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.