The Event: How Racist Are You?

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

When I saw this advertised on channel 4 as part of their race: sciences last taboo season I was quite looking forward to it, having been familiar with the original “experiment” carried out by Jane Elliot in her Illinois classroom all those years ago in practically every social psychology textbook ever. 

I didn’t expect to find her methods so objectionable and indeed so questionable. What are the long-term benefits? Does the intervention change racist attitudes and beliefs? Is the intervention worthwhile for the distress it causes? 

Jane Elliot on Channel Four

Jane Elliot has no formal training in psychology, the methods and techniques of analysis associated with it given this lack of expertise it’s unsurprising the original “experiment” wasn’t really an experiment: It lacked any means of random assignment (subjects (it would be a stretch to call them participants) being divided by eye colour), it lacked any form of control, the effects of the “experiment” also indicate a lack of consideration to ethics as well as any means of objectively determining the impact of the excercise (asides from a temporal effect on youngsters self-esteem and their grades depending on the groups to which they were assigned). Although she did repeat the “experiment” with four other classes using the same methodology so she clearly understood the value of replicability. So what are we left with? The subjective account of someone who has dedicated their live to educating folks about racism by subjecting adults to the situation she once foisted, with the best of intentions on the children under her charge.

It would also be fair to note that internet sources do indicate that the subjects from Elliots’ original studies rate it as a “life changing” experience. Although the same can be said of Milgrams obedience experiments and Zimbardos Stanford prison experiment so that in itself is perhaps not reason enough to assume the excercise is worthwhile.  However other internet sources also indicate that the town in which she carried out her experiments Riceville, Illinois has effectively exiled her and “is detested by residents as an arrogant, self-centered opportunist who turned against her town and inflicted untold harm on hundreds of Riceville’s children.”. Indeed Riceville has effectively wiped Jane Elliot from their history by excluding her from their official town chronicles. 

Channel 4’s program suggested to me that, with British adults at least, Elliots method is perhaps a touch suspect. Although this could easily be down to the way in which the footage was edited, we can probably safely assume that channel 4 edited it in such a way as to heighten the drama of the situation. A couple of things annoyed me about the excercise: those that walked out were not lauded for their behaviour. Nigh on each and every one walked out because they either refused to oppress or be oppressed arbitrarily, like those who refused to shock learners in Milgrams study we should rightly consider these peoples actions right and proper. Why? Well put simply if we want to change social attitudes towards race and alter prejudices we need people to be willing and able to challenge these prejudices. Not sit slack-jawed and accept the most arbitrary of reasons (eye colour and “teaching people a lesson”) to resort to oppression and abuse. The people who subverted the excercise are, ironically, displaying exactly the kinds of attitudes the excercise should be encouraging. Questioning cultural and societal norms and authorities that reinforce racist ideas and oppressive regimes. 

Blue Eyes and Brown EyesThe excercise also failed in that it focused on one blonde school teacher in the blue-eyed-group whose views about racism appeared to remain entrenched throughout the excercise. Which suggests that the excercise doesn’t work – indeed the concept of the excercise is fairly dubious to my mind. Knocking down peoples self-esteem and treating them as second class citizens in order to teach them about racism seems counterproductive to me. For one thing do we know what happens to these individuals prejudices after they have experienced the excercise? My betting would be that not many peoples minds are changed by it – I’ve looked for evidence on this but haven’t managed to find anything as of yet if it’s out there I’d love to see it (in case anyone reading this knows where it might be found).

After the two-hour session it seems likely that people will attribute their experience to their already held prejudices. Those who are already anti-racists will likely see the excercise as worthwhile and feel that they learnt an important lesson about the nature of racism and what it’s like to be an oppressor or the oppressed, those who are truly anti-racist or (anti-oppressionist) should by all accounts walk out of the session and refuse to take part. Those who hold racist beliefs are likely to attribute the oppression dealt out by the brown eyes (if the brown eyes belong to a different ethnic group) as being “typical” of the negative stereotype they hold for that group. 

Thats not to say a change in attitude isn’t possible through the session but as near as I can tell how strong a change or how long-lasting is certainly up for debate. 

One way of testing the method would have been to get a baseline idea of the participants preference for black or white people, this could be achieved by using implicit association tests (IATs)(you can see some examples of these here and try a few if you wish in the name of research). The idea behind IATs is that people will be faster at associating mental categories that make sense to them and slower when dealing with mental categories that don’t. Thus if you ask them to associate images and words and make the images black and white faces and the words have positive and negative connotations. The rationale being that if you associate negative things with black people then you will match the mental categories in the IAT quicker then you will associate black faces and positive words (the Wikipedia article may explain it better). Indeed meta-analysis has shown that IATs are a reasonably good predictor of some forms of discriminatory behaviour then other more traditional measures (they have even made it into popular culture appearing in episode two of psychologically underpinned drama Lie To Me the episode in question being Moral Waiver). 

The ability of Elliots method to improve peoples thinking on race and prejudice could be tested using before and after IAT tests (indeed I kinda expected they would appear in the program when I first heard about it) to determine a baseline level of participants prejudices and racist attitudes and then seeing if these changed directly after the intervention and if they remained changed at set times after the intervention. Thus we would be better placed to know if it actually does anything. 

One thing that is worth mentioning; in Malcolm Gladwells’ book blink one (unfortunatly rare) situation in which an IAT level altered signigifacantly to indicate an improvement in attitudes towards black people was due to a patriotic American track athlete watching another patriotic American track athlete win an Olympic gold. The former (white) watching the latter (black) appeared to lead to an improvement in the individuals perception of black people. This perhaps suggests that a focus on teaching about the positive aspects of different races and their famous figures (Say Nelson Mandella and Martin Luther King) might be a better means of improving attitudes and prejudices about race rather then a potentially misguided approach that involves forcing people to wear someone elses shows…

Originally posted on and your electron microscope on the 30th of  October 2009