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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 296

Stephen Bloom on Jane Elliott’s Famous Experiment on Race and Brutality and What It Reveals About Today’s Racial Divide

Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes: A Cautionary Tale of Race and Brutality (book cover)

This conversation explores the never-before-told true story of Jane Elliott and the “Blue-Eyes, Brown-Eyes Experiment” she made world-famous, using eye color to simulate racism.

Shermer and Bloom discuss: Jane Elliott and how she came to conduct her famous experiment • reactions to it (in the classroom, locally, nationally, internationally) • whether the “experiment” was really more of a demonstration • public interest, from Johnny Carson to Oprah Winfrey • the questionable ethics of the experiment • what it reveals about tribalism, racism, obedience to authority, role playing, social proof • whether the experiment reveals hidden racist attitudes or creates them in children • Does it indicate bad apples or bad barrels? • race sensitivity training programs, then and now (and why they don’t really work) • what drives moral progress • the future of journalism.

Stephen Bloom is a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes: A Cautionary Tale of Race and Brutality (University of California Press, 2021); The Audacity of Inez Burns: Dreams, Desire, Treachery & Ruin in the City of Gold (Regan Arts, 2018); Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls (St. Martin’s Press, 2011); The Oxford Project [with photographer Peter Feldstein] (Welcome Books, 2010); Inside the Writer’s Mind (Wiley, 2002); and Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (Harcourt, 2000). He has worked for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, San Jose Mercury News, Sacramento Bee, Latin America Daily Post, and Field News Service. He especially likes writing about every man/woman: the barista, bartender, baker, butcher, barber — or murderer-turned-prison employee. Read his longer University of Iowa bio.

About the Book

The day after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, Jane Elliott, a schoolteacher in rural Iowa, introduced to her all-white third-grade class a shocking experiment to demonstrate the scorching impact of racism. Elliott separated students into two groups. She instructed the brown-eyed children to heckle and berate the blue-eyed students, even to start fights with them. Without telling the children the experiment’s purpose, Elliott demonstrated how easy it was to create abhorrent racist behavior based on students’ eye color, not skin color. As a result, Elliott would go on to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, followed by a stormy White House conference, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and thousands of media events and diversity-training sessions worldwide, during which she employed the provocative experiment to induce racism. Was the experiment benign? Or was it a cruel, self-serving exercise in sadism? Did it work?

Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes is a meticulously researched book that details for the first time Jane Elliott’s jagged rise to stardom. It is an unflinching assessment of the incendiary experiment forever associated with Elliott, even though she was not the first to try it out. Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes offers an intimate portrait of the insular community where Elliott grew up and conducted the experiment on the town’s children for more than a decade. The searing story is a cautionary tale that examines power and privilege in and out of the classroom. It also documents small-town White America’s reflex reaction to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the subsequent meteoric rise of diversity training that flourishes today. All the while, Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes reveals the struggles that tormented a determined and righteous woman, today referred to as the “Mother of Diversity Training,” who was driven against all odds to succeed.

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This episode is sponsored by Wren and Wondrium:

Wren (sponsor)
Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on September 6, 2022.

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