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August 30, 2010 / Jenny Ann Fraser

Treat Everyone as Your Brother

Oh Great Spirit. Keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked in his moccasins.”

-Soux Indian Prayer

Over this past year, I have developed quite an interest in watching documentaries.  I like to learn new things and I love the ease of opening myself up to new ideas in the space of 40 minutes or so.  It’s faster than reading a book, and one can only read so much.

One of my favorite documentaries is A 1985 Frontline PBS documentary called, A Class Divided. It is the follow-up to a 1970 Frontline documentary that chronicles the famous Blue Eyed/Brown Eyed experiment which was originally designed and implemented by 3rd grade teacher Jane Elliot in 1968.

I was first introduced to the Blue Eyed/ Brown Eyed experiment when I saw her on the Oprah show in 1992, but only recently watched the documentary for the first time (and the second, and the third).

Determined to teach her Riceville, Iowa students not to discriminate against people of different races, Ms. Elliot designed a lesson that had a lasting impact on the rest of their lives.

She divided the class into groups according to eye colour, and then proceeded to discriminate against one group one day, while encouraging the class to participate with her, and then, the other group the next day. The group that was being discriminated against had to wear green shirt collars so that they could be identified from a distance.

Through watching  the original 1970 footage you see these bright happy students , depending on what group they are in, quickly turn into mean angry bullies, or insecure unhappy children in a matter of minutes.

Two weeks before conducting the lesson, Ms. Elliot gave all of the children in her classroom tests in spelling, reading and math. Then she repeated these tests on each day of the lesson and again two weeks after.

Over the years each and every class showed the same results. Scores go up on the day they are in the group that is on top, down when they are in the group that is being discriminated against.

On the first day, the “inferior” brown-eyed  children take 5 1/2 minutes to make it through a pack of flash cards.  The next day, when in the group that is being told that they are superior, they take 21/2 minutes to complete the cards. When asked why they couldn’t perform on the previous day, their answer was, “We were thinking about our collars.”

The test results make it clear that the treatment that they receive determines their concept of self-worth and their belief in themselves plays a massive role in their ability to perform.

Ms. Elliot says of the students whose performance improves on the second day when they are not in the lower group,

The only thing that changed was that now, they were superior people.”

If one day of being treated as though they were inferior could undermine these children’s ability to perform so profoundly, what does a lifetime of such treatment do to a person?

I am truly sad to say, that poverty, gang-related crime, and homelessness have been serious issues in the city I live in for a very long time. The problems seem to be growing steadily worse and I see it every single day, both downtown and in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Including the one I live in. It is unlikely that you would be able to walk anywhere in Winnipeg’s centre and not be asked for a handout more than once.

What I hear from those around me is usually a mixture of fear, anger and downright disgust over these people, who for whatever reasons cannot seem to be productive working members of society. I’m sure that the sentiments that are expressed are no different here in Winnipeg than in any other city or town but to be honest it breaks my heart.

It is not possible, no matter how hard we try to fully understand another until we have “walked in his moccasins” but what is most heartbreaking, is how quickly we are to jump to harsh judgement and conclusions without even trying.

Watching A Class Divided makes it painfully obvious, that how we treat others plays a massive role in how they function in the world.

Imagine what it would feel like to sit on a street corner every day having no where else to go and have dozens of people who have more than you, look down at you with disgust and disdain? How motivated would you be to change. How much would you believe in yourself? It is pretty much impossible to accomplish anything in life if you don’t have the courage to try. How many of us have the courage to try to do things we are certain we aren’t capable of? How many of us struggle with our own issues unable to move past them even when we don’t experience daily mistreatment?

How can we expect minorities, those who suffer with mental illness or addiction whom we have abused, often for centuries to know how to function better when otherwise happy, healthy school children cannot perform after only one day of ill-treatment?

I would like to extend this concept to everyone around us. How can we possibly benefit when we pass judgement on the people around us? Even though it is truly socially acceptable to criticize those who are different or engage in acts we don’t approve of?  Surely we know that shame is never a motivator, and yet it seems as though we are pre-programmed to look down on or criticize someone at every turn.

We cannot know why someone is where they are, or why they stay there unless we truly make an effort to understand them. The problem is,  we cannot understand someone while we are judging them. I don’t see how we could ever hope to find solutions to problems if we haven’t done the necessary work required to comprehend the complexities of those problems.

It brings home the reality that we need to extend greater effort grow in compassion towards all of our neighbours, if we wish to have a better world. It makes sense that the more serious and complex an issue is, the more compassion will be required to find lasting solutions.

The beauty of all of this is that working consciously to become more compassionate comes with its own rewards.

