Lessons in Color: How Tribalism and Racism Can Be Taught

By Harlan Garbell

“If you wear a mask long enough, eventually the mask becomes who you are.”
— David Brooks

When I was in college in the 1960s I worked every summer as a counselor at an overnight boys camp near Eagle River, Wis. Without a doubt this was the best job I ever had. The work was easy and the camp was located on a beautiful lake in the north woods. Moreover, because the camp catered to rich kids from the northern suburbs of Chicago, the facilities were top notch and the food was terrific. For the most part, every year both campers and counselors had a lot of fun, as well as warm memories.

Among other things, the camp experience was designed to help young boys with the necessary socialization skills that would enable them to successfully cooperate with other boys in close quarters for eight weeks. And part of my job was to help facilitate this. Sounds like an admirable mission statement, right?

However, starting in the sixth week of every summer, the camp had an interesting tradition. It arbitrarily divided all campers from each age group into one of two teams — the Greens and the Whites. Then the camp held a comprehensive competition for one week between the two teams in various activities — archery, swimming, softball, tennis, tennis, etc. Campers were given green and white t-shirts to identify themselves during the week of this intense camp-wide battle.

Over time, this annual tradition devolved into competition on steroids. Each team developed its own cheers and songs glorifying Green (or White) and denigrating the athletic abilities of the other team. Disturbingly, kids who were once close cabin mates now became fierce rivals and winning seemed to become more important than cooperation and camaraderie with the kids of the “wrong” color.  

One of the curiosities of this tradition was that any camper who returned the following year had a 50/50 chance of being arbitrarily put on the other team during the Green/White competition. Ironically, this would not dampen in the least the enthusiasm of the camper for his new team, or his derision of his old team. A kid who last year may have been a fanatic Green-team member would now become a fanatic White-team member, and vice versa.

Camp management robustly supported the super competitiveness displayed during this period. I suspect they were working under the assumption that this competition prepared the boys for “real life.” That is to say, it was valuable to instill a competitive spirit in boys so that as they got older they would be primed to get into the best schools, get the best jobs, attract the best mates, etc.  And perhaps catering to the implied wishes of many parents, this competition would help make their “boys into men,” at least the mid-1960s projection of what a man should be. (Or, perversely, perhaps camp management were fans of William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies.)

Of course, as a child and teenager I also participated in sports and games with other children and teenagers. But this exposure as a young adult to this manufactured form of hypercompetition was new to me. As a college student at the time, what I learned from this experience was how dramatically children can change their attitudes and behaviors just by arbitrarily assigning them to a team, or a side. It was only later in life that I realized that what I was witnessing was what social scientists refer to as “tribalism.” And that attachment to a color could serve as one of its defining features. 

Coincidentally, in the ’60s, although I didn’t know it at the time, a now famous experiment was conducted involving third graders in rural Iowa. On April 5, 1968 (the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King), and with the consent of her students, a teacher named Jane Elliott developed a classroom exercise that has now become known as the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Experiment.” Its design was simple. Elliott separated the blue-eyed children in the classroom from the brown-eyed children. The blue-eyed students were then told they were the superior group and were given extra privileges such as being seated at the front of the class and being allowed more playtime at recess. They were also told to only play with other blue-eyed children and to ignore the brown-eyed ones. 

The brown-eyed children sitting in the back of the room were also made to wear distinctive collars to identify them as a minority group. Moreover, when they made mistakes, or broke a classroom rule, Elliott reprimanded them. However, Elliott didn’t reprimand the blue-eyed children when they made a similar mistake or broke a rule. Perhaps not surprisingly, she became aware that during this experiment the blue-eyed students became arrogant towards their brown-eyed classmates. Elliott also noted that the brown-eyed students started to do more poorly on class assignments compared to the blue-eyed students. 

The following week, Elliott completely reversed the exercise and made the blue-eyed students sit in the back of the room to make them feel inferior to the brown-eyed children, similar to the way brown-eyed students were treated the previous week. The results were remarkably similar: the academic performance of the blue-eyed students suffered.

As my personal camp experience in the ’60s was an example of intentional, manipulative tribalism, Elliott’s experiment was an example of an intentional, manipulative form of racism. Although both of these “experiments” in children’s behavior were very different, they were similar in that color was a common denominator and motivating factor for that behavior.

Unfortunately, in 2024, political and social strife resulting from tribalism and racism is still all too common. However, what if tribalism and racism, as concepts, were truly examined more critically by people utilizing their innate analytical powers? Perhaps we could then see more clearly, based on the sources of these concepts, how unnecessarily contrived and divisive they are. And what if these powers were also accompanied by the power of compassion humans often display to the other “team” in the face of injustice? 

If so, perhaps we as a species could significantly weaken and diminish the power that tribalism and racism hold on us. That people could really see how colors, as symbols, can be manipulated to divide us for social, psychological, and political purposes. That we could then see colors for what they truly are — just colors. 

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