A Class Divided' Movie Review

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“Oh Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” The above lines from a Sioux prayer, hit a chord in light of the diverse and divided world we live in. Quoted by the protagonist Jane Elliott in the film “A class divided”, it embodies an attitude and outlook towards each other that would make this world a better place to live in.

After viewing the film

One of my biggest takeaways from this movie is the immense impact upbringing has on each and every one of us. It highlights important concepts of social learning. If a child can learn good behavior from a model like a teacher or parent, the same holds true for discrimination and prejudice. There is research that points to the role of differing levels of gender salience and classification in the classroom on the basis of gender, and the resultant gender attitudes and stereotypes in children (Bigler, 1995), (Hilliard & Liben, 2010).

There is evidence that suggests children are not born with prejudice, it is learned from their parents and teachers and other external societal influences. And as behaviorists state, behavior that is learned can also be unlearned. Thus, giving rise to a faint ray of optimism that even if not completely eradicated, prejudice and discrimination can be reduced, as is seen in the movie as well. Another learning from this film is the value of empathy and how far it can go to reduce interpersonal conflicts. By being at the receiving end of discrimination, all participants- children and adults alike resonated their enhanced understanding of how minority groups may feel on a daily basis and their resolution to bring about a change in their personal attitudes and behaviors. The exercise with the children was originally born out of the need to explain to the students why someone killed the man who was their hero of the month just two months back; why someone killed a man who wanted nothing more than freedom and equality; why would someone want to kill Martin Luther King? Elliott wanted to explain to the young minds the harsh realities of discrimination, she wanted them to understand prejudice and bigotry for what it truly was- an irrational caste system based upon purely arbitrary factors.

The film helps one understand just how susceptible we all are to learning prejudice. If little children can not only internalize irrational prejudices held by their teachers and parents, but also translate that prejudice into discriminatory behavior, all in the matter of a few hours; it is not too difficult to imagine the scary extents one may go to when completely overtaken by their prejudices. When a group of people grow in an environment full of prejudices against members belonging to a specific race, when they see discrimination against this group as an accepted part of their daily lives, when this segregation becomes such an inherent part of their lives that they don’t know of a society where they aren’t superiors- a man who has devoted his life to putting an end to this racial inequality is seen as an enemy, an enemy who poses the danger of disrupting a way of life that gave them all the desired comforts and power at the expense of others’ freedom and rights. When labeling an individual as a racist or criminal, one must take a step back to think about where we went wrong as a society. Education is not memorizing that Hitler killed 6 million Jews. Education is understanding how millions of ordinary Germans were convinced that it was required, Education is learning how to spot the signs of history repeating itself. The movie had several standout scenes. It was especially interesting to see the little children remove and throw away their collars with so much passion, as though getting rid of some form of chains restricting them. The children even described the collars as making them feel like they were “dogs on a leash” or inmates in a prison. During the exercise conducted with the prison officials, it was interesting to note that lot of the “brown eyed people” who were voicing prejudiced attitudes towards the “blue eyed people” were themselves from groups otherwise considered to be minorities (African Americans and Asians) who may have been subject to discrimination in their own lives. One of them, at the end of the exercise, even said that he experienced a sense of relief that he wasn’t a blue-eyed person. The entire exercise with the prison officials is one that leaves you especially surprised. It is disturbing to think that even adults, who are otherwise expected to have a more mature understanding and outlook, are so susceptible to constructed irrational classifications, that they exhibit discrimination against their peers within a short duration. No one seemed to question Elliott, neither on the bizarre workshop that she pretended to be conducting, nor on her vehement badgering and discrimination against a group of people based on their eye colours.

Even the blue eyed people seemed to accept their status as a minority with no resistance. Even without any explicit instructions, one man refrained from taking a chair because he said that he didn’t know if somebody would come take it away. When she seemed to target a couple of the blue eyed people, no one from their group stood up in support. One of the brown eyed ladies even made an association between her nephews’ behaviors and their eye colours, claiming that the brown eyed one was better behaved. She even went on to say that when she had kids; she’d want them to have to brown eyes.

We often like to justify exercises like these saying that it would only be possible with children, since they are more susceptible to messages from their elders. One likes to believe that if put in a situation as bizarre as this, we would all speak up and not mistreat our peers. However, this movie served as a surprise. As an Indian, I think the film holds just as much, if not more relevance, considering the varying forms of classification and discrimination that exist in our society. The three primary ones being caste, religion and gender. Any attempts to carry out a similar exercise in India, should be structured around these categories. Children in India are socialized to accept stereotypes as a part of their lives, and end up carrying forward the same. In the recent past, mainstream Hindi movies like “Article 15” and “Mulk” have certainly increased conversation around these harsh realities, but we still have a long way to go before we are able to come even close to eradicating prejudice and discrimination. Mob lynching against members belonging to a specific religion, caste based discrimination and untouchability, and gender violence are frequent occurrences. For a country as heterogeneous as ours, there is an enhanced need for sensitivity, which must begin from the youngest citizens in order for us to achieve a more united country.

