but I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise for the slave trade if that's all right..

BTW I don't think I'd have watched this massively trailed programme even if I hadn't taken James May's advice to re-discover Airfix kits...

malty said...

Schools separating their pupils by gender, brother, were they wasting their time. The ultimate experiment in social engineering.
No need to apologize Outa, the CofE's already dunnit.

Brit said...

I didn't see the Airfix prog, OS. What was the reasoning behind his support for the retro hobby?

Matt said...

Horrible to imagine what would happen if she also had the bell and the song.

Outa_Spaceman said...

I'm not sure about Mr. May's intentions but I recommend the programme..
Watch again here:
Be careful not to get glue or paint on your best jumper though.

Now where did I put that 'Best of Trini Lopez' C.D. ?

David said...

She is a horrible woman, and in a just society would have been fired and jailed for what she did -- without consent -- to those kids.

Also, it turns out that the experiment itself is pretty much meaningless. The experiment has almost nothing to do with race; it's really about two other well-recognized social psych phenomena.

First, deference to authority, particularly in the States. The fact that she got away with this -- got the kids to comply and parents not to throw a fit -- is just another nice illustration of the Milgrim Experiments. People will defer, to a worrying degree, to an authority figure with cultural-cognitive salience. We'll let a kindergarten teacher f*** up our kids in astonishing ways without saying a word. When Outa-Spaceman does challenge the expert authority figure, its amazingly transgressive and he has to be ousted from the group.

Which is the other thing going on here. We form in-groups and out-groups on any basis at all, and sometimes on no basis. If you take a group of undergrads (one of the flaws of social psychology is that the subjects of almost all soc.psych experiments are psych undergrads, leaving is with, not so much a theory of human psychology, but of psych major psychology) and divide them up randomly -- and are seen to divide them up randomly -- it will only take a few minutes before the group members start telling themselves stories about why their group is better and they're so glad they were assigned to this better group. Any common trait the members are perceived to share is elevated in status, any trait shared by the out-group is denigrated. Similarities among in-group members stand out; distinctions between the in-group and the out-group stand out.

This happens with all groups (initially, it wears off with familiarity). Just think about how glad you are that you were assigned to your particular work-group, so you don't have to work with those tossers down the hall. It's rooted in cognitive dissonance and is a species of, "everything turns out for the best."

Brit said...

Yes, David. I've seen the 1968 programme a couple of times, once in fact in a 'diversity seminar'. The lesson I took from it, and which I assumed was the intended lesson, was that people will oppress each other on the basis of any arbitrary distinction they're told to by an authority figure. And therefore that just as eye colour is arbitrary (in the sense of something you have no control over and tells you nothing about the person), so is skin colour, and therefore racism is meaningless. So far, so accepted 21st Century wisdom.

But yesterday's programme showed that Elliott took an entirely different lesson from it: that race is NOT arbitrary, that white people are oppressors by genetic inheritance, and that the purpose was to teach white kids a lesson about how bad they are.

Astonishing. In the original exercise the blue and brown-eyed kids swapped at half-time, to further suggest the arbitrariness. That didn't happen in this version - the blue eyes (ie. whites) remained oppressed.

Outa_Spaceman said...

I am indebted to David for the insight into why I seem to end up surrounded by angry people saying "you're fired!'

I must admit that the seeds of my being ejected from the class were sown when the teacher said that Scottish people were less prejudiced that the English and that prejudice was not really an issue in Scotland.
I asked about Rangers and Celtic and became a marked man..

David said...

Brit: The original experiment comes from what we can call the "contact theory of racism" era. The theory here was that, just as a transfer down the hall leads to the realization that it was your original group that were the tossers all along, if you get to know members of another race, you'll lose your racism. So we got a bunch of hippy-dippy, build-the-world-a-home, understand the other, walk a mile in his moccasins junk science (and Brown v. Board of Ed, which is based on the social psych insight that it's unfair to those poor Negro children not to be allowed to sit next to nice white children).

It turned out that racism isn't ignorance and turns out to be unlike random group assignments. Race turns out to be, universally, a highly salient identity. At the same time, race is socially constructed. So, really, the thing to do is to define race is more benign ways -- my personal preference is bound up in American exceptionalism, just as yours seems to be bound up in a cultural definition of Britishness -- but because of the path we took to get here, that solution is almost impossible.

And yet, attempts to define all of humanity as a single homogeneous group are doomed to failure until we find a second intelligent competitive species, at which point we'll suddenly discover the salience of humanness. Personally, I find it intolerable that the dolphins have control of our largest carbon sink, but I'm having trouble rallying h. sapiens to my cause.

Brit said...

I buy most of that but I think it's overcomplicating matters. My view is that any project to get all people to be entirely 'colour-blind' in thought and deed is, yes, futile and also possibly self-defeating. But in a very multiracial society that doesn't constantly bang on about race as an issue, its importance as an identifier will, more by accident/path of least resistance than design, gradually get lower in the mix until it becomes (a) an irrelevance and (b) too confusing to work out who counts as what race for anyone to bother with it. We're already almost there. Leona Lewis, Amy Winehouse, Eminem etc being nominated for Mobo awards is an example of where the whole thing is becoming detached from its positive discrimination moorings.

