San Antonio elementary school gave students a lesson on segregation based on hair color

An interesting story out of San Antonio about a lesson in anti-racism at an elementary school that caused a stir. Christopher Rufo noticed it and highlighted it on Twitter.

“All of the dark-haired kids, the brown- and black-haired kids, were treated as the privileged ones and the blonde haired and the redhead kids were the ones treated not so nicely,” said Brandi Lininger.

The Lininger’s say teachers told students children in the fair-haired group were not as intelligent. That group was purposely given a game with pieces missing so they could not play. Later they were made to clean up after the other children.

“She was hurt, her friends, and she named to the principal and to district officials, names of her friends that were crying,” Brandi Lininger said.

Fifth graders were also shown a Spike Lee documentary called “4 Little Girls” about the 1963 bombing of an Alabama church. The film includes graphic autopsy photos of the girls’ bodies.

The teacher says she fast-forwarded past those parts, but the Lininger’s say the children in their daughter’s class did see the photos.

The school has apparently admitted those parts of the film weren’t appropriate for 10-11-year-olds but looking over the film those images are a small part of the 90+ minute run time. You can view the entire documentary, which was released in 1997, here. It features an appearance by Bill Cosby.

What I found most interesting about this story was the history behind it. The brown hair/blonde hair idea is a variation of a lesson first taught the day after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. That’s when a teacher named Jane Elliott decided to segregate her 3rd grade class based on eye color. On the first day, kids with blue eyes were told they were superior to kids with brown eyes and on the next day, the roles were reversed. The lesson was immediate a sensation.

After the local newspaper published a story on Elliott and the experiment, she was flown to New York to appear on May 31, 1968, on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, where she extolled the experiment’s effectiveness in cluing in her 8-year-old white students on what it was like to be Black in America.

In 1970 a film was made of Elliott teaching the lesson to a class and that film has become a perennial topic of discussion among teachers ever since with some emulating the lesson but, as in San Antonio, using hair color instead of eye color as the controlling factor.

In 1985, PBS made an hour long special about Elliott’s lesson including a reunion of some of the students who appeared in the 1970 film (see below). Elliott claimed that students who were told they were superior outperformed students who were told they were inferior and that both groups of students performed better than they had previously after the lesson ended.

Elliot was even hired by the Iowa Department of Corrections to teach her lesson to a group of prison guards and parole officers. Here approach to ridicule of blue-eyed people in that setting seems like a first draft of Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility” concept. She berates people and then accuses them of proving her point if they dare to disagree. Of course in Elliott’s case the goal was to show people what it feels like to be powerless for 90 minutes as a way to stimulate empathy, not to permanently convince them the are hopelessly racist.

Elliot’s message has never really gone out of style. She appeared on the Oprah show in 1992 and in 2020 after the death of George Floyd she appeared on The Tonight Show again.

Finally, I watched the report from the San Antonio station and it’s not clear if the class did both sides of the experiment the way Elliott taught it to her classes. Was there a day in which the brown haired kids were told they were inferior and made to clean up after the blonde kids? Or is that half of the lesson no longer taught. Here’s the PBS special from 1985. It’s interesting and arguably the progenitor of a lot of the anti-racism efforts that have become a hot topic in the last few years.