I’m Not Racist But…

by John Moriarty, originally published here .

2019 Festival of Creative Learning, I’m not racist, but…: Challenging prejudice and unconscious bias

Maybe you cringed a little at the title. Maybe you thought, ‘Oh boy, there’s no good way to follow that.’ Perhaps you finished it off yourself somehow. My thought was something along the lines of ‘Sure buddy, you just sometimes say racist things,’ which illustrates part of the difficulty in talking about our biases, especially unconscious biases, which were the subject of this FCL workshop. It began with an introduction to the basics of unconscious bias from Dr. Véronique Desnain, followed by a discussion on sex and gender bias led by Ellen Davis-Walker and a segment on racial bias by Dr. Issa Robson. The session closed with a practical activity exploring just how equal society is.

I’ve thought for a long time that the way the human mind works is fascinating. It gives us an insight into how we think and, the more we learn about it, the more we have to challenge our assumptions about the way we think. As a basic example, take an expression like ‘I felt it in my heart’. This refers to a real feeling that can accompany many different emotions: joy, anxiety, grief, anger. You feel a tightness in your chest as though something was actually squeezing your heart, but all those sensations are happening in your brain. You perceive them elsewhere because that’s how humans work, but our senses aren’t perfect and they don’t tell us the whole story.

When it comes to thought, especially unconscious thought, things gets even harder, since we generally just think, much like we just walk or breathe. A lot of the work is done without much conscious thought based on our past experience and a little instinct. So while we like to think of ourselves as rational beings making rational choices, a more accurate image might be well-intentioned, slightly smarter-than-average chimpanzees.

What I didn’t appreciate until I did some more reading was the immense gulf between the amount of information that comes into our brains compared to the amount we can actually think about at once. Pinning down a bit rate for the brain is tricky, since it isn’t a computer and doesn’t follow the same rules, but some research has put the amount of information coming in through our eyes at a little under 20 Mbit/s (around the speed of a good ethernet connection)1.

Trying to come up with a comparable bit rate for conscious thought is even harder, but estimates float in a range between 20 and 120 bit/s, depending on the tasks involved and how measurements are done2,3. The exact number isn’t very important, but the fact that these numbers are almost a million times less than what the eyes send to the brain is powerful evidence that there is a lot going on inside our heads we are not consciously aware of!

Sticking with the example of sight for now, information from our eyes is handled by specialised parts of the brain which interpret it before it gets to our conscious mind. In doing so, it filters the light that comes through the eye: yellows and greens are seen as relatively more intense than reds and blues. If you think about this in evolutionary terms it makes sense: we evolved under the light of a yellow star, so our eyes are most sensitive in the yellow parts of the spectrum. Consider the lemon, one of the most obvious examples of a yellow object. In reality, lemons reflect more red light than yellow, but because our eyes don’t see red as well they appear yellow to us (unless something like tritanopia interferes)4 .

In the same way that our brains take shortcuts to process the information coming from our senses, they use mental shortcuts called heuristics to simplify decision-making. Unfortunately these come from the chimp parts of the brain, so they’ve evolved to avoid predators and find food, not to be rational or moral. Stereotypes are a kind of heuristic: they are a way to save on mental effort by categorising the world, whether fairly or unfairly.

To make matters worse, even when a particular heuristic is demonstrably false (“that chimp with different coloured hair didn’t try and kill me and take my banana!”), the chimp brain is more likely to make an exception and keep the incorrect rule than to revise or discard the rule itself (“that particular chimp with different coloured hair is OK, the rest are murderous banana thieves”)5

By understanding that this is part of what it is to be human and being aware of when the chimp brain is doing our thinking for us, we can counteract these unconscious biases to a certain degree, or at least make plans to reduce their effects.

