Ending the racism exercise

January 11, 2018 | (88) Comments

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.

Click here to watch a brief excerpt of the exercise.

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.


88 Responses to “Ending the racism exercise”

  1. Pat Coleman

    WOW! Thank you, Mark for sharing this story!! I appreciate your insight and willingness to share your feelings on this subject. I can’t help but get emotional each time I read of the story. This is powerful!!!

    • Michelle Burks-Walker

      Mr. Wallace this story and your message is very powerful! It would truly be a blessing if everyone would just take a second and put themselves in someone else’s shoes, just to see what it feels like to be discriminated against due to the color of your skin, religion, social status. Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. Dawn Wilson

    Thank you! With the current political climate in our country your words not only ring true but get to the core of the issue! Our children see, hear & feel more than we imagine they do. Our actions be they positive or negative have a profound effect on not only their psyche but the way they learn to interact with the world. We as the healthcare Team influence their view as well. Even the briefest positive interaction can make a difference! Tolerance isn’t always easy…but LOVE, LOVE is something We All understand & can Give Unconditionally! <3

  3. Sheranda Fesler

    Wow. What an inspiring and powerful story to share that is so very relevant to everything we do today. It’s interesting how we (as a society) don’t always see how the smallest thing can have such a lasting impact (and sometimes with not so positive consequences), and how one can’t really understand or relate to how someone else is feeling until that person walk’s in the shoes of others. Thank you for sharing this and I hope that we all take a minute to stop and reflect on this.

  4. Marie Lewis

    That article was beautiful and powerful. I wish we all didn’t see color. We are all the same from Heaven above. We should treat others as we wish to be treated and then be a Son Reflector so that others can see Him thru us. Thank You So much for sharing. Be blessed

  5. Thank you Mr. Wallace for sharing this information. Racism still exist today just in a different form. It saddens me to know that people I work with can still look at me and pass judgment on me because of my skin color rather than what I add to the team. AWARENESS is always welcomed and still much needed.

    • Very well said! I look forward to your blog’s on this every year. Thank you for allowing us as an organization to have MLK day off together. It is very much appreciated and caring. Racist still does exist in a different form. It’s sad that this is still happening and will truly never go away. It’s sad that the color of your skin changes the outcome on things, positions and situations sometimes vs. your knowledge and simply getting to know a person.

  6. Pamela Lewis

    How profound!
    It breaks my heart to see anyone mistreated for any reason and RACE is high on totem pole. I had never heard of the brown eyes – blue eyes exercise, but think it should be part of the school curriculum, especially to our elementary school kids, private schools included. The emotionally penetrating trauma of the lesson, DISCRIMINATION, would be felt first hand and the impact a lasting one. Which I feel would make the majority of us think twice before mistreating another human being JUST BECAUSE…..
    Thank you Mark Wallace

  7. Mary Tietjens

    What a remarkable story and teacher. Isn’t it amazing that Jane is still teaching us a powerful lesson today. We truly are stepping-stones for all who will follow in our footsteps. It is truly up to us to determine how strong that foundation will be for people we will never know. Thank you for your courageous heart and leadership.

  8. Gayle Williams

    Awesome! How befitting. Followers, normally, take on the spirit of their leader. I can truly appreciate your spirit as a true leader that resonates throughout this organization. Your fairness, genuine kindness, and equal concern is exhibited through each and every email and blog comment you share. Continue to be the phenomenal leader you are, the example we all need! It only takes one person to make a difference and you have been chosen to be that person….

  9. Sandi Sands-Eley

    Mr. Wallace, thank you so very much for sharing this heartfelt story with us! You have blessed us beyond measure! I’m almost speechless and filled with emotions reading this wonderful story. May God continue to bless you and your family as you continue to bless and WOW us!

  10. Nicole Bolden

    Jane Elliot is an unsung hero of the equality movement. She is still fighting to end racism 50 years later. Thank you for sharing her story, not many people know about her work. She is truly an inspiration for us all.

  11. Lance Lightfoot

    This message is so needed and so timely. Our society seems to be at a critical juncture, with divisions based on race, religion and sexual identity being amplified rather than quieted. So, it’s more important than ever for us, as leaders in our personal and professional lives, to stand up for the rights of every individual to be respected and provided equal opportunity. Thank you for your post, and for your long-standing leadership on these issues.

  12. Michael Dixon

    “Demonstrate Love and Peaceful Inclusion” This holds true on all levels whether professional or personal. As people we naturally model what we know. We should all choose to know Love & Compassion!

  13. Benetria L. Jones

    You’ve set a standard for others to follow. A standard of righteousness and fairness that gives opportunities for all to grow in love, just as Martin Luther King Jr did. I thank you for acknowledging what love can do for all people.
    Blessing to you!

