The thing I find most compelling about Jane Elliot’s work is the perception that it is cruel. Sure, some of the language and attitudes used are harsh, sure its unpleasant, sure the people directing the harsh words and attitudes know what they are doing and do it intentionally, but the result of the experiment (if it is successful) is not a cruel one. The members of the blue eyed group are usually very resistant and object to what’s being done. They don’t recognize their own racism or that racism exists, and they don’t want to. They don’t want to be labeled as an aggressor. The point of this experiment isn’t to tell someone that they are at fault of hate crimes or discrimination, it is to give them an understanding of what it feels like to be judged for something they can’t control. This is stated so many times, yet these people still respond with, “I’m not a racist,” even though that isn’t the point. You can still have internalized perceptions of a race that you were conditioned to have since birth, but you can also condition yourself to unlearn those prejudices.
What is even more frustrating about the experiment are those participants who have brown eyes and white skin. Often times they “refuse to be the aggressor” They think they are making a point about doing the right thing. The believe that they have cheated the game, that they’ve already figured it out, but what they fail to realize is that by refusing to be the aggressor, they are preventing themselves and others from learning a very important lesson. Being the aggressor is the only way the lesson can be taught. It’s not unfortunate for the people in the blue eyed group, it’s unfortunate for the people of color in the brown eyed group who have to leave that space and return to a world that will be biased against them. That is the aggression they face, and that is the aggression we need to be faced with in order to become truly empathetic and learn how to halt the aggressor within ourselves.
Jane Elliot’s work isn’t cruel, it’s representational. Something that is representational of cruelty cannot itself be cruel. It isn’t an attack, it’s a forceful and experiential display of reality.