What We Can Do About It

An important point made during the session was that it is difficult to have useful discussions about unconscious biases. When it comes to biases about race, sex, gender or any other sensitive issue, many of us have come to view words like racist or sexist (or irrational, or biased) as insults rather than as descriptions of behaviour. In doing so, we condemn ourselves to feeling upset about being described that way rather than actually thinking about our actions and addressing our behaviour – perhaps becoming a little more rational and a little less biased in the process.

A vital thing to remember is that biases aren’t always expressed in obvious ways. Sometimes, especially when we’re dealing with unconscious bias, it comes out as much smaller things that wear down the people affected by it over time. For example, “Where are you from?” is an entirely reasonable thing to ask a person, but if they don’t fit your chimp brain’s stereotype of chimps from the particular place they mention, following up with, “Where are you really from?” implies that (a) they don’t belong and (b) they aren’t being honest with you. It isn’t a racist tirade, but if different people ask that question regularly it’s easy to see how it could get real old, real fast.

As an exercise in empathy, consider a question you don’t like being asked. Maybe it’s, “Have you done your homework?” or, “When are you getting married?” or “When are you having another baby?”. Now imagine that someone different asks you it, twice a day, every day. After a while, your inner chimp will want to throw bananas at someone (I think I might make it a week… maybe).

Also mentioned was how useful the internet is for anyone who wants to learn about these issues. Asking someone who knows more about it than you is all well and good if they’re happy to do it, but chances are you can just google it instead and save them the trouble. You get to pick how long or complicated an explanation you want and they don’t get wrung out repeating the same explanations to everyone with the same questions as you.

The final presentation of the day was a more personal one, with Dr. Robson recounting her experience of racial bias at university and in the veterinary profession. It wasn’t easy listening. When it doesn’t impact us personally, it can easy to forget that racism still exists and still makes people’s lives miserable.

More importantly, returning to the previous point, from the outside it can look like an isolated incident, while to those impacted the effect is sustained and profoundly awful. Dr. Robson detailed numerous occasions where other people would try to convince her that a particular incident was “just a joke” or that the prepetrator was “really a nice person”: effectively telling her what her own experiences were (and directly contradicting her own memory).

There is a name for this kind of behaviour: gaslighting, and it’s a form of psychological abuse. Again, empathy is key. If someone comes to us and is clearly upset about something, casually waving away their concerns and trying to tell them what their feelings ought to be is not a good response. We owe each other far better than that.

To finish off the day, we took part in a group exercise to try and make us think about the realities of people with very different lives from us. We were each given a piece of paper with a short description of a person: age, sex, gender expression, education, wealth, circumstances – all sorts of things. We then stood in a row and were asked a series of questions. For each “yes” answer we took a step forwards, for each “no” a step back. After a few dozen questions it became obvious that there were two clusters of people: one stuck against the back wall and another group spread across the front of the room.

As a way of visualising and exploring how society treats people differently it was a simple but powerful approach. Seeing the other people in the room either disappear in front or behind you was quite a chilling illustration of how unfair our “equal” society can be, as well as being an effective way to “walk” a mile in someone else’s shoes.

The Bottom Line

Having these conversations – any of them – isn’t easy: they require us to put our chimp brains on hold and instead try to pick through what can be complex issues that we might not fully understand. That said, if we want a society of rational people free from bias (conscious or unconscious), we must have the courage to communicate about subjects that make us uncomfortable, the empathy to appreciate experiences different from our own and the kindness to support each other as we try to do what is right, regardless of how uncomfortable it might be.

References, Notes and Information for the Curious

1. Koch, K., McLean, J., Segev, R., Freed, M. A., Berry, M. J., Balasubramanian, V., & Sterling, P. (2006) How Much the Eye Tells the Brain. Current Biology, 16 (14), 1428-1434. A fascinating paper on the subject of retina bit rate in gerbils (extrapolated to humans).

2. M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology which estimates the conscious mind capable of ~120 bit/s based on the information in a conversation.

3. The Information Capacity of the Human Motor System in Pursuit Tracking. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12 (1). An attempt to measure bit rate by having participants track a moving target. The authors mention several other attempts to make similar measurements.

