For that, I used a social experiment that took place in 1968, beginning the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, as my inspiration. Grade school teacher Jane Elliott, an advocate for human rights on many fronts, decided to show her eight-year-old students, all white, the effects racism truly had on society—not only on the people being discriminated against, but also those imposing the discrimination. She segregated her classroom by “blue eyes” and “brown eyes,” first convincing the children that blue-eyed people were intellectually superior, and thus offering them privileges the brown-eyed children were denied, such as longer recesses, more food at lunch, and being seated at the front of the classroom.
Resistant at first, the children soon changed their attitudes toward one another. The blue-eyed children began to treat their brown-eyed peers poorly, teasing them and putting them down, and the brown-eyed children showed an immediate drop in self-esteem.
The next day, Elliott told the children she’d lied the day before—that brown-eyed people were in fact superior—switching their roles. Interestingly, the brown-eyed children suddenly behaved exactly as the blue-eyed children had before the tables had been turned. It seemed that it took little provocation to create a racist society. For those curious to see the experiment in action, PBS has the full 46-minute Frontline exposé available here.
Watch the first ten minutes in the video below.
When I set out to write The Private Sector, which prequels World-Mart by about forty years, I was excited to explore the deviants’ origin as “designer children” available only to the wealthy. People marvel at how beautiful their eyes are—the pale blue color being an unexpected side effect of the particular genes manipulated in an attempt to create a future immune to the diseases killing people off in droves. When they fail to prove society’s answer to the plagues, some begin to demonize them as abominations, the sickening result of man trying to play god.
What underlies this shift is my own personal observation that humankind is predisposed to an “us” versus “them” mentality. Even with actual race taken out of the picture, we find a way to create meaning out of petty differences, a reason to treat others differently.
A reason to feel superior, be it physically, intellectually, or morally—and we use it to justify mistreatment, neglect, and downright hatred.
We see these behaviors resulting not only from differences in skin color or other genetic traits, but in egocentric nationalism, anti-feminist attitudes, and discrimination against homosexuals and the transgendered. In no time during documented history have we not seen evidence of a socially imposed underclass. The first natural response to this might be to question why.
My question, and the question I raise in my World-Mart series: Why do we continue to allow these types of attitudes to rule the masses? More importantly, what can we, as socially responsible human beings, do to eradicate the “us” versus “them” mentality once and for all?