Nearly 50 years ago, on April 4, 1968, our nation was rocked by the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. It was a sad and senseless end to the life of a servant leader who preached and practiced love and peaceful tolerance.
The day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, school teacher Jane Elliott walked into her classroom to greet her third-grade students. Though she entered with a heavy heart, she became a catalyst that her students would never forget. That day, Jane conducted what she called the blue eyes-brown eyes exercise on racism.
Essentially, she used the color of the children’s eyes to distinguish and associate them with positive or negative attributes. On the first day of the exercise, the blue-eyed children had the upper hand. They enjoyed all the things young school children appreciate – longer recess, second helpings to lunch and positive affirmation throughout the school day. Conversely, the brown-eyed children were denied these comforts. Instead, they heard repeated comments about how their brown eyes made them less intelligent. Less worthy. In addition, the brown-eyed children had to wear a bright collar around their necks so they could be identified as brown-eyed from a distance.
Within hours, the interaction between the children went from friendly and inclusive to hostile. The blue-eyed children, having heard positive reinforcement all day, performed their lessons with ease and confidence, which of course was good. But they also quickly developed a sense of entitlement and superiority. They teased and picked fights with the brown-eyed students – bright boys and girls who now, amid the exercise, were hesitant, struggling a bit more with their work and feeling discouraged.
A physical trait beyond their control, suddenly controlled them and their interactions with each other. On the second day, Jane flipped the exercise, giving the brown-eyed children the preferential treatment. Needless to say, all the children were relieved to stop the exercise at the end of the second day. And they gladly tossed aside their despised collars – the ones meant to distinguish them from a distance as the non-preferred group.
I think about this experiment, some 50 years later on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I think about the sadness on the children’s faces and their dampened spirits. I think about the collars that are not so easily discarded and how some allow them to separate us. And, like Jane, I think, “What can we do?” How can we be catalysts in 2018 when it seems we have found even more ways and reasons to discriminate against people? And how do we overcome a climate that makes all of this seem acceptable?
Perhaps we do exactly as Martin Luther King Jr. did – we live and work in a way that demonstrates love and peaceful inclusion of our brothers and sisters. Regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or any other element that makes us seem different from each other. We are all potential catalysts who have the power to change the way our communities believe and engage with each other. And our influence on the most impressionable among us – children – is immense. If within hours, otherwise amicable children can swiftly go from harmonious to hostile simply because of the messages they received from their teacher, imagine the impact we have on the children in our care and in our homes. Imagine how that would flourish in the hearts of children as they grow into adults.
What we believe and the words we say shape us and the people around us, in a way that either breaks or binds us. On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, resolve to be a binding agent. Tolerance should be a given – it’s one of the most basic things we owe one another. But I challenge you to do even more. Resolve to truly love. And when it’s challenging, try with all your might to step into your neighbor’s shoes. Imagine the collar hanging heavily from his or her neck. And then remove it. It’s up to us to heal our communities and move on from the real-life exercise that’s gone on much too long.