4. Lemons are more red than yellow (see page 4).

5. Kunda, Z. & Oleson, K. C. (1995). Maintaining stereotypes in the face of disconfirmation: Constructing grounds for subtyping deviants. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68 (4), 565-579. A good demonstration of how rational we aren’t.

6. Project Implicit: a project at Harvard University that attempts to quantify unconscious bias. You can take a test yourself if you’d like!

7. The Kirwan Institute publishes annual reviews on the research on unconscious bias. The 2013 and 2014 reviews are good general introductions to the subject, while later years focus more on different aspects of the subject.

Thinking Outside the Tutorial [and the PALs room]

2019 Festival of Creative Learning, Engaging the Disengaged: Creative Facilitation in the Tutorial

by Anita Lekova

Student peer assisted learning leaders (PALs) Anita Lekova and Julia Manzo detail their work with PhD student and tutor Larissa Nenning to create a festival event centered around promoting creative learning at the University.

The idea for this event conceived on a blustery Scottish evening under the dim lights in the DHT underground cafe. The idea was simple: to have a space for peer leaders and tutors to connect over the material they share. With the innovation and drive of former PALs leader and current tutor Larissa Nenning, a dream was able to become reality.

What followed was a whirlwind of brainstorming, coffee runs, avocado toast, and marketing. An event like this was a first for all of us involved, and we were determined to make it a success. Within the University, students have access to a plethora of materials, between lectures, tutorials, and peer learning sessions. Every student learns differently, however, and we really wanted to look at alternative teaching techniques that are frequently used across SPS tutorials and PALs sessions, and offer a space to discuss best practices.

In terms of marketing, Chrystal Macmillan building became our saviour. Posters and flyers about our event were placed all across the building, including in the PhD room. Once we had opened the event sign-ups to the public, we were thrilled to see that our advertising had worked – we had a mix of tutors, lecturers, and PALs leaders all signed up.

The day before the event was spent preparing custom-made booklets for participants and arranging goodybags, which included pens and further creative facilitation resources. These included a sample lesson plan template, information on PALS schemes in SPS, the official PALS Leader toolkit, and the SALTO Youth Holistic Learning Toolkit. At 9 PM we left CMB with high hopes for the following day!

On the Day of the Event

The day began the same way any successful event does – with copious amounts of coffee and a fair scramble to get materials in order. With the room set up, and ten minutes left until participants arrived, we took a moment to reflect on our plan for the day. With the outline up on the board, and catering waiting outside, we were feeling good about the next two hours.

Pedagogical Reflections

Anita Lekova, Event Coordinator, displaying participant work on University learners

The session began with reflections on the different types of learners that exist within the University. We ran an activity where groups worked to brainstorm the different enablers and barriers to learning at University. It was a great space for people across the University to discuss some common challenges that face students, how it impacts their learning abilities, and how we can help turn barriers into enablers.

Ingredients and Recipes for Successful Facilitation

The next activity was centered around what goes into creative facilitation. We had participants shout out key features and methods which we put into a framework of ingredients and steps to a recipe. With just a hint of patience and a dash of optimism participants were able to share methods that incorporated these creative ideas into the facilitation process.

Participant reflection on recipes for creative facilitation

Session Planning

The last event we ran was on practical application of facilitation techniques in session planning. First, we had participants brainstorm common problems that they face in their sessions – for example, students being rowdy or underprepared. They then had to create a lesson plan that actively took these problems into account.

Groups then shared their plans and got feedback from everyone in the room. It was really interesting to see how different people came up with a variety of different, and creative, ways of both presenting material and engaging students. For example, one group had the problem that sessions had low attendance, and the students that did attend were shy. The group had the idea to have each student create a diagram where they would write down what they know about a topic, and then pass to the next student. Each student would add to the paper, and the last student to add would present the final result to the group. This alleviates the stress of speaking as students can get their ideas out on paper, while still being able to work as a group and see what the other students think.


