World-famous diversity speaker Jane Elliott, known for her controversial “brown-eye, blue-eye” experiment, will be visiting Shawnee Mission East to start a conversation about racism and prejudice on Feb. 16.
Elliott’s visit will be held in a two-part assembly during the school day and then will continue for a community-wide discussion in the evening. It is co-sponsored by the PTSA, the East Fund and the Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
A then-third grade teacher in 1968, Elliott sat in front of her TV in Riceville, Iowa, and watched with horror as she heard the news – Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. She realized she couldn’t stand by as her own students were unknowingly taught what she deemed “the myth of white superiority.”
Elliott decided to teach her students what it feels like to be discriminated against, and to educate them on the prejudice that everyone unconsciously possess.
She separated the kids into two groups: those with brown eyes, and those with blue eyes. The children with blue eyes were treated as inferior and ostracized, while the brown-eyed were coddled and encouraged.
What she found shocked even her; the students with blue eyes began to dramatically underperform in school and became depressed and antisocial, while the brown-eyed children took on an air of superiority and began to viciously bully the blue-eyed kids.
The experiment has been repeated hundreds of times internationally, and has received both boundless praise and harsh criticism. Opponents claim that the experiment is essentially just “bullying,” and worry that the results are so dramatic – even traumatic – that it will make people unwilling to have a difficult conversation about race.
But principal John McKinney and East parent and founder of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Bernie Winston, feel that her message about combatting prejudice is one students need to hear.
“When [Winston] first told me, I was sort of star-struck and just thought ‘Oh my gosh, I love her,’” McKinney said. “And from there the ball started rolling and it’s just turned into this amazing thing.”
Founded last year, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee works to provide students with opportunities to experience other viewpoints that aren’t always available at East, according to Winston.
“The more you’re able to have a conversation, or even a healthy debate, then the more you’re able to work as a team to actually accomplish something,” Winston said. “It’s just a matter of having a conversation with someone from a different background. That makes a world of difference.”
According to Winston, it takes “baby steps” – students can’t just be thrown into a deep and provocative conversation about race and be expected to come out completely changed.
At East, these “baby steps” have included bus tours sponsored by social studies teacher David Muhammad, showing students life along Troost Avenue, a neighborhood very different than Prairie Village. Diversity speakers and authors like Tanner Colby have been brought in through a partnership with the Johnson County Library, and a partnerships with schools in Wyandotte county have been formed.
Senior Reami Boone, who has been involved in both the Troost bus tours and the library partnership, has started seeing seeing positive change as a result of these opportunities.
“The turn-out this year has been a significant increase compared to last year’s,” Boone said. “It seems like kids are interested in learning about it what the Diversity Inclusion Committee has to teach.”
After just one year, the amount of race related cases reported to the administration decreased as students have began to take advantage of the programs, according to Winston.
These small, concrete measures have brought East to a point where Winston feels students are ready for the next step. But while the committee is pleased with the growth it has seen, hearing the intense messages Elliott brings with her is something they want students to be prepared for.
The committee has gathered articles and videos to be shown in seminar prior to Elliott’s visit, with hopes of further preparing students to enter into a discussion with open minds. There are also plans in place to discuss the “where do we go from here” aspect following the event.
“It can be a tough thing to hear, but those kids [in the experiment] were changed for good, and changed for the better,” Winston said.
In the future, Winston hopes the committee will be a “pilot” for the district, and eventually she wants to see younger kids getting involved.
“If we can break down barriers in early on, even in elementary school,” Winston said. “Then we can change these kids forever.”