Brown Eyes / Blue Eyes

When I walked in, the workshop leader looked deeply into my eyes. Sit there, she said in an unexpectedly harsh voice. A sign on my chair said: for people with blue/ gray eyes. Surprised, I looked around. What had I walked into? Behind me I saw two rows of people with brown eyes. The rules were on the wall: "People with brown eyes are the boss. They are always right." It felt very uncomfortable that the trainer had brown eyes and was strutting about in a tyrannical way.

The situation of power and powerlessness was staged: This was one of the workshops during the Symposium on Diversity that I attended. It was a group of ordinary people who were assigned a role based on a physical property that no one can control, namely the eye colour. Ordinary people suddenly became the 'good brown eye' and the 'bad blue eye'. The bad 'blue-eye' was described as arrogant, childish. Despite the fact that it was a 'play', the feeling that this evoked was real. Most blue-eyed people experienced intimidation, disrespect, humiliation; it was a threatening situation for them, some even became angry and annoyed. "I became nervous, felt pressured and could not think or behave properly," someone said afterwards.

If you want to read more experiences, have a look at this article (Dutch). Having or lacking power forces people - unconsciously - into a certain role. The influence this has on behaviour is mind blowing.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, Jane Elliott developed the behaviour training Brown Eyes Blue Eyes. She devoted extensive research to the effects of prejudice and repression, and concluded that role patterns that promote discrimination are taught/ learned.
The good news is that if it is taught behaviour, it can also be unlearned, albeit sometimes with considerable difficulty. So racism is not inherited, but has everything to do with power and education.

That presents us with an immense task to look into our own prejudices. Our own unconscious bias. Because diversity is a fact of society. It touches every individual. In essence, it is all about people having the freedom to be different. Diversity is a counterpart of discrimination and exclusion, and a way to learn from each other and use each other's talents.

In practice, however, shaping a positive appreciation of diversity in all layers of society does not happen without struggle. Take, for example, the following questions, also discussed at the same symposium:

  • As a manager, how do you promote the awareness process about the value of diversity?
  • Which dilemmas and challenges does an inclusive leader have to deal with?
  • How can a company use diversity to improve its business results?
  • How do you manage to formulate shared values and needs in a diverse environment, and to increase the willingness to collaborate?
  • How can you create a shared atmosphere in a diverse environment, enable dialogue and stay connected with yourself and the other person?
  • How do you include the voice of the minority in the majority decision?

The world around us is changing, also in the Netherlands. We see trends in our society, such as increasing polarization, the emergence of new identities and demographic changes that place our feelings about safety in a different perspective. We therefore have the collective task of looking at differences with a correct and inclusive view. The conversation about how differences can exist and how we deal with these differences is productive. The most powerful decisions are made by combining a variety of knowledge, talents, experiences and emotions.
The vision and methodology of Deep Democracy is very interesting in this context. This is a method for conflict resolution that was developed in South Africa in the post-apartheid period and is currently being applied in more than 20 countries around the world.

Out of necessity, 'the world' has been working for some time to tackle conflicts around power differences and discrimination, and training and methods have been developed everywhere. But this is no longer a remote issue. The Netherlands is now also obliged to adhere to the SDGs - Sustainable Development Goals (the successor of the Millennium Goals). Goal 10 is about promoting equality, officially: 'Reducing inequality within and among countries'. The Netherlands must also officially report on this, and is obliged to take steps to improve it.
As HildeConsult we will happily and with conviction contribute to that in the years ahead.