Blue Eyes Brown Eyes

Many years ago I attended an organisation’s internal diversity workshop as part of a research project. The whole day was part of a long running programme and on this occasion the assembled group were shown the film Blue Eyes Brown Eyes followed by a discussion on the irrationality and cruelty of  prejudice and harmful stereotyping.

This film was made in 1967 by Jane Elliot, a primary school teacher as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. She wanted to show young children how discrimination felt.   It is very dated and I doubt whether such an experiment involving children would be allowed today. That is probably why it is still used in training as nothing as powerful has ever replaced it. Many of you who work in diversity, equality and inclusion will be very familiar with it.

Jane Elliot divided up her class into children with blue eyes and children with brown eyes… she then started listing all the negative characteristics that people with brown eyes had. At first there is incredulity but after a while some kids got the gist of it and started turning away from children with brown eyes even if they were close friends. Such an arbitrary division, yet it took only fifteen minutes for the bullying, name calling and playground fights to start.

I searched it out again recently and watched it through a slightly different lens. Yes, it is dated and yes, it deals specifically with race but I think that the underlining message of it is pertinent to all kinds of situations where we choose to emphasise difference rather than our common humanity and how that can lead to discrimination. Any study of war shows that in order to fight the enemy, first you need to ‘other’ them, even to dehumanise them, even if they are in most ways exactly like you.

 Blue Eyes Brown Eyes takes us down this road of difference and shows how dangerous it can be it imbue characteristics into a person because of a physical difference, or accident of birth, or let’s extend that to something closer to home here today… someone who has ideas that may be contrary to what we are told are acceptable.

I use the phrase ‘being told’ because for arbitrary discrimination to be effective it needs to be legitimised by those in power. In the film it is the class teacher, in societies it is more likely to be governments. There is usually an element of fear behind it. Authoritarianism  introduces and can exaggerate  fear and it is this that pushes a group to turn on another regardless of whether that fear is justified. There may be sanctions for the ‘out’ group which the ‘in’ group do not want so they emphasise their difference to the ‘out’ group even more.  

Psychologists call this ‘othering’ projection… we project all the bad bits into someone else, or another group. This is a useful shoring up our own sense of being ok, being right, perhaps even safe from being picked on by authorities.  We are not the ‘other’ – phew!

Returning to Blue Eyes Brown Eyes,  the speed with which these children ‘other’ their own classroom neighbours and friends on the spurious basis of eye colour is frightening.

 I would suggest that something like this is going on with the way the country is being divided over Covid vaccination status.

However much some people may not understand the reasons why someone in a high risk category would choose this, we must resist demonising them. But this is what is happening… blame and fear of illness stirred up by authority has been projected onto a minority. Someone to blame. There is not much evidence that unvaccinated people are likely to transmit illness more than vaccinated yet countries including ours have introduced vaccine passports. Now there is clear evidence that transmission is not be confined to the unvaccinated, they are instead being accused of taking up too many hospital beds. We have never done this with smokers or obese people even though those groups alone consume a vast percentage of the total health budget.  It is their health which may suffer not anyone else’s. And as a society we have chosen not to discriminate by health in this way.

 Statistics show that those in socially deprived areas, young people, black and ethnic minorities are more likely to choose not be vaccinated.  They will have their reasons. There is enough division and inequality in society – we should be very cautious about embedding  it further.  As we can see it happens very quickly and the end result is always ugly.