  14. What a wonderful and powerful story. Thank you for sharing. This affirms that we as God’s creation, regardless of race, sexual orientation, class or status should all stand up for the rights and respect of all people.. at the end of the day… we are all Good’s creation and that’s truly what matters. Thank you for your post and stay blessed!!

  15. Michele Boettiger

    Thank you for this inspiring message. Equality is a catalyst for unity and harmony. I agree with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” May TCH always be a home for love.

  16. Proud Employee

    This beautiful reflection brings me to tears. Gives me hope that not all is lost and we in fact have leaders cognizant of issues effecting our diverse community. It also challenges me to do better and motivates me. This makes me proud to work at TCH. I am going to share this with my family.

  17. I was born in Memphis, TN in 1965 and didn’t move away until 2015 to come to work at TCH. I remember the tension in Memphis during my formative years. The ” I AM A MAN” sanitation worker’s strike had to happen to ensure change. Shortly thereafter, Martin Luther King, Jr. returned to Memphis in attempts to resolve the issue peacefully. He was murdered. I was taught at home to not make friends with some people because “they are different than us.” Years later, when my parents were elderly, they shared “now we know this was wrong.” A famous quote from George Santayana states “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Acknowledge the suffering and use this as a catalyst for change.

  18. This is a very necessary subject. Addressing the issue of racism is productive. It is an issue that must be addressed in order to overcome its destruction. Racism should not be treated as if it no longer exists. It DOES exist–in many forms and in many different venues. Let’s talk about racism. Let’s educate one other. Let’s learn how to see one another’s worth, looking past physical attributes. Let’s observe MLK Day and truly reflect on how we can promote racial awareness and unity.

    Thank you for sharing!

  19. Proud member of the TCH family

    This is the type of leadership that makes me so proud to work for this organization. Thank you for sharing your bold commitment to lead with love, while challenging others to do the same. This blog is beautiful and inspiring…thank you.

  20. Charlotte Lynn

    Thank you Mr. Wallace for leading from the front and setting yet another example of your kindness, consideration for others, courage, and boldness to speak on topics such as Racism.
    I am proud to be a part of an organization that cares about all employees and I plan on celebrating this historic holiday January 15th!
    With all sincerity!

  21. Lisa Wright

    Thank you for being a leader who is comfortable addressing this subject. Your ability to be genuine is heartwarming and speaks volumes to your love for all people, regardless of the color of their skin. It’s that type of leadership that ignites those around you and inspires a desire for togetherness. Your commitment to equality will influence outcomes!

  22. Alma Martinez

    What an inspiring story; thank you so much for sharing! I had never heard of the blue-eyes-brown eyes exercise but will definitely be sharing it with my children, family and friends. And YES, we ARE ALL potential catalysts who have the power to change the way our world believe and engage with each other. Thank you for continuing to be a blessing to us and may God bless you and your family.

  23. Jyotinder Punia

    You have very eloquently addressed an important aspect of life…….a great lesson to be learnt from this event in history. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Will definitely be sharing with my family and friends worldwide.

  24. cheryl morehead

    Mr. Wallace I get so much from your messages.
    I read them religiously.
    This message is so powerful and I am going to share this with my grandchildren so their light can shine as they journey through their life.
    Thank you!

  25. LaWanna Meade

    How so profound. It literally brought tears to my eyes because I have been the victim of discrimination and it can leave you feeling broken, “less than”, “not good enough”, or like others are “better” or “deserve more”. Everyone does not possess the strength to persevere and “know their worth” above and beyond what their superiors or leaders say they are, so they then begin to truly feel “less than” or like they are “not as good” and they then begin to feel broken. This is why we have to keep talking and not sweeping the subject under the rug thinking we have arrived and is now well. Yes, we have come a long way thanks to the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice of so many who went against the grain to “complain” or speak out against the many wrong things in the world (discrimination of all kinds) and the things that are just plain wrong. Sometimes they become the victim again and are made to feel like they’re “troublemakers” because they speak out. This is also why good leadership is critical. We can’t change the whole world perhaps but we can turn the light on in the corner we’re standing in. When this “teacher” conducted her experiment, because she had “authority” it then gave the so-called privileged children of the day a sense of entitlement and superiority. It perhaps even changed and evolved them into thinking that they were truly “better”. After all, the teacher said so. Whereas some might have felt a little sense of entitlement, when the “teacher” said it, it validated perhaps their already sense of entitlement and gave them a license to feel an even stronger sense of entitlement. began to look down on the underprivileged children of the day. They were given advantages, extra privileges. But, more importantly, they felt like they deserved it and the other children were “less than”. THEY BELIEVED IT. This is why leadership is so very important….because what is represented at the top, trickles downward and can cause this same effect amongst workers. Just being smart does not a great leader make. Many people have smarts but it takes heart and skill to know how to unify people and bring out the best in everybody. What a GREAT story that we can all learn from. Thanks for sharing!! If one person reading it can learn from it, then it will change another dark corner because that one person can hopefully then brighten up his/her corner. Thanks for your leadership and foresight. It really means so much to so many people!

