The program “A Class Divided” is an exercise in discrimination that I had seen some time ago. The fact that it took place in Riceville, IA was not surprising and having grown up in small town Iowa, I could easily understand the perceptions the children in the film had of those from different cultures. Because of its small size, the U.S. Census does not have current population facts; however, little has changed and this small community is still predominately white, at 97% (Census Viewer, 2012). This lack of exposure to those of other cultures makes programs like this one led by teacher Jane Elliott even more important. As today’s children are exposed to other cultures and influenced through media outlets and what educators and other people tell them, they are all too often led to adopt perceptions of bigotry, bias, and discrimination. As stated by Elliott, even the most “wonderful, thoughtful children” can be easily led to being “nasty, vicious, discriminating” (Frontline, 1985).
While I was a child, much like the children in Riceville, I was not exposed to other cultures, but I was exposed to discrimination, although not in a cultural context and not in a manner that I might have considered discriminatory. I started getting teased and bullied in second grade when I got my first pair of glasses. I was the first child in my class to do so and I took the brunt of the jokes, name-calling and even a degree of bullying. Of course as the year wore on, more classmates started showing up in glasses as well. While there is very little about this film that I will soon forget, the scene where the child is picked on for forgetting his glasses and the girl who hadn’t brought back those horrid memories of being punched in the stomach and being called “four-eyes”. It’s amazing the things that can trigger memories of a time 46 years ago, when I would have only been a year younger than the children in Riceville.
I don’t know that any of the actions seen in program were all that surprising; yet the response of the students as adults was a bit unexpected. Although the students made the promise, as children, to never treat someone badly because they were different, I found it a bit unbelievable that so many held on to the lesson they learned in those two days. For those who may not have strayed far from home as adults, it is very possible that they held on to and were true to their promise, but those who moved away, went to college, joined the military, or as seen in the film, married someone who hadn’t grown up there, it is likely they encountered the cultures of others to which they were unaccustomed. It is also likely that some may have had experiences that could change the views that Elliott tried to instill.
For viewers with a disability they may or may not be surprised by the exercise’s outcome and they may not see much of a correlation of the “Blue-eyes, brown-eyes” exercise. How someone treats others with disabilities depends not only on their own upbringing, but also on how well the disabled person handles uncomfortable situations. How a child reacts to someone with visible disabilities such as being in a wheelchair, having a missing limb, extensive burns or other disfiguring features depends on how they were raised. Was the child taught not to point or stare at someone who is different in that manner? Most children aren’t blatantly cruel, but are more often than not just curious. It’s usually how the parent responds to this curiosity that makes the situation uncomfortable. Case in point, my friend Nikki shared a recent incident involving her 2 year old daughter, who saw a local Marine in the grocery store who had a metal prosthetic leg. Evie walked right up to the man and grabbed hold of the stainless steel bar. The Marine looked down at her and said, “It’s not going anywhere, sweetheart”. Nikki was mortified, but the Marine reassured her saying, “At least she is curious and not afraid of it. Most little kids just stare and look scared”.
In the same vein, members of the LGBT community may not see a correlation either. Unless a child is raised in a community, such as Riceville, it is doubtful they would encounter a situation such as seeing a man holding hands or kissing another man; the same holds for women. On the surface they are just people, no different than anyone else. However, for children growing up in larger metropolitan areas, these scenarios are more likely, but it also more likely that there are children being raised by two dads or two moms. Because the cultural dynamic is shifting and the definition of family is changing as well, children are becoming more accustomed to seeing more unconventional family units.
As Elliott and her former students discuss whether the exercise should be done with all children, it is seems almost unanimous that the students agree that not only should teachers be trained in how to implement the exercise but that all children should participate. Of course there are those who disagree, saying that it could cause psychological harm. This view was expressed in many of the letters that Elliott received after her appearance on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, saying that the work she was doing was appalling and “How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children,” one said. “Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there’s no way they could possibly understand it. It’s cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage.” Yet, typical of Elliott, her matter of fact response was “Why are we so worried about the fragile egos of white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism one day when blacks experience real racism every day of their lives?” (Bloom, 2005).
Personally, children are not as fragile as so many make them out to be. They are very resilient, which was evident in the reactions of the students after the exercise was complete and in the interview of the students as adults. If I were an educator or even as a human resource manager, teaching a class in diversity, I would have no problem implementing this exercise and might even take it a bit further. I would have all the brown-eyed children represent the whites, as brown eyes represent the majority eye color for 55 % of the world’s population (AC Lens, 2015). Then all the hazel-eyed children would represent the African American children, blue-eyed children would represent Hispanics, green-eyed children could represent people with disabilities and they would also have to stay in their chairs, etc. I would do it this way because the dominant eye color would have the largest group representing the majority and each group would become smaller as the number of children in each group with the representative eye color would also get smaller; thus representing the minority in number as well. This exercise would also work well with adults, because African Americans and other cultures would be represented in the majority group; giving everyone a better perspective of how the “out-group” could be made up of anyone, because of any kind of difference.
