Wednesday, October 15, 2008

All X's are Y [and therefore a burden on society]

Let me begin by saying that
- all Biharis are corrupt
- all Indians are backward arranged-marrying idol-worshippers
- all Americans are burger eating fat people
- all Black people are stupid
- all Muslims are violent people, perhaps terrorists
- all Italians are mafia members
- all girls are stupid in math
- all white people lack family values
- all bloggers are shallow

Of course, I could go on and on about these "truths" and I am sure that all of you have heard/read/felt one of the above one time or the other.

As far as I know, these are called stereotypes. They cannot be proven from first principles, but if you assume that they are true, you can find examples to support your claim [Lalu is corrupt, my neighborhood Bihari IAS officer is corrupt, ergo, all Biharis are corrupt], and all counter-examples can be seen as mere "exceptions".

But you see, we can all talk and preach about these, but do we _really understand_ what being discriminated against feels like? Do we understand how _utterly arbitrary_ the criterion is which is used to determine if people of a certain race/religion/region/sex are inferior or superior?

I thought I did. And then I saw this:

From the article [ref: this post from a new blogger, who happens to be a great friend]

On any normal weekday morning, Jane Elliott looked forward to getting to her classroom at the Riceville, Iowa, Community Elementary School and to the teaching job she loved.


But that Friday in April, 1968, was not a normal morning. The day before, Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis. For Jane, that had suddenly made a lot of things different. She had made a decision about what she would do in her class, a decision that now made her reluctant to leave the house for school.


Then, suddenly, on the night of the day that Martin Luther King was murdered, all of these memories and experiences had coalesced into an idea of how she might give her third-graders a sense of what prejudice and discrimination really meant.

Jane took a deep breath and plunged in. "I don't think we really know what it would be like to be a black child, do you?" she asked her class. "I mean it would be hard to know, really, unless we actually experienced discrimination ourselves, wouldn't it?" Without real interest, the class agreed. "Well, would you like to find out?"

The children's puzzlement was plain on their faces until she spelled out what she meant. "Suppose we divided the class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed people," she said. "Suppose that for the rest of today the blue-eyed people became the inferior group. Then, on Monday, we could reverse it so that the brown-eyed children were inferior. Wouldn't that give us a better understanding of what discrimination means?"

Now there was enthusiasm in their response. To some, it may have meant escape from the ordinary routine of a school day. To others, it undoubtedly sounded like a game. "Would you like to try that?" Jane asked. There was an immediate chorus of assent.

I don't think words can do justice to the experience of watching the documentary.

If you have any respect of my opinions that I share on this blog, if you believe that any part of what I say is "interesting", I urge you to watch the whole documentary. If you don't have too much time, just watch the first chapter -- its only 10 minutes.

Being from an upper-middle-class family of the upper caste of the religious majority of a country whose national language is the same as my mother tongue, I had longed to be able to feel what the 'other side' feels, and this piece surely does the trick.


And if you are living under the delusion that stereotypes are a thing of the past in the USA or elsewhere, maybe this will remind you of where we are today.

See, Obama is a family man citizen, ergo, not an Arab.

Seriously, go watch the documentary. At least a part, to get yourself hooked :).

Extra: Wikipedia page on the doc.


  1. i've seen the documentary a couple times before, and it's truth is always all-too-relevant. thanks for sharing it with your community. it should be required viewing for anyone who believes in the ability of humankind to just GET OVER itself.

  2. Due to your imploring request I watched a part of it at 7:30 in the morning, got hooked and watched the 2nd part too, will watch the rest at the end of the day. The wiki article gives a debatable stand on the whole thing though. Some of the questions and concerns popped into my mind as well while watching the documentary. Nevertheless lesson learnt!

  3. Sharjeel9:27 PM

    Hah! Blue eyes/Brown eyes is in the genre of those experiments such as the Milgram experiment or the Stanford prison experiment by Zimbardo which show the fragility and corruptibility of human beings. Behavioral pschycology is such a fun thing ain't it.

  4. Thanks for the link! Reading the criticism of the technique only seems to make its argument more stronger.
    Jane Elliot is certainly a powerful teacher.
    Here's a link to another great teaching technique though for more technical matters.