The eyes have it

Dynamics & Diversity, Journal #2
Jane Elliot’s exercises in prejudice and discrimination were excellent illustrations of some of the concepts we’ve been exploring recently, and how these concepts may be relevant to our classrooms. Elliot’s workshops demonstrate how social groups are affected by apparently arbitrary criteria, and how values assigned to these criteria result in a system of privilege and disadvantage that can have significant effects on the members of the society.
Fleras and Elliot (not the same Elliot) talk about the “culturally invisible environment” in North American society and make the point that racism not just about disadvantages for those members of society who are labelled as ‘different’ or ‘Other.’ Racism, more insidiously, is about the tacitly-accepted idea that those who are not different are privileged. In Jane Elliot’s classroom exercise, this concept of assumed privilege is manifested in explicit terms by Elliot’s awarding of certain unmerited privileges to the dominant group, such as extended recess time and free access to the drinking fountain. The result of this privilege is that the excluded students felt, in the words of one boy, like “a dog on a leash.”

Elliot’s experiment also clearly demonstrates the difference between labelling and identity, as well as the tendency to assume homogeneity of background based on specific, socially-assigned criteria over which the individual has no control. This homogeneity of identity is echoed in both Didi Khayatt’s and Sabra Desai’s articles. Because Elliot presented her “facts” strictly in terms of general statements – brown-eyed people are better, blue-eyed people are sloppy and lazy – she created a set of ‘truths’ which were then applied to each individual based solely on that person’s eye colour. Interestingly, in Elliot’s classroom, there did not appear to be any instances of the “you’re different” scenarios described by Desai, who clearly shows that in labelling her as ‘different,’ her friends are not doing her any favours, especially since the implication seems to be precisely that they are doing her a favour. However, in Elliot’s workshop with the Greenhaven Correctional Department employees, Elliot used her own eye colour in a “but you’re different” scenario, explaining that although her eyes were blue, she had “learned” to be brown-eyed, and was married to a brown-eyed man and had brown-eyed children.
One of the aspects of Elliot’s exercise that strikes me as particularly relevant to our current discussion is that the exercise demonstrates how social identity so quickly becomes reduced to one physiological characteristic which clearly reveals nothing about the individual. During recess on the first day of her classroom exercise, two boys fought because the blue-eyed boy called the other boy “brown-eyes,” which one boy astutely equated with calling a black person “nigger.” Again, this kind of name-calling reflects the difference between labelling and identity; I have black students who use the term “nigger” to refer to each other, but this is an act of reclamation – thus “nigger” becomes a term used as identity, rather than labelling, and therefore is acceptable only within a strictly defined context, namely, among blacks, and not from, or to, whites.
It will be interesting to discuss these concepts in the context of Stella Ting-Toomey’s ideas of cultural communication. It seems to me that a large part of her theory rests on the idea that different individuals identify themselves to varying extents with different aspects of identity – one person’s self-identity may be heavily influenced by ethnic identity, while another’s may have little or no connection with ethnicity, but be very invested in gender, or be completely exclusive of group identities in favour of personal identity. Furthermore, Ting-Toomey’s theory incorporates situational identity, which so far has only been peripherally examined (for example, in Khayatt’s third moment, the church ladies obviously identified her in the context of her ‘role’ as a new citizen, although Khayatt surmises that the same ladies would not have identified her as different were they to encounter her elsewhere). How would situational identity complicate Elliot’s workshop with the correctional workers, for instance? Presumably, the workshop was intended to improve relationships between the correctional workers and the prisoners; but equally presumably, there is a complication in that relationship in that the prisoners are, well, prisoners.
I hope that the outcome of these discussions will be improved cultural communication on our parts, and not paralysis! Ting-Toomey certainly seems to be hopeful; our goal, in her words, is to achieve “unconscious competence” in these interactions. Right now, I can’t help but feel we’re in the rather more uncomfortable conscious zones. Here’s to becoming unconscious!

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