The term “self-fulfilling prophecy”, coined by Robert Merton in 1948, is described as “A false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Literary Devices, 2015). With self-fulfilling prophecies, the effects of positive and negative labels was evident in the student’s academic performance during the exercise; where the students performed well when they were in the top group and poorly when in the bottom, even though they had done well the day before when they were in the top group. This phenomena was also evident in the way the adults at the correction officers training session behaved when they were segregated. Those in the “less than” group were defensive, rude, and argumentative and those in the top group were a bit more self-assured and even a bit pompous in their attitudes toward the “less than” group. Of course Elliott’s treatment of the “blue-eyed” participants went a long way in fueling the feelings of humiliation, of being singled out, and her statements such as “You have this problem with blue-eyed people. You give them something decent and they just wreck it” in response to her target putting her gum under her chair. In essence, the “blue-eyed” group was behaving just as they were being perceived or cast by Elliott.
Regarding people with disabilities, it is important to understand that disability is a term that extends far beyond the wheelchair and what is visible. For many people, their disabilities are unseen or invisible, like those with emotional/mental disabilities, those with hearing or vision deficits, and people with painful joint and nerve disorders and diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and heart conditions. Pfeiffer (2003) shares “holding negative views of disability and of the quality of life of a person with a disability will result in decision after decision leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy: to assume that things are bad will result in things being bad. Furthermore, negative attitudes lead to low expectations and failure.” This tends to hold true and was acknowledged in a conversation with Randall, who has been in a wheelchair since an accident when he was 18. Even though he was qualified for many engineering positions he applied to, when attending face-to-face interviews he shared that there was an obvious shift in the tone of the interviewer from what it had been during the phone conversation. Randall stated “It was like as soon as I rolled into their office they made up their mind that they weren’t going to hire me” (personal conversation, 2015). Randall also shared that after three years of trying and constantly being turned away, he finally gave up; although he now works from home with a home-based business venture.
The visible dimensions of diversity, those that are obvious, are race, ethnicity, age, gender and some levels of disability; while the hidden aspects are religion, education level, political affiliation, sexual preference and those with hidden disabilities. Religion, as one of the hidden dimensions of diversity can often be the catalyst that unites those with the visible aspects of diversity; unfortunately, it can also create a wedge. Aside from the various crosses, the Star of David, the pentacle or other religious symbols worn by those who follow a given path, one might never know what religion one follows, or if they follow one at all. Yet these symbols have been known to be the cause of tensions among people who might otherwise get along just fine. This is due to the level of conviction that people have for their religious or spiritual path and how many cultural foundations are based on religious beliefs. This is often where individuals, families, and communities find themselves at odds with each other when someone holds a belief system different than their own. Tensions are also caused when people are so bound to their beliefs that when they find someone does not think as they do it can result in lost relationships, as well as uneasiness in work and other social environments.
In this regard, I am my own best example, having felt the sideways glances or looks of disdain when the cashier at a store or another shopper happens to see my pentacle. It is also one of many reasons I choose to not be in a relationship at this point, as close-minded, judgmental, and more often than not, hypocritical people do not meet my criteria of someone I would choose to be involved with. I have no qualms in what others believe in, as long as it guides them to be a person who treats people, animals, and the Earth with the respect they should be afforded. Aside from the many misconceptions and myths surrounding Pagan religious paths, our numbers are growing, as more people become disenchanted with traditional religion and become more educated and comfortable with nature based religions.
The changes in religious views and beliefs speak to the overall changes in the dimensions of diversity as well. A diverse society is no longer based solely on the demographics of gender, race and ethnicity of its members; it is based on the multicultural aspects of families with mixed racial and ethnic backgrounds, families with two mothers or two fathers, families with contrasting religious views, and families where elder members and even young adults still live in or have returned to the family home; often bring children of their own.
Because of the constantly changing state of how people define themselves, their families, and their communities, it is no longer easy to look at an individual and make clearly defined assumptions about who they are, as it relates to race, ethnicity, or even gender. People can no longer assume that because someone is white, brunette, blue-eyed, and muscularly built that they are a man. Chris Jenner is a clear example of this, as well as others who have acknowledged their struggle with being transgendered. No longer can one assume that someone with a light-brown complexion is African American, Latino, or a Pacific Islander. Just as the stereotypes typical of a certain race, ethnicity, or culture no longer apply, neither do the assumptions that being white means a person is privileged, well-educated, financially secure, lives in a nice neighborhood, or is even gainfully employed. Once again, I am my own best example, as I am a white, middle-aged, single female who is a full-time college student, who is struggling with more than one hidden disability, who is barely able to pay for even the basic necessities, and who has a grown child sharing my home.
Nicola S. (Nikki) is a female in her mid-thirties with bright red hair, a fiery Irish temper and an English accent. Nikki was born in London, England to an Irish born mother, a nurse, and a British born father, who was in the Air Force. Nikki is well educated; although she was accepted into Oxford, she attended Sheffield University in Northern England, earning bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and business finance. She is well-traveled, having lived and worked in England, Spain, and finally the U.S. She lives with her longtime boyfriend Sebastian who was also born and raised in England until he was 14. He attended college in California, but after declining an offer from the FBI, he accepted a scholarship to M.I.T.; additionally, Sebastian is black and like myself, he and Nikki are also Pagan. Approaching Nikki for her participation was simple. I told her what I was working on and shared the web link so she could watch the program, as well as the questions I would ask and we sat down one evening and talked until 1:30 in the morning. Nikki and I have very similar views and not surprisingly she has no problems expressing her opinions about the injustices that she has experienced or witnessed.
