That’s so Writan!

Wrītan is a home for writings and reflections on race, love, culture, and perception.

Wrītan, pronounced “Writ-TAWN”, which means “to write, draw or engrave” in Old English — comes from when writing was done by carving runes into wood or stone. It is the root of the word ‘write’ and resonates because of my experience of synesthesia that blurs those lines, but also because it reminds me that things we think of as different — writing and drawing, were once thought of as one.

We build our worlds with the words we use and the marks we make, the food we eat, the intentions we set, and the frames we create — from how we as individuals and as a society, value and live our bodies and our environments, to how power is used and constructed.

The natural world isn’t made up of discreet parts, and neither are we.

We create categories to make sense of our world, but categories can also be used to assign value. As Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum put it so plainly* “Why does leadership matter? Human beings categorize it’s what we do. We categorize lots of things… people, plants, but we look to our leaders to know which categories matter. Leadership doesn’t just mean in a political sense. When you’re a kid it can be parents, siblings. When the leader defines “us” versus “them” narrowly fear increases. When “us” versus “them” is defined very broadly fear is reduced.”

The systemic inequities we see today and the biases we have that stem from white supremacy, patriarchy and colonialism were created to support a narrow narrative of the world and who we are in it — but that’s just one story. Wrītan is a place for exploring the multitude of ways we see and move in the world, and envisioning our possible selves and futures.

Where I’m coming from.

I’m an artist, writer and researcher with a background in psychology, neuroscience, and education. I’ve worked with progressive organizations on issues ranging from education, healthcare, transportation and the environment, to racial and economic justice. You can see some of my projects — here.

I’m also a white, queer, middle-class, physically fit, highly-educated, woman from the Northeast, who was raised by parents who talked to me about race and identity from a very young age. I know that’s the filter through which I come to my experiences and that they are mine alone. We all hold our personal truths. I am here to learn, to listen, to share the bits and pieces I’ve knitted together over the years, and to dare myself to do more of that in public to invite collaboration. If you’ve got a story to share, a newfound definition or perspective on race, love, culture and perception that shook your world drop me a line at: [email protected]

Balancing individual and shared truths.

In my writing here I’ll be sharing personal experiences, lessons from friends and teachers, research, passing thoughts I had while taking a walk. I’ve found each to provide very different, but valuable kinds of information. Science can point to patterns and trends we can’t intuitively see or understand, which is immensely important to understanding systems of oppression that develop and occur over long periods of time. But it’s a symbiotic relationship. Personal experience and embodied ways of knowing, serve as an important jumping off point for research** and more generally how we make decisions in the world.

Strangely it was my studies in psychology, neuroscience and education that brought the importance of emotion and intuition in learning and how we see the world into sharp focus for me.

Emotion acts as a rudder.

While some psychological findings have found their way into popular knowledge — like if you slap a brain scan on an article and people are more likely to believe nonsensical narratives; or the less you know about something the more likely you are to think you know more*** — the finding that “factual knowledge alone is useless without a guiding emotional intuition.” seems to have not really filtered out into popular knowledge (p.76). Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a researcher who focuses on the role of emotion in learning, and Matthias Faeth, talk about the importance of skilled intuition in decision-making.

“Emotion guides the learning of our participant much like a rudder guides a ship (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). Though it and its influence may not be visible, it provides a force that stabilizes the direction of a learner’s decisions and behaviors over time. … Skilled intuitions are often an important step in the development of emotional thought and are built through repeated revisiting of real or simulated bodily sensations in the light of the “cognitive” aspects of knowledge.” (p.71, The Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning)

I know some of you might be thinking, “Ok, so emotion is important in guiding behavior ….obviously.” But, her point here is slightly headier than that… and why it has stuck with me… it’s not just that those intuitive ways of knowing and understanding the world are important, they are the basis for logical decision-making. Without an emotional guide, studies have found people can’t make logical decisions. So we learn to a certain degree by embodying our thoughts — by feeling them in our bodies.

Hierarchies of value.

Another psychological term that has come into greater popular use, particularly when talking about racism, is implicit bias, or unconscious preferences based on race. At it’s most basic level however, implicit bias is just an example of the role that emotional thought plays in decision-making. Since we’re taught to assign categories to people based on what we learn in our environments, we develop unconscious emotional responses that guide our physical reactions and therefore our decisions. Borrowing Truth Racial Healing & Transformation’s definition, another way of thinking about it is that racism is the “false belief in a hierarchy of human value based on race” and implicit biases are the unconscious physical embodiment of that belief.

Hierarchies of value based on race, gender, and country of origin, extend into how we value knowledge as well, which we see reflected in differential pay rates or lower compensation for jobs historically held by women, people of color and immigrants. It’s also interesting to think about how hierarchies play out when it comes to different types of knowledge.

The more you know…

Coming from a background in the arts where asking questions with no clear answer is a regular occurrence, it was refreshing to me to hear scientists openly talk about how much is unknown, but it was also shocking. Experts would stand up in front of a crowd and say “we don’t know how that works” and yet scientists’ legitimacy and the validity of their work was/is not regularly questioned in the same way artists’ work is.

I know the quick rebuttal is that “science is objective” and that’s why the validity is not thrown into question… “they’re just following the scientific method. Art is another story…” But, I think when it comes down to it, it has much more to do with the privileging of “logical” thought over emotion and intuition that has happened by white men for centuries — a field, coincidentally dominated by white men. Emotions were considered to be less important silly woman business. A story which, as we just reviewed, runs counter to scientific findings.

Facts are important.

Just because you disagree with something doesn’t mean it’s fake news. Not everything is about subjectivity. The facts are we are genetically more similar as a species than we are different, the planet is getting warmer, and we are extremely susceptible to our emotions and both small and large social cues that we’ve learned, which include false beliefs about hierarchies of value that say that some of us are more disposable or less deserving or recognition, love or care.

So, it’s extremely important that science and many other of our institutions have been dominated by a small sliver of the population, namely cis white men, because it means that’s whose guts have been driving research and decision-making in our institutions for centuries. So, my goal is to acknowledge facts and shared truths while holding space for questioning those norms, since so many systems have been shaped by such as small group for so long.

That’s so Wrītan!

When I told a friend about the idea for this project, she immediately starting inserting it into our conversation, using it as a verb to describe when something is “whole” or resisting being forced apart by culture, habit, custom. I love that the word slipped so easily into her lexicon — helping to articulate this complex process. Wrītan is about exploring what is and what experiences that maybe don’t “fit” the stories we’ve been told. Rather than seeing those experiences as lacking validity, they may just be trail markers for another path we need to take.

While the path we’re on right now often feels exhausting, I’m excited by the idea that maybe the darkness that we’re in is in fact a period of rebirth, and hope that Wrītan can help to be part of that process for myself and others.

– Caitlin Gianniny


* These are my notes from a talk Dr. Tatum gave at an event hosted by Facing History and Ourselves on 1/31/18.
** A former professor of mine, Bruno Della Chiesa, who founded the Brain and Learning Project at the OECD, always told us (I’m paraphrasing) “In academia we have this bad habit of dismissing things as anecdotal evidence, but experience is extremely important. Good researchers use those observations and experiences to point towards research questions. They are a basis for research.”
***The psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, gained popular recognition in the past year as an explanation of Trump’s behavior.

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