Author Krista Tibbs

Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes, Statistics, and Stereotypes

In Commentary, Integrity & Freedom, Science on March 17, 2012 at 11:51 pm
I ran across this video today about a teacher in the 1960s who separated her third grade class into blue-eyed students and brown-eyed students and told them that one group was better than the other just because of these characteristics. It was uncomfortable to see how the kids treated each other differently and how it measurably affected their academic performance — in just one day. Equally disturbing was the reaction of adults who underwent the same exercise twenty years later. Although the impetus for the blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it has relevance today for many issues from physical discrimination and achievement gaps to religious affiliations and political parties.

When academic programs are targeted to students with a certain color of skin or when the First Lady puts the spotlight on childhood obesity and uses it as a warning against eating fast food, it says to other kids that it’s okay to separate people and make judgments about their behavior and capabilities based on what they look like. In other words, it’s okay to assume all black kids need remedial preschool and it’s okay to call out the fat kids when it’s for their own good. These two things have bothered me for a long time, but I had never put them together this way before.

Maybe right now you’re defending the obesity crusade because of its intention or thinking that statistics show obesity is on the rise among children and that it’s a health problem. Okay, but statistics also show a rise in asthma and allergies among children, yet few people would suggest shaming asthmatics into breathing fresher air. I think solving a problem requires being honest about what is driving the selection of the problem to solve. Part of the overwhelming campaign against childhood obesity is driven by the pure discomfort at seeing fat kids. You want them to be healthy, but you also want to look away. If it were only a health issue, then a more comprehensive view of the data would show that kids are less healthy than they used to be in many ways, so the solution is for all kids to learn about living a healthy life, not just so they won’t get too fat or too thin or always have a snotty nose, but so they’ll feel good inside even if they don’t look like anything is “wrong” with them at all. Overall health and internal well-being aren’t measured by body fat calipers and a weight scale.

Statistics also show significant academic achievement gaps between racial groups and socioeconomic groups, which highlights an important problem that wasn’t acknowledged before it was measured. However, there is a high risk of exacerbating the problem if you treat individuals like the groups into which they fall. I believe this is one of several reasons why academic achievement gaps are widening. For example, Asian American kids typically do better on academic achievement tests than other racial or ethnic subgroups. A lot of people react to that with a nod, thinking yes, that makes sense. Ask yourself why. Then consider that for the same reasons, teachers might expect more, consciously or subconsciously, from the Asian kids in their class. If people assume you’re smart and competent, don’t you tend to want to prove them right, and mightn’t you learn faster as a result?

If that makes sense, then mightn’t it work the opposite way for Latino or African American students, who for years have been shown to perform lower on achievement tests than Asian students, on average? This is the danger of statistics; correlation does not mean causation. Just because a child has the same skin color as a lot of kids who are struggling academically, it doesn’t mean she will have trouble, too. But the reality is that she might be still be treated from the beginning as though she needs a boost just in case, so she might get simpler questions in class or more partial credit or more praise for easier tasks compared to her peers, not only depriving her of the challenges that will actually help her learn, but also creating in her an identity of someone who is not supposed to be good at school or meet high standards or solve hard problems. This is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

The video shows in gut-wrenching clarity how being the object of negative or positive discrimination can change even adults’ behavior and perceptions. To me, the frustration that was produced in just this short experiment goes beyond physical stereotyping to group stereotyping, especially religious or political. Organized religions and political parties are designed to provide a platform with which people can affiliate themselves, but just like statistics, what is true on average in a group is not necessarily true for an individual. So when you are viewed through the lens of your affiliation, and people treat you like the worst qualities of your group, and you can’t even explain your differing views because everything you say is interpreted against you, that’s a recipe for anger.

The video also highlights how easily people in authority can influence kids and adults to accept distinctions that originally seemed unfair. So I think it is particularly heinous when people in a position of influence use division by broad characterization (or mischaracterization) to further their own ends — even when, or maybe especially when, those ends are seemingly altruistic.

It’s a long video, but I hope you’ll watch it. (Thanks to Kelly Bliss for bringing this up.)

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