A Class Divided:Public School Kids Experience Simulated Lesson in Segregation and Privilege
A Class Divided is an encore presentation of the classic documentary on third-grade teacher Jane Elliott’s “blue eyes/brown eyes” exercise, originally conducted in the days following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. This guide is designed to help you use the film to engage students in reflection and dialogue about the historical role of racism in the United States, as well as the role of prejudice and stereotyping in students’ lives today.
Because the film deals with racism and prejudice, it may raise deep emotions for both you. Some students may be confronted with privilege for the first time while others may see an affirmation of a lifetime of discrimination. As you see in the film, frustration, anger, and pain are not uncommon responses to being confronted with bias and inequity.
Issue Definition and Topic Background
Some people argue that racism is primarily a belief or attitude and that anyone who unfairly judges another based on race is racist. Others argue that racism is about action and systemic discrimination, so only those with the power to act, and not those who are the targets of discrimination, can be racist. Which argument do you find convincing and why? Is there a difference between racism and prejudice? If so, what is the difference?
Consider the following definitions. What are the differences between them? How do they compare with the dictionary definition of “racism”? How might some people benefit and others be hurt from the use of one definition over another?
“Racism couples the false assumption that race determines psychological and cultural traits with the belief that one race is superior to another.”
–A World of Difference project of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith
“Racism is any attitude, action, or institutional structure which subordinates a person or group because of skin color.”
–U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1970
“We define racism as an institutionalized system of economic, political, social, and cultural relations that ensures that one racial group has and maintains power and privilege over all others in all aspects of life. Individual participation in racism occurs when the objective outcome of behavior reinforces these relations, regardless of the subjective intent.”
–Carol Brunson Phillips and Louise Derman-Sparks in Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach, (Teachers College Press, 1997)
One of the goals of the civil rights movement was to ensure equal opportunity for every U.S. citizen, irrespective of race. When the civil rights movement began, the legal system did not grant the same rights to blacks and other minorities as it did to whites. Today, those laws have been changed, leading some to argue that the U.S. has achieved a level playing field for all. Is the field level? Is success based exclusively on merit and luck, or is race-based “privilege” still a factor? How was affirmative action policy crafted to address issues of privilege? Has it been successful?
Consider the following definitions. What are the differences between them? How do they compare with the dictionary definition of “privilege”?
“unearned power conferred systemically”
(Source: Peggy McIntosh, 1995)
white privilege (hwait ‘privilidz), social relation, [ad. L. privilegi-um a bill or law in favor of or against an individual.]
1. a. A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by the class of white persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities.
b. In extended sense: A special advantage or benefit of white persons; with ideological reference to divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic endowments, social relations, etc.
2. A privileged position; the possession of an advantage white persons enjoy over non-whites and white individuals enjoy over non-white individuals.
3. a. The special right or immunity attaching to white persons as a social relation; prerogative.
b. display of white privilege, a social expression of a white person or persons demanding to be treated as a member or members of the socially privileged class.
(Source: The Monkeyfist Collective (Links to an external site.))
Thinking About It
Essential questions will guide your thinking. Questions and statements are designed to you to process the information from the documentary. These are not the prompt. You do not need to directly answer these questions. Use them to organize your thoughts and focus your attention toward key details to use in referencing examples and evidence to support your critical response.
How do our beliefs about our response towards expectations of our government’s political response to social practices influencing the ways in we see and choose to interact with each other?
What happens when one aspect of our identities is used to sort us into groups?
How has our response to difference and what we do with a variation influence politics and American government?
How does the aspect in our self identity cause collective political effects on society’s expectation of government’s role?
How does our identity affect how we see not only ourselves, how how see others, and the choices that we ultimately make.
What is the relationship between self determining identification and political preferences towards government decisions and actions
Change your thinking to learn a broadened understanding of political perspective. There are always two interpretations of a word’s single definition. Webster’s sets a common standard with word definitions that make understanding more general and less exclusive. Diversity is a uniqueness that requires awareness of personal exclusivity. Limited understanding comes from limited perspective. A word that is clearly defined, is the most accepted word. Self imposed limitations that have failed us to know both sides of a words meaning.
A word’s definition needs to be seen for both what it IS and what it IS NOT. Apply the both sides of a definition specifically to the words “decisions and actions” mentioned in the previous section.
Decisions and actions need to be defined with relation to what IS NOT if we want to broaden our perspective self identify politics that shape government response….AND most importantly shape their non-response.
Watch the entire movie in order to respond to the prompt
Select one of the following prompts to write your reflective writing paper on
1. What does Elliott’s classroom experiment suggest about what can happen when one aspect of our identities is valued more than all of the others?
2. While eye color may not be related to power in our society, what are aspects of identity that give some people more power and privileges than others? Who determines which differences matter? Why do individuals and groups either go along or not go along with these decisions?
3. How do beliefs about differences in our society shape the way we see ourselves and others? How do they shape the way others see us? How do beliefs about differences in our society shape the way we respond when we encounter an individual or group that is different from us?
Supplemental Links and Resources
Show Me Your Identity:Identity politics may divide us. But ultimately we can’t unite without it (Links to an external site.)
Philsophy Talk commentary and discussion of Identity Politics