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What if we opened our eyes to the potential all around us?

Rochester Business Journal
April 12, 2013

By all rights, by all accounts, by any logic or stretch of the imagination, if you had asked anyone about it, it should have been a white person who was the first to separate twins conjoined at the head, perhaps the son or daughter of medical doctors. Or some might have posited that it might be an Asian, relying on the tacit model Asian theory. But defying all contemporary "logic," it was a black man who performed this miraculous feat. Not any black man, but an inner-city black man, raised by a single mother!
Ben Carson could easily have ended up like many inner-city black males-a school dropout, a thug, a wino on the corner. But no, it was his single black mother who took him off that track and made him read books and do well in school. But my story is not so much about what his mother did, because many mothers-black, white, brown, red and yellow-have done the same with their children. Aside from what his mother did, this inner-city black kid had something inside himself that would enable him to become one of the best neurosurgeons in the world. Ben Carson became a bundle of realized potential.
Think about it. How many Ben Carson-like kids are out there who never realized their potential, who might have cured cancer, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, solved environmental problems, invented new wonders, solved seemingly unsolvable problems?
I view all kids as bundles of potential, and the role of educators, parents and caring adults is to help those kids realize their potential. But as I saw in some snippets of a special program about the plight of black males in the Rochester school system, many or perhaps most teachers did not view their students as bundles of any kind of potential-except, perhaps, the potential to be stupid, a gangbanger, a drag on society. And so only 11 percent of black males graduate from the Rochester school system, a self-fulfilling prophecy by those teachers. What if those teachers took a different view and looked to unlock the hidden genius in their students?
I'm reminded of the blue-eyed/brown-eyed study created by the anti-racism activist schoolteacher Jane Elliott. As the story goes, she was motivated by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. when a white reporter confronted a black person, saying that "when our leader (referring to John F. Kennedy) was killed," Jackie Kennedy held us together; who is going to hold "your people" together? As an Iowan, she was concerned about how Native Americans were treated and made a link between the two. As a result, she wanted her students to understand a Native American saying, "Oh, Great Spirit, keep me from ever judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins." So she decided her white students needed to be treated as Native Americans, Hispanics, blacks, women and others were treated.
To do this, she separated her students into two groups: those with blue eyes, who were treated as superior, and those with brown eyes, who were given brown collars to wear and were treated as inferior. This was similar to the way Nazis in Warsaw had determined who would go to the gas chamber, separating people by eye color, as related in Leon Uris' book "Mila 18" and confirmed by historical accounts.
To overcome some initial resistance, Elliott told the students that science proved that blue-eyed people were superior. This seemed to lead students to accept their new roles. Elliott then treated the blue-eyed kids as superior, with special privileges, praise, etc. She treated the brown-eyed students as inferior, criticizing them, pointing out the slightest thing that was or appeared to be wrong.
There were almost immediate changes in the students. Blue-eyed students who had not been doing well in the class, some even seeming to be slow, soon started doing very well in subjects such as reading and math that they could not grasp previously. These kids' performance improved, but they also soon became arrogant-even formerly shy students-and started treating the brown-eyed students poorly. The brown-eyed students, many of whom had been some of the best students, started performing poorly on tasks that previously had been very easy for them. They started acting inferior, and even those who had been dominant started acting scared and unconfident.
To be fair, Elliott reversed the exercise the next day, making the brown-eyed students superior and the blue-eyed students inferior. She again observed changes in the students' personalities, but the change was not as dramatic as it had been the first time.
Unconscious bias can create self-fulfilling prophecies, especially with young people who presumably are the most vulnerable to how they are perceived by adults, especially if they have no counterbalancing forces that show them their self-worth. Many parents of minority kids have inculcated the stereotypes about themselves, as did the brown-eyed kids in the first exercise by Elliott, so how would we expect them to give another message to their children? Non-minority kids and adults have also inculcated stereotypes about non-white others because of attribution bias based on media representations and sensationalized news stories. When we hear about a white youth perpetrating a violent crime, we do not ordinarily assume that all white youths are violent criminals, but we are more apt to think all black youths are criminals when we hear about a black youth perpetrating a violent crime.
Is it possible that being exposed to countervailing evidence might change our stereotypical biases? What if teachers knew that the smartest family in Britain was black? Or that there are black kids in this country as well who are geniuses? What if teachers treated their students as blue-eyed young people? What could that mean not only for the children in the Rochester school system but for the city of Rochester? For society? What if teachers started treating all children as bundles of potential? And, you businesspeople, what if employers started treating their workers as bundles of potential?
There are bundles of potential all around us. We just need to intentionally decide to see them.

dt ogilvie is dean of the E. Philip Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology.4/12/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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