Because we share similar views on discrimination, Nikki easily shared several incidents of prejudice and assumptions made, not only because she is white, but because she has a child with Sebastian. The first incident involved her baby girl, Evie. Nikki related an incident that took place in a local grocery store in which a black woman told her she needed to braid her daughter’s hair and raise her properly; to which Nikki concluded meant to raise her as a black child. She said that her look of disbelief must have been pretty evident because the woman gave her a disapproving glare and stormed off to another check-out line when Nikki responded with “I’m going to raise her as a decent human being!” She said she had never considered whether she was going to raise Evie as black or white, she was just going to raise her (personal communication, July 5, 2015).
The next incident Nikki refers to the best insult she has ever received. Once again in the same grocery store, the perpetrator was a black female, although this time the woman was dressed in her “Sunday best” and had probably just come from church. Typical of Nikki’s often radical sense of fashion, she happened to be dressed in black jeans and t-shirt and black riding boots. The woman, quite blatantly, said “You must be one of those Satanic, Goth, Atheist, Pagan witches!” Flabbergasted, Nikki turned to face her accuser and in a matter of fact tone replied “I cannot be all of those things and Goth isn’t even a religion, and if I was an Atheist I certainly couldn’t be Satanic, Pagan, or a witch.” She said it took quite a bit of restraint not to blast the woman with a sarcastic remark, and “knock her on her ass” but she thought better of it and instead walked to her car, shaking her head in disbelief (personal communication, July 5, 2015).
Nikki is one of the last people to instigate arguments or trouble with anyone and is usually very even-tempered, often preferring to “let things go” rather than make a fuss. However, another incident took place at work, where a co-worker, a younger black woman, accused Nikki of being prejudiced. Nikki had come to work, at one of the many dining facilities that are part of Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, to find that the salad-room preparations for that day’s meals were unfinished. This meant twice as much work for Nikki as she would not only have to rush to complete the unfinished tasks, but she would then have to hurry to catch up on her own work before her shift was over. Because this was not the first time this had happened Nikki reported it to the production manager (PM), who then found the offending co-worker and brought her back to the salad-room before she could leave the building. This is when the co-worker accused Nikki of being prejudiced against blacks and that she was just trying to start trouble. The PM, Marina, said “Oh really? Come with me.” She led her to the office, opened up Facebook on her computer and went to Nikki’s page. She pointed to a photograph of Sebastian and said, “That’s her boyfriend; now tell me again how she is prejudiced against blacks?” (personal communication, July 5, 2015).
I asked Nikki “What do you think needs to change at the cultural level to reduce discrimination?” (Warning: She has no filter.) She replied that “Parents need to stop raising their children white, black, brown, etc. Whites need to stop being racist, blacks need to stop pulling the “race” card. The media needs to stop sensationalizing every incident beyond what it is and only choosing the scenarios that are inflammatory in nature. And quite frankly, (her face has turned a bit red and her tone is that of complete exasperation) I’m sick of this shit!” (personal communication, July 5, 2015).
As is indicated by our conversation, Nikki handles prejudice and discrimination with much of the same attitudes that I do. As we discussed the video “Blue-eyes, Brown-eyes”, she shared the same sentiment that all children, regardless of color, ethnicity, or cultural background should participate in the exercise or something similar and commented that she liked how I had designed the scenario that I would implement, should I be the one giving a diversity training seminar. She also agreed with Elliott’s statement “Why are we so worried about the fragile egos of white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism one day when blacks experience real racism every day of their lives?” (Bloom, 2005). The only place where we would differ is I would probably be more vocal if I were told by someone else how to raise my child, if someone so hatefully questioned my religious affiliation, or if I were accused of being racist or worked with someone who made accusatory statements about a co-worker or employee. Of course, as an HRM, the latter situation would likely compel me to schedule a diversity training session in the very near future. Because if one employee feels it necessary to make such statements about a co-worker, then it is likely that others may have the same perception.
AC Lens. (2015). Eye Color Guide – The Most Common Eye Colors. Retrieved from http://www.aclens.com/Most-Common-Eye-Color-c323.html
Bloom, S. (2005). Lesson of a lifetime. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lesson-of-a-lifetime-72754306/?no-ist=&no-is=&page=1
Census Viewer. (2012). Riceville, Iowa population. Retrieved from http://censusviewer.com/city/IA/Riceville
Frontline. (1985). A class divided. PBS.org. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/divided/etc/view.html
Literary Devices. (2015). Self-fulfilling prophecy. Retrieved from http://literarydevices.net/self-fulfilling-prophecy/
Pfeiffer, D. (2003). Attitudes toward disability in the helping professions. Disability Studies Quarterly 23(2), 132-149. Retrieved from http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/420/587