The impact of discrimination

The body language of the children during the exercise varied on the two days, based on the identity assigned to them. The ones in majority appeared to be more dominating and aggressive, expressing the power they held over the others. They were privileged and they knew it. The ones in minority were very submissive and exhibited their helplessness. They expressed that it “seemed like everything was happening to us. The way they were treating us, we didn’t even feel like trying to do anything.” While one girl cried in the recess over the loss of her friends as a result of the discrimination, another boy picked a fight.

On the second day, when the roles were reversed, while the brown eyed children seemed to be thrilled to not be the minority anymore, their body language was not as aggressive towards the blue eyed people. The group identities assigned to the participants in both versions of the exercise came to act as self-fulfilling prophecies, wherein the people began to behave in accordance with the superior/inferior status assigned to them. They accepted and began to believe the labels and characteristics assigned to them. The children quickly adopted their teacher’s language, and began to attribute their (inferior) classmates’ mistakes to their eye colours. The term “brown-eyes” even became a bad word that ignited a physical fight between two children.

With the adults, the blue-eyed people who had been labeled as the inferiors, were observed to be submissive and did not raise any concerns over the glaring differential treatment. One of them even did not take a chair to sit out of fear of reprimand. When Elliott questioned a blue eyed man why he wasn’t taking notes, he went on to say that he didn’t think it would even matter. They had come to accept their inferior status as inevitable. The discrimination also had an impact on the children’s performance in the classroom. On the first day of the experiment, it took the brown eyed kids representing the minority five and one half minutes to get through the phonics card exercise. On the second day when they were the majority, it only took them two and one half minutes. According to Elliot, the only change was that they were now the superior people. When the “blue eyed” kids had been assigned the lower status, they also did worse on their assignment. The children explained this change in performance saying that they performed poorly when they were minority because they “kept thinking about those collars”.

There is existing research that supports this observation. In a study conducted with 13–17-year-old African American youth, higher perceived teacher discrimination was found to be associated with lower school performance (Assari & Caldwell, 2018). In another study done with a similar sample, students perceiving teacher-based racial and gender discrimination experienced lower levels of adjustment compared to students perceiving only form of discrimination (Thompson, 2012). In the exercise with the adults, one of the participants says that everyone experiences discrimination in some form or other. There may be some merit to this statement- considering that a lady expressed this thought, it would not be unimaginable that she would have been at the receiving end of some form of gender based discrimination at some point in her life. Even when Elliott is addressed as “lady” repeatedly by one of the participants, she says that it was a term that seemed to express disrespect, because it took away from her merit and identity as an authority figure of someone conducting a workshop and reduced her just to her gender, that too a gender that has historically been at the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination.

However, while it may be true that there are differing forms of classification and discrimination, one cannot place them at the same level of severity as the structured and institutionalized racial inequality that has targeted the African Americans in a long history full of violence, injustice and inequality. No outsider can ever truly experience what they have for generations. Elliott and her students discuss whether the exercise should be done with all children. I believe that while an essential lesson in the power and origin of prejudices and discrimination, it is one that needs to be carried out with extreme sensitivity and caution. Considering our diverse societies, we need to teach our children to be more accepting and to treat everyone equally; however, putting them through an exercise like this also includes the risk of exposing them to the heart wrenching emotions associated with being discriminated against and impacting their self-esteem. If just a few hours of being a minority group can affect the confidence of children, one can just imagine the devastating effects of living your whole life at the receiving end of discrimination- a life that is not far from reality for a lot of children. Like Elliott says, “the necessity for this exercise is a crime.”

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As important as we may believe it to be for children, I believe that it is even more essential to be done with parents and teachers, for they are the ones who play the most important role in shaping the young minds.

Structures that nurture bias

Elliott uses several mechanisms to emphasize the divide she had created. With the children, during the course of the exercise she addresses the minority group as “you blue/brown eyed people” in an accusatory tone which she changes to “people with the blue eyes/ people wearing the collars”. This seems to have a similar influence the term “lady” has in a reversed interaction with the adults, where the socially constructed identity is regarded as the prime feature of one’s personality, similar to referring to African-Americans as blacks/negroes.

The collars also play an essential role in creating the divide, since they served the purpose of clearly identifying the minority group even from a distance. This seems as an attempt to replicate the color based racial discrimination, since the collars were more easily identifiable as compared to the eye colors, enabling those in the majority to decide how to behave accordingly.

She ascribed features to the inferior groups, saying they were more violent, not as smart, unhygienic, undisciplined and arrogant; all of them characteristics historically ascribed to the African Americans as the basis for discriminating against them. She told the children that the inferior group was not allowed to use the drinking fountain and had to use paper cups so as to maintain distance from the other group, and that they were not allowed to take second servings of lunch because they may take too much. She even regulated access to certain privileges like extra play time for the kids and better seats and respect for the adults. In doing so, she truly created a microcosm of the segregated society by imposing restrictions like the white supremacists often do, and explaining it using the negative stereotypes attached to the inferior group.

Elliott selectively interpreted the participants’ behavior to confirm her stereotypes, associating every minute success or achievement with the superior group, and explaining every short coming of the inferior group as a result of their identity. When an adult pointed out that she had blue eyes like the inferior group, she explained saying she had been able to overrule the characteristics of that identity since she had learned how to behave in a brown eyed world. One of the adults belonging to the inferior group also expressed that he saw no use of arguing or voicing his discontent, for he was sure that she would use the very act of arguing to put them down further.

