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Walking in the Shoes of the Other: A Study of Jane Elliot’s Class on Race

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Walking in the Shoes of the Other

There is an old saying about walking a mile in another person’s shoes before you judge them, which means that before a person can truly understand what another person is going through, he or she has to share the same experience. In 1968, a time of racial controversy in the United States, school teacher Jane Elliott made  her students walk  in others’ shoes. Through an experiment that she conducted, she had them experience what it was like to be discriminated against because of a biological feature. The experiment that Ms. Elliott conducted on her class demonstrated George Herbert Mead’s theory  of the social self as it demonstrated how the students developed social reactions or behavior through their experiences.

    First of all, Ms. Elliott  explained to the students that the class would be divided into two categories: the blue eyed students and the brown eyed students. Simply because she has blue eyes, she said that the blue eyed students would be the better students on the first day. She gave the students scarves to wear to indicate that they were the brown eyed students. These symbols demonstrate Mead’s theory that “social experience is the exchange of symbols” (Macionis 69). People use symbols like words, hand gestures, or a smile to create meaning (Macionis 69). Ms. Elliott assigned the label of brown eyed students as the lower part of the class, and when she did she created meaning. When the students put on the scarves, they began to identify themselves as the lower class, and they felt what it was like to be the targets of discrimination. One girl kept looking around as if she was going to cry. This identification demonstrates another part of Mead’s theory that the self is the product of social experience (Macionis 69). The children were told that the brown eyed children were slower, less intelligent, and more greedy than the blue eyed children, and both sets of children began to experience themselves in this  way. The blue eyed children exhibited feelings that they were superior to the brown eyed children, and the brown eyed children showed that they felt inferior.

After the children understood the exercise, they really began to assert their roles. Ms. Elliott made comments throughout the class that provoked the students. At one time, she said that her yard stick was missing, and one of the blue eyed students said that she should keep that handy in case one of the brown eyed students misbehaved. She asked him if he felt that that was the thing to use if they misbehaved, and he said yes. She commented that the brown eyed students were slower and that the class had to wait on them. She said that the brown eyed students could not drink from the water fountain, and she said that they could not get second helpings at lunch like the blue eyed students could. To this one student replied that the brown eyed students would take too much, implicating that they were greedy and selfish. Ms. Elliott really did a good job of building the scenario so that the students could really experience what discrimination was like.    

The impact of the scenario was greatest when the students went out to recess. Ms. Elliott told the students that they could not play together because of their differences. The brown eyed students demonstrated how their self image had been built by their previous social experiences because they expressed that they felt like they could not do anything. All of the students sat down by themselves away from the others. One student held his book over his face in shame. Mead’s third concept leads into the idea of the “looking glass.” In this concept, others are a mirror in which people see themselves; therefore, what people think of themselves depends on how they think others see them (Macionis 69). Because the blue eyed children saw the brown eyed children as lower–slower, dumber, etc.–the brown eyed children began to see themselves in those same lenses.  

When the students returned to the classroom, Ms. Elliott addressed a fight that had occurred on the playground. One of the blue eyed students had been calling one of the brown eyed students names and picking on him, so the brown eyed boy had hit him. The significance of this incident was revealed in the responses of the children. Ms. Elliott asked the brown eyed boy why he hit the blue eyed boy, and he responded by saying that he was calling him names. Ms. Elliott asked him what names he was calling him, and he said that he was calling him brown eyed. Ms. Elliott then asked why this was a bad thing, and the brown eyed boy responded “because it means I’m stupider.” This shows that even though the students previously knew this to be untrue, their social experience caused them to create this image. One boy said that this was like when people call black people “niggers.” Just because the students had been told that the brown eyed students were not as good as the blue eyed students, both felt that this was true, which once again demonstrates Mead’s theory that the self is developed through social experience.

The next day, Ms. Elliott reversed the roles. She told the class that the brown eyed people were now better than the blue eyed people. The blue eyed people had to wear the scarves. Immediately after putting on the scarves, the blue eyed students’ body language exhibited their feelings. One student laid his head on the desk. Ms. Elliott used this as an opportunity to point out a negative quality of the blue eyed students just like she had done the day before with the brown eyed students. She would use actions that all of the students would normally do to point out that because one of the lower class students was doing it, it meant that they were all bad.

The oppression caused by the scarves or labeling was felt in more  ways than just the students’ feelings. Ms. Elliott’s class used phonic cards, and this was a timed exercise. On Tuesday, when the brown eyed students were the lower class, their timing was awful. On Wednesday, when the brown eyed students were labeled the better students, their timing improved by twice the time. When Ms. Elliott asked them why, they said because all they could think about on Tuesday was the scarves. The labeling actually oppressed their ability to learn and think as well as their social abilities.

Mead’s fourth point in his theory states, “by taking the role of the other, we become self-aware” (Macionis 69). When Ms. Elliott reversed the roles of the students, they had to walk in each others’ shoes. The subjective side of the self (the “I”) was exhibited when the students were a part of the better group, and the objective side was exhibited when the students were a part of the lower group. When Ms. Elliott asked the students to evaluate their experience as part of the lower group, they described it as feeling like being locked up in jail, or “like a dog on a leash.” Because both sets of students had experienced the same oppression, both could appreciate their experiences. When asked if it was okay or right to treat people differently because of their differences, all of the students agreed that it was not right. In this stage, the children developed their knowledge of the generalized other, or cultural norms and values that we use as references in evaluating ourselves (Macionis 70). They saw that the way that society sees them is a part of how they see themselves. So, they all agreed that viewing others as lesser because of biological differences is wrong.  

Ms. Elliott’s experiment may have only reached a few students, but it is a model that effectively taught young people about the harms and effects of racism and discrimination. Mead wrote, “No hard-and-fast line can be drawn between our own selves and the selves of others” (Macionis 69), and this is what Ms. Elliott’s experiment demonstrates. The self is built by social interaction. The students exhibited that the ways they felt about themselves were affected by social interaction. They showed that their ability to learn and think was affected by social interaction. And, they also showed that the way that they interact with others is affected by social interaction. Overall, Ms. Elliott’s lesson in racism forced the students to walk in each other’s shoes in order to demonstrate what racism and discrimination actually feels like so that they would not continue the cycle of hate. By taking on the role of the other, the students were able to build a self that would understand the feelings of oppression caused by racism and not become racist themselves. When the students returned years later, they indicated how much Ms. Elliott’s project had affected their lives, proving that social experience builds people’s personalities. Ms. Elliott’s experiment should be a part of third grade curriculum today.     

Bibliography

Macionis, John J. Society: The Basics. 12th Ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013. Print.