Year after year, as Ms. Elliot repeated the lesson with each class of students. The final test scores on the tests that were given two weeks after showed almost in all cases the same results. The children preformed better after the lesson than before. Understanding that all people were equal boosted their own faith in themselves increasing their own potential.

Sadly, as Jane Elliot states in her 2002 interview, this exercise is as necessary now as it was in 1968. It is up to us to change our own thinking so that it will become less necessary in the future.

Ms. Elliot has continued her brilliant work with adults around the world.




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12 Comments

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  1. Emily Jane / Sep 1 2010 9:44 am

    What an incredible post, Jenny. I love educational documentaries, especially social psychology ones. We really do have to work on our compassion and extending it sooner than judgment. Living in Winnipeg, you’re right, you can’t walk downtown (where I work) without being asked for a handout more than once, and you’re also surrounded with people who judge, look down upon, and berate the people who sit on the street corners. I’m really lucky to work where I do in that this organization exists to HELP these people and empower them and help them see their potential. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does. It’s just a shame the rest of the world has such difficulty containing their judgment, and actually being compassionate instead.

    Would love to see that documentary.

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 1 2010 1:54 pm

      Hi Emily,
      How wonderful that you get to work in such an organization! I believe that over time we can learn to become more compassionate as we realize that it is in our best interests. It feels good and we all like to feel good don’t we?
      It is a great documentary. I linked to it in the post, but here it is again.
      Warning! PBS has a huge list of great documentaries available online. I cannot take responsibility if you become addicted! 😛

  2. rob white / Sep 1 2010 10:43 am

    This a powerful assessment, Jenny. Thanks for sharing your insight. Harshly judging and condemning others only serves to condemn us.

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 1 2010 1:55 pm

      Thank you Rob.
      As I said to Emily, I’m hopeful that someday all of us will get it.

  3. Erin S. / Sep 1 2010 11:40 am

    What we believe about ourselves shapes our destiny. Great story and thoughts you shared. Thank.

  4. Belinda Munoz + The Halfway Point / Sep 1 2010 6:28 pm

    This is such a compelling study, Jenny, an explosive topic indeed and you handled it with compassion and gentle finesse. I find it disturbing that such an experiment would be necessary in order to make us consider how we treat others; but I suppose some people want science and facts over experience and intuition.

    I think bigotry, racism, sexism, ageism and any other -isms will not go away in our lifetime. There is still so much defensiveness (which sometimes manifests in violent ways) that gets cultivated from generations of experience of social and environmental injustice.

    But I’d like to think that many of us are moving toward an openness and acceptance that perhaps past generations have not seen before. There are more and more mixed-race couples, and as a result, children, and I have to take this as a sign that at least some of us are moving in the right direction. Whether or not it’s true, I suppose the burden rests on us who see what needs to change to set the example for others and, as Gandhi says, to be the change we want to see in the world.

    Thank you for a thoughtful post.

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 2 2010 8:29 pm

      Thank you Belinda,
      It is true that it is very sad that we don’t hang on to what I believe are our innate tendencies towards love and compassion, but the truth is, our social conditioning makes it near impossible.
      The reason Jane Eliott devised the lesson in the first place is that she realized that no matter how much she talked about it in her class, the world that these kids were growing up in would not support it, and as a result it would likely have no long-term effects. I think that we do need to experience things first hand sometimes.
      I like to believe that we can “be the change” but we first need to become aware that we need to.
      Being of mixed-race myself, I have always thought that the world is becoming more tolerant, but there are more of us on the planet and it seems that all of the isms are alive and kicking and growing. If you haven’t noticed, hatred towards Muslims is very in-vogue these days.
      These are the seeds of violence and so we really do have to work harder to “be that change”.
      Thanks so much for dropping by.

  5. hannahkaty / Sep 3 2010 9:20 am

    This post spoke immense volumes to me. I will definitely have to check out this documentary.. I just moved to the Bronx and already I can see the disparity as I board the Metro into Manhattan… The poverty shifts and the people trade spaces and all of a sudden you are two worlds apart from the one you first came from.. What will it take to realize that we are all the same kind of different?

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Sep 3 2010 12:31 pm

      Hello Hannah,
      Thanks so much for stopping by.
      It’s true that racism is alive and kicking, which is why I needed to write this.
      I love the concept of “The same kind of different.” I think that what it will take is for us to begin to realize that when we hurt others, we also hurt ourselves. I suspect that most of the poverty and other social issues that we face these days is the direct result of how we have treated people and how despite our desire to believe that we are better now we still have such a long way to go. Compassion needs to become the priority.

  6. Hava S. / Oct 9 2010 8:00 pm

    No matter how bad your H.S.school band was, ours was worse. just ask my parents, we’d make jokes everytime they came out for school musicals or recitals.

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