The session ended with some general discussion in the group on what their plans had entailed, and also some enlightening conversation on feedback methods. One participant recommended centering the session around a common question that would be raised at the beginning of the session, and then answering the question at the end. Another shared that she asked her tutorials a different feedback question each week, which we thought was a brilliant way of getting comprehensive feedback without overwhelming students. 

In the spirit of this conversation, we then had to ask participants for feedback specifically on our session. We included feedback sheets in the goodie bags that we handed out at the beginning of the session.

In general people thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to discuss different creative learning techniques and flesh out common problems with the other participants. Many also responded that they now knew more about PALs schemes within the School of Social and Political Science, and it was lovely to hear that the collaboration was appreciated.

To the Future and Beyond

One of the largest parts of feedback we received was on the section of our questionnaire that asked recipients if they wanted to have more events like this in the future. The answer was a resounding yes! In the future we would love to run repeat or follow-up events centered around charing facilitation techniques at the University. We are working with PhD Training to see if facilitation can be required (and paid!) training. Additionally, we would like to continue to harmonize the different teaching resources across SPS, including fostering further open communication and sharing between PALs leaders and University staff.

There is so much talent at this University, and there is so much that we can learn from each other, and that is why we think this event was not only a success, but also a sign of a bright future for University teaching techniques.

Creative Writing and Archive Records

2019 Festival of Creative Learning: Creative Writing and the Archive, Finding Inspiration in Asylum Records

In this week’s post Access Officer Louise shares her experience of hosting a creative writing workshop…

As part of the 2019 Festival of Creative Learning, I helped run a creative writing workshop that invited students to learn about the history of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and to write poems and short stories using archival records as their inspiration.

I was fortunate enough to be joined on the day by Ellen and Natalie from the University of Edinburgh’s creative writing and publishing society PublishED. Ellen and Natalie were a tremendous help and took over when it came to the creative aspect of the day by producing a series of tasks designed to get everyone in the creative mindset.
We started the day by asking groups to list words that they associate with asylums and had an open discussion about what they perceived to be the treatment of mental illness in the Victorian era.

I then provided some context and discussed what we can learn about the conditions and treatment of patients within the Royal Edinburgh Hospital from the collection held within our archive.

We looked at a variety of records including photographs of the building interiors/exteriors, patient photographs, letters and clinical records as well as extracts from the patient magazine the Morningside Mirror.

To kick start the creativity Ellen and Natalie led two short exercises designed to get everyone writing (including myself and our recent intern Emma). The first of these was to write a bad poem in one minute using nouns picked out from the following picture showing a hallway within Craig House:

A number of people were brave enough to share with the rest of the group what they had written (and it was at that point that I realised that only I had written a truly bad poem).

As well as sharing out loud with the group some people were also kind enough to leave their writing behind and I have included some extracts below:

Others shoot and hit, yet I am always falling short,
not cut out for any sport which follows precise lines.
I take comfort in the ice the brilliance of crystals
perched against one another, stacked close,
like cell mates joined in the suspended flow.

Asylum Photographer

Stand still. Please allow me to capture you,
Let me take those harrowed eyes, that sour frown,
Move not, lest you blur in time and in mind,
Suppress those shivers; please dull down your twitch,
Talk not, the shutter retains no sound

My friends,
The time has come. The days are short and the odds are long but let me be clear: there will be no miracles here. We have long been told that change is coming, long held out for change that is coming, long put faith in change forthcoming. Change will come when we create it. A system built to subdue and divide us cannot stand if we do.They want to keep us hidden because we do not conform to their definition of “normal”. Because we do not conform to what is acceptable. Who are they? The rich? The educated? The powerful? Why should they be the gatekeepers of society, of what is normal, of what is allowed.

The feedback from the event was very positive and as it was my first writing event I asked people to comment on what worked and what didn’t work so that we can put on a similar and even better event in the future!