The only reasonable test is not in whether there are any racists about the place, or tensions in certain geographical areas, or whether some buffoon lets slip a 'Paki', but in how behaviour and attitudes change overall. They've changed beyond recognition since 1968. Personally I doubt that's much to do with policy and eduction, much more to do with getting used to diversity, the birth of generations who've never known anything else, and probably plain boredom with the whole thing.

Gaw said...

David, nice explication but I think Britishness has significant political and historical content but cultural, not so much.

On the tele the other night, someone mentioned that there are as many births where there is one African Caribbean parent and one white parent as there are births with two African Caribbean parents.

I find this staggering but given I've got two half-British-Jamaican nieces I shouldn't. And as Brit says my two little boys - given the kids and teachers they play with at nursery as well as the cousins they'll grow up with - won't really understand racism. It'll be a weird belief they had in the old days. I can see signs of this colour-blindness already.

Brit, given Outa Spaceman's latest comment I thought you might have a go at the Scots. But you haven't yet so I will. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we encounter Jane McElliott.

David said...

Brit: Sure. None of this has anything to do with politically correct stray-comment Bingo in which any stray comment by any random person turns out to peel back the thin veneer of civilization and reveal the rotten racist/homophobic/ misogynist/capitalist/oppressor core of the entire society.

Gaw: Indeed. The three pillars of institutionalization are, after all, the regulatory, the normative and the culture-cognitive.

Gaw said...

David, it's nice that you agree with me. Not sure what you're agreeing with, but nice anyway.

Frank Key said...

Taking a short break from all that incessant hammering, I note that David Thompson put the boot into Jane Elliott here:

Outa_Spaceman said...

The 'elephant in the room' for me is the 'role-play' aspect...
I'd like to say something pithy and clever about artificial constructs, (or do I mean hypothetical situations?) but I'd be treading on the very thin ice that covers the very deep lake of my ignorance...
Surely role-play is only useful if you're willing to divorce yourself from reality and buy into your given role?
I think I'll stop now...

Gaw said...

I think you're right OS. I've never done a role play where I haven't been sorely tempted to take the piss or been overcome by a fit of giggles.

Hey Skipper said...


… if you get to know members of another race, you'll lose your racism.

Speaking from personal experience, it isn't entirely hippy-dippy. Once upon a forty years ago time, I harbored the conventional opinion that blacks were second rate humans. I grew up in an entirely white town, and went to a largely white college.

Then entered the military, where, over the years, I was came face to face with enough contradictory reality that my conventional opinion had to go.

So, for me, racism was derived from ignorance that happened to be contingent on a salient identity.

So, really, the thing to do is to define race is more benign ways -- my personal preference is bound up in American exceptionalism.

I think you misunderstand American exceptionalism in this regard. Americans do not define race in different ways; rather, the exceptional thing about America is the underlying premise that group identity is irrelevant. Focussing on the individual makes any presumed attributes of that individual's salient group beside the point, even if they are correct.

Let me take an uncontroversial example. Roughly 85% of women are shorter than I am. That is incontrovertibly true as a statistical matter, but it says absolutely nothing about whether the next woman to walk through the will be shorter or taller; after all, she can't be 85% shorter.

So if I am interviewing, say, pilots, the groups to which in an individual interviewee might belong don't matter, even if I believe the most invidious things about those groups, indeed, even if they are true. I might believe women make lousy pilots; it may even be true that, in general, women make lousy pilots. But it could well be that the specific woman I am interviewing is a far better pilot than I am.

America is exceptional because it is the last sentence that matters, and has changed so drastically in this regard over my lifetime because so many people finally took on board the disconnect between America's fundamental premise and its legal and social conduct.

The birth of a couple generations who've never known anything else hasn't hurt, either.

David said...

Hey, don't get me wrong, I'm all about bourgeois individualism. It's just that both history and psychology has convinced me that our chances of reaching the Platonic ideal of universal bourgeois individualism are pretty low. Within our group, we distinguish individuals. Across salient groups it's pretty hard.

So the answer is to change the salient groupings (or change the salience of existing groupings). For you, race became less salient and "military" or "pilot" became more salient. My understanding of the project of American exceptionalism is to make "American" the salient grouping, although in these parts we tend to use the euphemism "Anglosphere."

I think this can work because we know that race is actually a very malleable construct. Two examples should suffice.

First, I've posted (somewhere) Benjamin Franklin's anti-immigrant rant about the Germans, who aren't white (they're "tawny," the only whites being Englishmen and Saxons), who won't learn English, who will never assimilate, and who are out-breeding the English in America so fast that soon the whole place will be German. It's hilarious.

Second, I give you Barack Obama, half white, half Kenyan and our first black president. As it happens, almost no American black is actually purely "African" (you know what I mean) except for African immigrants, who out-perform American blacks and have an entirely typical immigrant experience.

Hey Skipper said...

Within our group, we distinguish individuals. Across salient groups it's pretty hard.

No, it isn't. My salient group did not become the military, it is the experience I gained by having to confront reality while in the military that forced me to take those to whom I had ascribed presumed group characteristics as individuals instead.

It is a cause and effect thing.

My understanding of the project of American exceptionalism is to make "American" the salient grouping ...

My understanding of American exceptionalism is that anyone who takes on board that human entitlement to life liberty and pursuit of happiness is axiomatic.

For those who do that, there is no such thing as salient group characteristics, since they fundamentally contradict the central axiom.

David said...

Yes, that's what you people always say.