This might serve to partly explain why the adults do not refuse to obey her instructions, and go along with the exercise that was clearly creating a divide between them. Perhaps the ones in the superior group went along with the exercise simply due to the fact that they were enjoying a position of power and were not at the receiving end of discrimination, and so felt no need to change the existing dynamics which clearly favoured them. While watching this movie, I was reminded of two other famous experiments- that demonstrated one’s obedience to authority, even to the point that it conflicts with one’s personal conscience (Milgram’s experiment); and how quickly people can take on assigned roles and identities in situations of power conflict, and even engage in severe forms of harassment to the same end (Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment) - exhibiting the significant impact of social influence even on adults.

Looking for answers

In the exercise with the children, when two kids from different groups get into a fight, Elliott is quick to address the situation and helps the boy from the inferior group realize the futility of his actions. He had picked a fight because he felt attacked when the other boy called him “brown-eyes” and his physical aggression was his way to express his anger and helplessness, however he realized that neither did fighting make him feel any better, nor did it put an end to the discrimination. Political violence or violence as a political strategy is a part of the world we live in, be it in the form of wars, or police brutality, counter-insurgency, terrorism, or rioting. Political violence generally arises out of a feeling of relative deprivation, wherein a group of people feel that they have been at the receiving end of unfair disadvantages and a lack of opportunities, and this violence serves as a way out of the prevailing power dynamics by making sure their voice is heard. At the time of this exercise, the boy from the inferior group was the one using violence as a political strategy, as a way to fight against the unequal division created by his teacher. On a larger scale, political violence was prevalent in the form of acts of police brutality against the African Americans, and groups like the “Black Panthers” who challenged the same. Martin Luther King strongly condemned acts like these, and was a strong advocate for non-violence. Elliott wanted to use the exercise as a way to help her students truly understand the meaning of the Seoux prayer quoted at the beginning. She wanted to teach her students a lesson in non-judgment, and the fact that one could never imagine another person’s hardships until they had put themselves in his/her shoes. She wanted the students to realize that all people act the same way, it was just a tragedy that the different colors of skin were what us hit us first.

Self, social locations and counseling

There are several identifiers that define me as an individual- I’m a woman, a feminist, an Indian, a dog-lover, a Hindu, a sister, a daughter as well as the daughter of an Army officer.

There are some descriptors that are very peripheral to my sense of self- like the fact that I’m a Hindu, or my birth place, or what caste my parents are from. I don’t relate to these descriptors, because I have been brought up in an environment where my religion or my caste was not made salient. Other aspects of my identity- being a woman, a feminist, an Indian and the daughter of an Army officer- are more central, since I believe that it is these that have shaped the way I look at the world and relate to those around me, and are also those that I hold closer to my heart. These identities have different sources: me being a woman was something I did not play much of a role in as far as my sex is concerned, but deciding to be a feminist is something that was shaped as a result of my interactions with people and the world. It was an identity I consciously took on, and it is one I am working towards every single day. Being an Indian and coming from an army background are again identities that can be traced to my birth, but the importance attached to them is also a result of my upbringing, my experiences and the kind of future I wish to create for myself.

As is true for all identities, the ones I associate with also come with certain discriminations and privileges attached. I know that as woman, I am at the receiving end of various negative stereotypes limiting my strength and my capabilities, yet at the same time I acknowledge how privileged I have been to have had the opportunities to break against those stereotypes and be a feminist. Every day I learn more about the challenges women face world over, and every day I realize how fortunate I am. The word feminism is often given negative connotation of hating all men, and that is a battle we all must fight. I understand that I may have access to resources that empower me to identify myself as a feminist and call out patriarchal structures, however there may be many who don’t have a similar kind of access or whose life conditions prevent them from breaking free.

Within the counseling setting as well, I believe that it is important to equip oneself with the knowledge of the client’s social and cultural locations, and be conscious of the fact that we live in a very diverse and segregated society, and that there are several multicultural forces at play that shape a person’s experiences and in turn their personalities. One cannot look at any event in a client’s life in isolation, and we must realize that their reactions and emotions are shaped by their social identities which have regulated their access to power, privileges and opportunities throughout their lives.

I believe that it is of utmost importance to have a non-judgmental approach towards your clients, and to not let your personal identities interact with the client’s, because there is the possibility that ideologies that I strongly identify with, stand in sharp to contrast to their social identities and beliefs. It is important to empathize with one’s client’s situation, no matter how far located it may be from one’s own personal reality.

As important as non-judgment and empathy may be, I also accept that there may be certain client groups that I might not be too comfortable working with. For instance, I believe that I would have a hard time dealing with clients who have very rigid gender roles, or perhaps perpetrators of gender based violence since I believe that I may experience some difficulty suppressing my strong feminist beliefs. I also think that I might not be as successful in dealing with children because I might not succeed in making the children comfortable around me. However, these are all aspects that I wish to work on and overcome during the course of my career.

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