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Thoughts on ‘How Racist Are You?’

“How racist are you?” asked a Channel 4 documentary tonight.  It utterly failed in providing any sort of answer.

The premise: former schoolteacher and self-appointed (and largely discredited) pseudopsychologist Jane Elliott invites 30 people to participate in an experiment. They’re split based on their eye colour.  The blue eyed group (which expectedly turns out to be all-white, which is relevant) are bullied into a tiny holding cell and forced to wait for two hours awaiting further instructions. The brown-eyed group are rounded up and told they would be teaching the blue-eyed, all-white group a lesson about how it feels to be on the receiving end of discriminatory behaviour.

And… it’s just all wrong.  For so many surface level reasons. That the two ‘expert’ psychologists observing fail to pick up on a single problem is staggering.  So, I will do instead.  Well, not all of them.  There are too many.  But here’s a few.  Starting! With!

The sample is self-selecting, then, presumably, hand-picked to provide the best telly.

The result? An overwhelmingly middle-class jumble of opinionated, educated adults.  Elliott used to do this experiment on kids, which is obviously, hideously unethical, but at least it would have partially solved this issue.  But as it is… you’ve a group of ostensibly clever people who have an interest in the subject that’s being tested.  In other words, it’s a sort-of blinded test but with completely informed subjects.  It fails as soon as it starts, both as a fair test, and as a broad selection of British society.

There are too many extraneous variables.

The whole basis of Elliott’s experiment is that she believes the Western world’s governments subscribe to an education system that promotes white culture above any other.  As such, she attempts to create a situation in which this discrimination can be replicated.  I’ll come back to that in a bit, as there’s a huge thing that fails in this respect.  But the problem here is that, when people react to this situation, a whole host of other variables come into play but are utterly ignored.

It’s all about race.  But factors such as age, gender, sex, sexuality, class – man, everything is playing its subtle role here.  Elliott assigns agency to race throughout, and her pet brown-eyed group totally buys into it, while the blue-eyed group are constantly pressured into a hole, and no one gets that it doesn’t work as an experiment.  It’s excruciating to watch. Nothing is controlled at all.

There’s something much more interesting at play here.

Here’s the big one. I could go into detail about loads more things that are wrong with Elliot’s experiment, but I won’t.  This is what I want to focus on, because I could not believe that the programme did not.

Early on, it is revealed that Elliot hopes to convince her brown-eyed group to behave abhorrently to the blue-eyed group.  She does this by completely asserting her position as a person of high authority.  And… well, it’s totally Milgram, only with real victims.  What’s most fascinating is how readily the vast majority of these people are to go with Elliott’s idea: that the other group need to be educated; that they are inferior based on the colour of their skin. No bones about that: the eye colour selection is in no way coincidentally linked with ethnicity.  Elliott instructs a group of people, whose races vary, that the all white group is ignorant, and in need of correction.

I waited for the sucker punch.  To begin with, I just assumed it would come. And it was implied in an interview at the end, in which Elliott proceeded to be a real dick to Krishnan Guru-Murphy.  Our society and its institutions breed discrimination, she said.  Just in the way she had done then.  Only she didn’t say that last bit.

The result seemed to be that the brown-eyed group walked out thinking it unbelievable that this all-white group of people, this prescribed “other”, could not get it into their thick skulls that this is what they had to put up with all the time; they were astonished by the backlash.  But in fact, what happened was a tremendously unethical, bad-science subscribing idiot just brainwashed a group of people into bullying, abusing and discriminating against another group, one tied by the colour of their eyes and, equally, by the colour of their skin.

That was what was fascinating about the programme.  That’s the only thing that worked in any real way.  Yet it was glossed over, by Elliott, by her participants and by psychologists, to make way for a blurry message of “our society is still really racist.  Here’s the proof: when plonked into an artificial environment and systematically, subtly instructed to do so, people of different ethnicities will argue with each other about race issues.”

One response »

  1. It’s not an experiment. It never was an experiment.

    It was an educational activity devised to teach school kids about racism that she then made a crusade out of “fightig racism” in adults with. With little or no indication it had any affect what so ever and based on dubious common sense notions.

    I blogged about this and suggested a way it could perhaps be considered an experiment here:

    Really Sherif’s summer camp experiments were better for showing how arbitary groups could generate conflict, and also how they could bring people back together.


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