Thursday, 12 November 2009

The House Of Elliott

After being intrigued by the adverts for it during half term week, I finally got to watch Channel 4's The Event: How Racist Are You? this weekend. The concept of the exercise that the programme purported to demonstrate seemed fascinating: demonstrate to members of the public how it feels to be discriminated against by using eye colour instead of skin colour as the discriminating factor. By choosing this as the factor by which people are segregated, and making those with blue eyes the people who are deemed inferior with brown-eyed people being placed in the position of power, the exercise attempts to place white people in the position that non-white people often inhabit with a mixture of whites and non-whites in the position of the discriminators.

But the focus of the show was not quite what I had expected. What I had prepared myself to watch was simply a playing out of this scenario from beginning to end. What I got was something somewhat different. The exercise itself was certainly one focus of the programme, and it was fascinating to see how different people from different walks of life responded to the situation they were put in. But the primary agenda for the programme was its presentation of the person who came up with the scenario, and who has been putting people through the experience for around forty years, Jane Elliott. Elliott is shown in a number of different lights: innovator, educator, activist and bully to name just four.

In the end, I couldn't decide how the programme wanted me to feel about Elliott. Sporadically footage is shown of her work over the decades, beginning with her as a classroom teacher in the USA in the 1960s where her experiment began, which seems largely to be there simply to inform, rather than to condone or condemn. Krishnan Guru-Murthy sits with two experts (I forget their nams and exactly what made them experts, but they seemed credible enough) watching footage from the current experiment and commenting upon it throughout the show. This generally seemed to me to add credibility to what was being carried out, as explanations of Elliott's techniques and exercises are analysed and backed up with psychological and sociological references.

However, as the programme wore on, things seemed to turn against Elliott in more ways than one. Firstly, the participants in the experiment being carried out for Channel 4 did not behave in the way expected when compared to how the experiment has played out numerous times before. Essentially, several of the blue-eyed and the non-blue-eyed participants conformed to what Elliott wanted them to do, going so far as to sabotage some of the exercises rendering them worthless. A number of reasons were put forward for why this was, with the main being the fact that this experiment was being carried out in Britain, whereas previous experiments had been done in countries such as the USA, South Africa and Australia - essentially Britain did not historically have the same form of overt racism (according to some on the programme) as these countries, and coupled with the collective British psyche, this meant the exercise could never take off in the same way. By the end of the programme, it seemed to me that Jane Elliott was essentially being cross-examined, maybe even attacked, for her methods, her demeanour and what she is trying to demonstrate through the exercise she has created. Murthy's closing interview with her seemed to be primarily trying to undermine and belittle everything she stood for, but Elliott stood firm and maintained her dignity and integrity, and for that she further gained my admiration.

The issues raised by this programme I could write about for pages and pages, but I won't. Essentially, my feelings towards Elliott at the end of the programme were largely positive. Whilst she may seem unconventional and at times harsh in her methodology, I agree with her that it is pretty much essential in producing an effective recreation of the reality of racism. If the participants had the choice of which "side" to be on at the start of the exercise, then the effect would be greatly reduced (as one participant candidly states, she was never given the choice to be a black woman, it was assigned to her at birth, along with all of the prejudiced baggage that potentially comes with that role in society). Some of the participants seemed incredibly blinkered from what racism actually is (comparing the prejudice a skinhead may receive to that which a black man may receive is simply naive; to reject the valid point that a skinhead can choose to grow his hair to change, which the black man cannot do, is fairly mindboggling) and refused to see what the exercise may be able to help them understand. The programme makers seemed to sympathise far more with the viewpoint of some of the participants than of Elliott, whereas I felt precisely the opposite.

However you respond to it, there is no denying however that this was an incredibly worthwhile and thought-provoking programme, and I would urge others to watch it and see how they respond to what they are shown.

3 comments:

TheTelf said...

Honestly, the programme annoyed me. I might write something more florid later, but I'll just bullet point some of my first thoughts:

- I don't really understand what the point of the exercise was. If it was to show that people who are put into a position where everyone around them is working against them, and in which they cannot prosper no matter what they do will react in a particular way, then fair enough, but to have any application to the real world, there needs to be some evidence that the scenario matches the real world in some way, and I didn't see any of that evidence.

- It was often confusing as to whether Elliott was playing a role (as she was, presumably, when making personal comments about the blue-eyed group) and when she was being herself and trying to make sensible points.

- Despite being an exercise based around discrimination (and mostly centred on racism), there were no definitions given on what the term was taken as meaning.

- When one participant left the exercise, Elliott said something like "White people often don't like seeing other white people put in this kind of position.", which seemed to imply a racial motivation to the leaving for which she had no evidence.

- In the (stupidly short) interview at the end, she said that everyone who had gone through the (American) school system was racist. Despite being the most interesting point she made during the programme, she was not asked to back it up at all, and it was essentially ignored.

- The whole thing seemed like a bullying session with no reason behind it. One set of people were bullied by another set in order to prove that people who are bullied feel bad.

I'd love to have a proper discussion about the show at some point, whether on here or in person, since I feel like there's a lot to be said :)

The Big Lebamski said...

Interesting that you had such a contrasting response to the show. Some replies to a few things you've said:

"I don't really understand what the point of the exercise was. If it was to show that people who are put into a position where everyone around them is working against them, and in which they cannot prosper no matter what they do will react in a particular way, then fair enough, but to have any application to the real world, there needs to be some evidence that the scenario matches the real world in some way, and I didn't see any of that evidence."