  26. Wonderful! It never ceases to amaze me how you can so eloquently and truthfully convey your feelings into script. I grew up here in the South, sat in the back of the bus, drank from the “Colored Only” water fountain. Witnessed the aftermath when Dr. King was assassinated. I remember all of the people of different colors and creeds that marched along side Dr. King in those days, some prominent actors. I remember what I felt. I remember the pangs and conflicts that our country was going through. I remember now reading and looking at Mrs. Elliott’s test and how the students reacted when they were treated differently. It is most profound on the children because they are of innocent blood. Finally, I have wondered since my youth. We have (in our country) the most diverse, educated, spiritual minded population on God’s earth. It makes me wonder, if we could ever truly come together, brother helping brother, sister helping sister, there would be nothing that we could not accomplish and be a blinding beacon of light to the world.

  27. Leroy Thomas

    Mr. Wallace,
    Thanks for sharing this story. We are truly blessed to have a leader that is doing their part to spread Love and inclusion in our workplace that hopefully translates to our personal lives. We as a society have a unique opportunity to make our world the place it should be. One that is filled with love, respect, and inclusion. Many think this is hard, but for me it is simple and is outlined in the “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If WE all take this to heart WE can make OUR world a better place.

  28. Laurie Gutierrez

    WOW! Reading your blog made my heart fill with so much emotion. No person should ever feel divided. I just wish everyone knew we are all same no matter what nationality. For example we all breath, laugh, cry and we all have the same color of blood.

  29. Valerie Nichols

    Thank you for these powerful lesson in humanity. Some of our politician should hear these words. It sad to think that we need to hear this in 2018. Feel like we are going backwards instead of forward.

  30. Jennifer Bee

    “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” – Martin Luther King

    Thank you for your leadership and embracing love and kindness. Truly proud to work for such an amazing organization that recognizes everyone despite color, religion, background or any title. You truly are a great leader. Thank you Mr. Wallace

  31. Emily Ybarra Curry

    Thank you so much for your words and for reminding us how we still need to continue modeling the behavior of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every day we have the power to make a difference, in everything we do.

  32. Thomesa Wilson

    What a word for such a time as this! My pastor always says, “Let the love that we have for Christ be evident in the way we treat one another.” Thank you so much for these soul stirring words, Mr. Wallace. I believe that with love, compassion and unity we can overcome anything as people.

  33. Everett Truitt

    Wonderfully written. Thank you. When I was an intern at old Jefferson Davis Hospital in 1960 ,all of the floors were segregated except thew pediatric floor. I am proud that the people who cared for children, as you have, were the first to deny bigotry.
    Again thanks for your inspiring message. Everett

  34. Thank you for sharing this! As an institution- how do we answer that question: “What can we do?” Perhaps we continue to work on making our signage more linguistically inclusive . When you walk into a building and you see a sign written in your language, you feel welcome and know that you are a priority. This is an easy way to empower our patients. TCH has made strides in this area and I look forward to seeing continued improvement in this regard. *All* of our patients deserve our best.

  35. Catherine Parish Waites

    Thank you. Your leadership is one reason I am proud to work at Texas Children’s. Fifty years is not that long to change culture. With centuries of legally entrenched evil racism in this country, we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. The good news for those who work with children is that we have a real opportunity to influence generations to come.

  36. Tiffany Orosco

    Thank you for taking a stand for love and tolerance in this beautifully written piece and for “putting your money where your mouth is” by making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday on TCH’s calendar. Certainly it is costly to give so many employees a holiday, but the message sent by that action that this is an important day to acknowledge is priceless.

  37. Danielle Balsamo

    Your words and strong message are truly appreciated! I hope that we see an end to racism of all forms in my lifetime. I want my son to grow up being color blind to the color of someone’s skin. Knowing there are leaders like you out there gives my heart ease that this is something we can achieve together!

  38. Everett Sandles

    Mark, thank you so much for this truly inspiring post. It could not have come at a more appropriate time. A wise man once challenged us to “be the change that we want to see.” The sentiment of this post speaks to that very ideal. Your leadership during this period of such indifference and intolerance is very comforting. Thanks again.

