Privilege Role Play

While browsing the internet I came across Jane Elliott’s Brown Eye-Blue Eye experiment. For those of you who are not aware of what it is, Jane Elliott separated people into two groups based on their eye color (brown eye or blue eye) and created an environment where one group (the blue eye group) was discriminated against. The brown eye group was seated in a room and Elliott instructed them on ways to treat the blue eye group once they entered. A few of the instructions in the video I saw, Angry Eye, included calling the college aged men in the blue eye group “boys” instead of men, treating them as inferior “because they are inferior,” and not letting them succeed “because if they succeed we have failed.” The people in the blue eye group sat on the floor of a waiting room and entered the room with the brown eye group without any prior instruction. Elliott serves as both an instructor and a facilitator for the interaction.

Elliott has done this exercise numerous times with different groups of people. She uses some examples of blatant racism, like the signs in the classroom and her instruction to the brown eyed group. Although this type of racism still exists, it is not as prevalent in mainstream society. She also brings up some of the rhetorical devices that Bonilla-Silva (2010) brought up, like “when I see you, I don’t see you ____” and “some of my best friends are ______.” Her choice in privileging brown eye group offers an interesting perspective, because most of the people in the blue eye group have not experience racial discrimination. She juxtaposes the shock and discomfort of the White students in the blue eye group with the stories of the students of color in the brown eye group.

One of the most moving parts of the video for me is when a student in the blue eye group gets so upset that she literally walks out of the classroom. Jane Elliott’s reaction is anger, because she realizes that she yells at the student. The student in this situation is exercising her privilege as a White person to walk away from an exercise where she is being discriminated against. This is a privilege that is not afforded to people of color and other minority groups, and the response of the student, Jane Elliott, and the other students in the group is particularly poignant. It emphasizes the permanence of privilege, because both White students and students of color cannot choose to walk away from their privilege or lack thereof.

Although I have expressed some frustration on how we sometimes sugar coat discussions when trying to talk to White people about race (for example, the idea of preserving self-image in Unzueta & Lowery 2010), I am not 100% sold on Elliott’s approach to talking about racism. What are some of the problems with how Elliott’s approach? What are some of the advantages? Obviously there is more to this exercise than what is shown in the hour long video, but what are your thoughts about this approach to discussing racism?