November 14, 2007

Salad Bowl

On the day following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Elliott decided to take her third-grade class through a now famous exercise. She divided the class into two groups - those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes, with the intention of teaching young children the dangers of racism.

On the first of two days, Elliott announced to the class that Brown Eyed people are smarter, funnier, faster at doing math problems, and prettier. In contrast, those that are Blue Eyed are wasteful, not smart, and are not good enough to drink from the same water fountain. This verbal conditioning lasts the morning. By the end of lunch, it was internalized. Fights broke out because one boy called another a "Blue-Eyed". Two girls that were best friends the day before now sat on opposite ends of the lunch room, saying negative things about the other to a newfound group of comrades. The afternoon brought no new comfort. Elliott continued the verbal bashing of the Blue-Eyed group and chastises them for any minuscule crime that is committed. The children go home demoralized - or emblazoned, depending on which new identity was a reality - and anything but eager to return the next day.

When class does begin again, the roles are reversed. Now, those with blue eyes are the superior group, while those unfortunate enough to born with brown eyes sit dejected and outcast. Elliot gets away with the "Romney"-like flip-flop due to the fact that her students are seven (7) and eight (8) years old. The day unfolds in a similar fashion and the children go home- stronger and confident, or broken and hurt.

The exercise was highly publicized (not Elliott's doing, but the media) and Elliott toured the nation to hold seminars and workshops in the following years and decades. She also was hosted by PBS Frontline, The Tonight Show and Oprah.

As we watched these conversations and exercises in class yesterday, I was struck by the relevance of it all. Racism is still very much alive in our country, in our city, and in our neighborhood.

To keep your attention - and mine - I'm not going to delve into a long-winded discussion on what should be done to confront these issues. What follows is an excerpt from the conversation that followed the exercise when Elliot visited the Oprah Show. During this run of the exercise, it was assumed that those with blue eyes were the inferior group, and were treated unkindly during the entirety of the show. Elliot's response to an off-the-cuff remark is gold, and the reason why I spent so many words giving this situation background... The italics are mine.

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Blue-eyed audience member: In America, we are the melting pot of the world, and we should be able to be tolerant, and you shouldn't dislike me because I'm white and I shouldn't dislike you because you're black.

Jane Elliott: Now, wait a minute, people—what do you mean by melting pot? That we put everyone together and mix them up, and they all come out the same? So that white folks feel comfortable with them? So that blue-eyed folks feel comfortable with them? We don't need a melting pot in this country, folks. We need a salad bowl. In a salad bowl, you put in the different things. You want the vegetables—the lettuce, the cucumbers, the onions, the green peppers—to maintain their identity. You appreciate differences. A melting pot does not appreciate differences, and this country ought to be about appreciating differences.

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This country ought to be about appreciating differences. Beautiful.

Cheers,

Sam

"Sympathy is not a substitute for action."

St. Ignatius

6 comments:

Adam W said...

Sam, I did a lot of work and discussion on this very topic and college and i always loved the responses people would have while discussing it...one particular night, this (white) girl went off on an extended tirade about how we need to learn tolerance and preach tolerance and practice tolerance, etc. etc. The (black) professor looked at her and said, "You know, they made me take this class about music in high school but i can't remember it being called music tolerance...i think it was called music appreciation..."

Quinn Patrick Kelly said...

Can I be a crouton?

Samuel I. Richard said...

you're such a fruit

brittany said...

i am so down

Sandra said...

Sam - this makes my day!!!! As a sociology instructor, I rarely have an opportunity to know what if any impact this film has on student lives.
Sandra

Samuel I. Richard said...

I think this means I get an "A" in class :)