In our previous unit about civil liberties and civil rights, we watched a classic Frontline report called “A Class Divided” that deals with racism and prejudice in America.
I think it’s safe to generalize that we’ve all experienced discrimination in some form. Some have had it worse than others and many people have damaged psyches from years of being treated with no dignity. This documentary restored my confidence in the likeliness of a more equal society. What we can learn from this report doesn’t just affect race relations, but also our treatment of various undermined groups in this country like disabled persons, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, Muslims, etc.
About the documentary:
In the years following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, a schoolteacher named Mrs. Jane Elliott wanted her 3rd graders to understand discrimination through first-hand experience. In a two-day lesson, she’d divide her class between those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. On the first day, the “blue eyes” were superior and the next day the “brown eyes” were considered superior. It was fascinating and horrible to see how children who were friends their entire lives suddenly turn on each other in a single day. Fed with mostly baseless ‘facts’ about how one group was better than the other by their teacher, a respected figure of authority, the students didn’t resist the inherently wrong things they were told to avoid getting in trouble.
By the end of these lessons, the students came out with a firm belief in their self-worth. Twenty years later, many of these students came back to say that this lesson made a profound impact on their lives and that from then on they had always rebuked discrimination. Mrs. Elliott also sent off her students’ test scores to Stanford University; they showed how on the one day a child was ‘inferior’, he didn’t do well but after the whole lesson was over he did remarkably well for the rest of the year compared to performance on tests before the lesson. There isn’t a physical barrier that prevents us from accepting others, but merely the fact that we haven’t walked in their shoes. Once we’ve come to a deeper understanding, we are freed from the negative constraints that are imposed by prejudice.
Like Mrs. Elliott said herself, I don’t think every teacher should give this lesson because there shouldn’t be a need for it. Also, I think it’d lose its effectiveness if it is overused. This kind of lesson has been taught to elementary students, employees of corrections facilities, and workers in corporations. It is a truly valuable lesson because it changes individuals’ perceptions about prejudices completely and teaches the values of kindness and tolerance. If we realize our self-worth and the fact that society can be truly equal if we decide it can be, then we will become healthier individuals that are empowered by self-initiative to work for justice and equality. If everyone could get something out of watching this documentary, I think our government would run smoother and civil rights activists from different groups would see more positive results.