From what I know of things such as apartheid in South Africa and what black people went through (and some still go through) in the USA, it seemed a pretty sound way of putting people who have never experienced that kind of discrimination into a position that in some way emulates that experience. You can't choose your skin colour; you can't choose your eye colour.

"It was often confusing as to whether Elliott was playing a role (as she was, presumably, when making personal comments about the blue-eyed group) and when she was being herself and trying to make sensible points."

I kind of agree here, but I got the impression that she's just that kind of person - humourless, hard-edged and defensive.

"Despite being an exercise based around discrimination (and mostly centred on racism), there were no definitions given on what the term was taken as meaning."

Not sure what your point is here. I'd guess that most people who the programme is aimed at would have these things defined for themselves already.

"When one participant left the exercise, Elliott said something like "White people often don't like seeing other white people put in this kind of position.", which seemed to imply a racial motivation to the leaving for which she had no evidence.
I honestly can't remember whether she said this or not, but if you're talking about the man who left at the start who said he'd rather be on the side of the victim than the aggressor, I had little sympathy for him. I realise we're only being shown an edited version of the full experiment, but he came across as a naive and ignorant person.

"In the (stupidly short) interview at the end, she said that everyone who had gone through the (American) school system was racist. Despite being the most interesting point she made during the programme, she was not asked to back it up at all, and it was essentially ignored."

I agree that the interview should have been given more than the couple of minutes it received at the end of the programme, but I can see where Elliott's coming from. Obviously my knowledge of the US school system is somewhat limited, but I took it to mean that whilst they may not be actively racist, the way that history is taught in the US moulds people into a certain way of thinking without them even knowing.

"The whole thing seemed like a bullying session with no reason behind it. One set of people were bullied by another set in order to prove that people who are bullied feel bad."

Isn't racism just a specific form of bullying? I would categorically disagree that the exercise had "no reason behind it" because of that fact.

It seems to me that most of your issues come not from the exercise itself, but the way the programme was made and edited. I agree that some parts felt cut short, particularly the interview, and I would happily have watched a programme on the exercise that was twice as long, which may have also given more room for things such as definitions and evidence and ultimately felt more successful as a programme. I can't help but feel that you're expecting a little too much from what is essentially a TV programme made for mainstream consumption. The things you want all seem to fit more into the idea of an essay, which was not what I went into the programme expecting. I didn't get what I was expecting to see, but for all its flaws (and there are some) I still stand by my appreciation for the exercise it showed and Elliott's methods.

TheTelf said...

Cheers for the responses, dude - my thoughts are as follows :D

"...it seemed a pretty sound way of putting people who have never experienced that kind of discrimination into a position that in some way emulates that experience."

But why are we trying to emulate that experience? What does the exercise achieve? If the whole point is to give the blue-eyed people a particular insight, then fair enough, but I couldn't see any indication of any insight achieved or views changed, either in the British experiment, or any of the others. If this insight is useful, then can we use it in other areas? Can we get people together and have them take turns to gang up on and beat the shit out of one another because it will give the people who were beaten up an insight into what it is like to be beaten up?

"I got the impression that she's just that kind of person"

Maybe so, but I think my main point was that either she wasn't playing a role (and hence genuinely doesn't like people with blue eyes), or she was playing a role during the exercise. This meant that when she was arguing with the blue-eyed group, there was no way of telling whether she was just trying to belittle them as part of the exercise, or was actually engaging in argument. In the "victim blaming" bit, for example - even though the blue-eyed woman immediately corrected herself, Elliott picked up on the mistake and berated her for it, rather than addressing the actual question that was asked.

"Not sure what your point is here. I'd guess that most people who the programme is aimed at would have these things defined for themselves already."

Well, Elliott is apparently using a definition that paints most people as racist. I'm not sure my definition would do the same, and so I'd be interested to see whether there are any differences between our interpretation of the word before she starts bandying it around.

"I honestly can't remember whether she said this or not"

It's about 12:07, and the exact phrase she uses is: "some of us white folks would rather not see white folks verbally, psychologically, mentally and emotionally abused for a few minutes". It seems to me that she is putting a racial motivation on the guy's actions for which she has no evidence.

"I had little sympathy for him. I realise we're only being shown an edited version of the full experiment, but he came across as a naive and ignorant person."

Why did he come across to you as naive and ignorant? He couldn't understand how what he was being asked to do fitted with his ethos, so he left. That seems like the kind of behaviour that would be described as desirable in a Milgram Experiment.

"Obviously my knowledge of the US school system is somewhat limited, but I took it to mean that whilst they may not be actively racist, the way that history is taught in the US moulds people into a certain way of thinking without them even knowing."

I took it to meant that too, but since I've not heard this point of view from anyone else, I'd be interested to hear some more justification/evidence from her before I accept it.

"Isn't racism just a specific form of bullying? I would categorically disagree that the exercise had "no reason behind it" because of that fact."

Goes back to my first response at the top - what was the reason?

"I can't help but feel that you're expecting a little too much from what is essentially a TV programme made for mainstream consumption. The things you want all seem to fit more into the idea of an essay, which was not what I went into the programme expecting."

Maybe. I get frustrated with a lot of programmes these days because they seem so light on evidence/explanation, but maybe I'm just expecting too much of a medium primarily designed for entertainment.