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On the Problem We Live With

February 21, 2019

One Thursday morning, a third grade teacher walked into her classroom and asked the blue eyed children to stand on one side, and on the other, the brown eyed.


Norman Rockwell - The Problem We All Live With, 1963


Every blue eyed child was asked to wear a green paper armband. Thus differentiated, the children were told:


‘The brown eyed people are the better people in this room. They are cleaner and they are smarter.’


It was not the blue eyed children’s fault, Mrs. Elliott explained with a look of deep sadness, and as hard as they tried to improve, that reality would not change. It was a problem they would all have to live with, and the problem had a name. To the group of eight-year-olds, Mrs. Elliott announced:


‘The problem is melanin.’


Melanin is a pigment in the iris of the eyes that determines eye colour. It is all a matter of pigment concentration; eyes with little of it are blue. Those with moderate amounts can be green or hazel, even light brown. Dark brown, however, is the surest indicator of the highest amounts of melanin.


The teacher went on to say that melanin also determined intelligence.


‘Brown eyed people have more of that chemical in their eyes, so brown-eyed people are better […]. Blue-eyed people sit around and do nothing. You give them something nice and they just wreck it.’


Because they were proven to be ‘biologically’ smarter, the brown eyed children received extra privileges in Mrs. Elliott’s classroom: Second helpings at lunch, more recess time, access to the new jungle gym. They were to sit at the front of the classroom while the blue eyed sat behind. Mixing between the groups was not encouraged, and blue eyed children were asked not to drink directly from the water fountain. The effect on the children was electric:


One brown eyed boy explained the water fountain rule to the others:


‘It is because we might catch something.’


Mrs. Elliott had said nothing of the sort.


By Math class, a blue eyed girl was having trouble with multiplication. By recess three brown eyed girls ganged up on her. Fights broke out between the factions.


The children went home that day seeing eye colour where they had once only seen eyes. In this new world, not everyone was equal in amounts of melanin.


On Monday, however, the third grade teacher entered the classroom in a flurry and turned the children’s new world upside down by saying she had been mistaken! It was in fact the brown eyed children who were stupid, not the blue! The roles were reversed: the blue eyed children were given the privileges, and the brown eyed, the armbands.


At recess this time, though, Mrs. Elliott noticed something different: The blue eyed children were less inclined to bully their brown eyed classmates. Those were the children who had ostracized them on Thursday when they had been the inferior group, but one blue eyed child said:


‘I found out what it felt like to be at the bottom, and I did not want to make anyone feel like that ever again.’


The Problem We All Live With was, at one point in time and place, race. At others, language, gender, nationality, social or economic status, faith. In 1960, a six-year-old African American girl in pigtails was the problem that nearly shut down an all-white school in New Orleans. In 1968 and Mrs. Elliott’s class, the problem was a pigment. In Rwanda, 1994, a twelve-centimeter height difference. In Germany, once, a type of nose


Immigration status, level of wealth, diet, education, pedigree. The problem keeps changing. It must be in our eyes. Not their colour, but what they see. But if third grade students can learn and unlearn prejudice and bigotry, can we all not? Do we really need to have a problem to live with?


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