One day, when I was in 5th grade decades ago, our teacher pinned a construction paper circle to each of our uniform collars as we entered the classroom in the morning. The circles were either brown or blue, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for who received what color.
I received brown. As the day continued, I became thankful for that brown circle because it gave me extra privileges that the “blue circle” children were not allowed. We had extra recess time, could use the water fountain whenever we wanted, and various other benefits. The Blue Circles got none of these, and even seemed to be ignored or punished for no reason.
Near the end of the day, our teacher gathered us together to discuss how we felt about the day. Unsurprisingly, we Brown Circles thought it was great. The Blue Circles? Not so much.
You may have heard about Jane Elliott’s social experiment where she separated students by their eye color; if not, you may want to watch the documentary. My teacher was not Jane Elliott (that experiment actually happened the year I was born), and it appears she did things a little differently. However, it had the same profound effect on me as it did on many of her students.
When our teacher revealed the purpose of our circles – so that we could understand better about discrimination – I remember feeling surprised and relieved. And then guilt washed over me. I had reveled in my superiority, only fleetingly thinking about the unfairness of the situation. I was ashamed that I not only never questioned her authority, but enjoyed the feeling of being treated better than some of the other students.
The lesson taught us more than what it feels like to be the victim of discrimination. It taught us how easy it is to settle into the role of not-so-innocent bystander. Those of us who blithely pronounce that we would not have let things go so far in Germany, South Africa, or the United States, those of us who declare with bravado that past horrors would not have happened under our watch, have little experience questioning authority or risking our lives and the lives of those we love for the sake of justice.
I couldn’t even confront an elementary school teacher.
When I tell my own students the story of the Blue and Brown Circles, they invariably beg for me to try the experiment with them. They want to prove that they would have the courage to defend their friends against unfair treatment. They would stand up against injustice for sure, they declare. But that, of course, would defeat the purpose. One of the main criteria they developed for courage is that the person isn’t certain if the outcome will be harmful to them or not. And, at this point in the game, I’m pretty sure my students know that I won’t retaliate against them for a difference of opinion 😉
If we all could believe that Life is this experiment and that the world’s entire population are the subjects, would some of us behave differently?
All I know is that the guilt from my experience as a Brown Circle has fueled me ever since. I never want to think again that I allowed an injustice to continue without speaking against it.
And so I say this now:
H/T to Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy for writing this post about the Brown-Eye/Blue-Eye Experiment.