  39. Wow, I’m glad we’re not there anymore. Even though today we face different challenges. I truly believe is about how you handle yourself and what you let individuals get away with. You need to have self confidence and self worth. I don’t think is a race issue, every race has different personalities/individuals. Some give out love and others give out hate. But than again lets not be to sensitive with each other or fast to judge. To start we don’t know what that individual’s up bringing was like or what life has to thrown at them. There is good and bad in every race. Just like there is good and bad in us. It’s a matter of what we chose to put out.

  40. Mark, thank you for being a thermostat rather than a thermometer, for such a time as this. Your servant leadership is inspiring to so many. I especially respect the way you consistently ‘walk the talk’, and am proud to serve with you. Abundant Blessings to you.

  41. I have never heard of this exercise, but it is so unique and impactful! Thank you so much for sharing it is well needed in society today and forever. Thank you again and again and again!

  42. Carla Lucille

    I heard of this experiment and her still doing this exercise still to this day. I think it is great and very inspiring because racism is a learned behavior we are not born to hate. Great article.

  43. Amie Sykes

    “What we believe and the words we say shape us and the people around us, in a way that either breaks or binds us.”
    Thank you for sharing such an inspiring post. Thank you for your leadership!

  44. Wayne P. Toote

    Mr. Wallace thank you for such an insightful message. TCH is blessed with your incredible leadership which not only challenge us to be our best in our professional roles but also to demonstrate the intangible qualities of integrity, honesty, compassion and love. You and your leadership team exemplify Dr. King’s quote that states ” The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience; but where he stands at times of challenges and controversy”. Today as we acknowledge Dr. King’s sacrifice to make our world a better place for all I hope our TCH family will continue to lead by example. As you have demonstrated over time and in all that you do, we should continue to strive for perfection in an imperfect world and to a place where our intentions and actions are a comfort to many. As Dr. King stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.
    Thank you again and stay blessed!!!

  45. Janet Winebar

    Jane Elliot’s story has always resonated in me. From the first time I heard it, I have wondered in awe about the leadership skills this “little lesson” took. I so appreciate you reminding us of the message and at the same time urging each of us to lead in our personal and professional lives to make a difference.
    Thank you,

  46. Sara Montenegro

    I appreciate this beautiful reminder of the amazing leaders that have lead before us, and the lessons we can learn from their leadership. What a great reminder, to the blessings we experience everyday due to the sacrifice of those who have walked before us.

  47. Trella Toomer

    Mr. Wallace, it is such an honor to have a leader who sincerely takes the time to embrace equality. We are in a profession of love and compassion and we must role model these traits in our everyday lives. My mother marched during this tumultuous time in history and one generation away I can say we have made progress and must continue on that path.

  48. Earthen Vessel

    This is a most heart warming sentiment, in a socio-political climate that is rife with misunderstanding, and division.. Speech like this has almost become bold, which is why I appreciate it so much. Thank you, Mr. Wallace for your position on this matter; your vision on this matter (I pray) may remain one of the hallmarks of this institution.

  49. Valerie S. Mayer

    I was asked for the first time in my life if I was white, African American, Hispanic, Indian or other in the United States of America when I entered to the country for the first time. I have to say that it amuse me because I thought it was absolutely non sense. I learned throughout the years how racist is our society, and hurts. And I always thought that the segregation starts with that very first question. We are all the same, our blood is red and should not be any other consideration that Human. I am a Human Being, like all the ones who surround me. Thank you for your amazing words or awareness and your leadership Mr. Wallace. It is an honor work here.

  50. Jose' Ramirez, Jr.,

    Generation after generation learns about the subtle and not so subtle ways to discriminate and form mental images of those of us who are different. Thanks for pointing out how this cycle can change when young minds are nurtured to be accepting of those who might be perceived as different. This way racism can be appropriately attacked. Gracias for the lesson.

  51. Ann McClarney

    Thank you Mr. Wallace for this timely reminder. We, as a country, need to be reminded again and again, until all people are treated with respect and kindness no matter who they are, where they come from, what color their skin is, if they are male or female or transgender or how young or old they are. Until we can do this then we have failed as human beings.

  52. Norma Chatman

    This article in my opinion is a great representaion of the heart of our leader. We are blessed to have leadership here at Texas Children’s that embodies the very spirit that we should all have which is the spirit of love, tolerance, and inclusiveness. This is one of the many reasons why I love working at Texas Children’s.

  53. Debra Batiste

    It is unfortunate that the color of our skin, which is totally beyond our control, still, to this day, carry ramifications of racism. The most unfortunate thing I witnessed a few days before our MLK Holiday was an older co-worker say: “I was looking at my schedule & saw that we’re off on Monday, do you know why?” When told it was MLK day, he responded with a “What”? Further explanation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday still didn’t resonate with him and he walked off saying: “It’s nice to have a paid off day” I appreciate your candor and genuine desire to make this world a better place….Please Keep Up the Good Works Mr. Wallace.

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