Lessons learned from the Traces of Law Symposium

2019 Festival of Creative Learning Traces of Lay Symposium and Workshop

By Aura Kostiainen, a visiting PhD candidate from the University of Helsinki

What happens when a lawyer or a social scientist goes to the archives? A growing number of legal scholars and social scientists, or socio-legal researchers, are becoming enthusiastic about archival research. There are, however, some challenges and pitfalls while doing it, which sparked Andy Aydın-Aitchison, Laura Wise (University of Edinburgh) and their colleagues in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research to organise a two-day event around the theme. The symposium and workshop faced these challenges bravely, with deep thought and with just the right amount of humour and empathy. As I too often feel a bit of an outsider, being so cross-disciplinary, I eagerly signed up.

There were three overlapping and intertwined themes which formed a red thread through the two-day event. The first theme dealt with research ethics when doing archival research, the other the research process itself, and the third with hands-on practices while doing it – all entwined with the interdisciplinary challenges the researcher faces when combining archival research with the social scientific or legal approach –in ethical, theoretical and practical terms.

Ethics in archival research

The first keynote speaker, Jelena Subotic (Georgia State University), gave an excellent presentation on the ethical challenges a political scientist faces while doing archival research. These challenges stem from the different traditions of historical and social scientific research. What in political science seems like the only right thing to do, stands out as outrageous when taking into consideration the historical context of the research subjects.

As an example, Prof. Subotic told stories of concentration camp victims and perpetrators. In social sciences, the sources are usually anonymised, but from the point-of-view of holocaust victims, that would be to reduce them to numbers once again and thus do them a great injustice. Dr. Jackie Gulland (University of Edinburgh) had faced similar problems while trying to decide whether to anonymise the names behind appeal cases related to social security benefits.  What the historical tradition teaches us is that there is no one-solution-fits-all fix to the ethical dilemmas, but they are always dependent on the context.

Another ethical question has to do with the archives themselves. Archives are places of power: someone has collected them and decided what is important enough to be taken in, and what is to be left out. Furthermore, the documents themselves are often produced by formal procedures entangled with asymmetrical power dynamics. The producers of the documents are people of power documenting beneficiaries, offenders and victims. Thus, an archive is by no means an innocent collection. One must be very careful in order to avoid doing more harm to the subjects, their families or their descendants than has already been done – even if the subjects themselves were already deceased.

The research process – dealings with the past

Some of the speakers, including Andy Aydın-Aitchison and Thijs Bouwknegt (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, NIOD), reflected on the similarities and differences of the research and legal process, upon the traces of which the research is built. It is important to notice that the legal process has its own logic and goals, and those are not necessarily the same as the researcher’s. Like history research, trials are also dealings with the past. It is an often-quoted statement among historians that it is not the researcher’s task to judge, but to understand, while the question of the (accusatory) criminal legal process is binary: is the accused proven guilty or not. Elma Demir (Goldsmiths University) also pointed out an important thing: it may be the case that the people involved in trials do not feel that justice is served at all! The understanding of justice may not be the same among legal professionals and lay people; the words and thoughts of the people involved might not fit into legal categories; or the trials might end up renewing the narratives that started the violence. What is the ethical task of the historian, when justice is not being served by the trial process?

At the same time, the goal of the historical research differs also from that of the social sciences: historiography appreciates the unique and strives to look at the past in its own terms, while social sciences often aim at finding generalisations and solutions to today’s challenges or at least questions that are relevant today. They also often have a different approach to the relationship between theory and empiria: historiography is prone to be data-driven and inductive, while social scientists approach the data from the perspective of pre-formed theoretical approaches and concepts. These differences may often cause misunderstandings and even rivalry or bad blood between the proponents of the different traditions. While social scientists may see historians as non-scientific or non-reflexive, historians, on the other hand, might deem social scientists as simplifying, reductive and disrespectful towards the nuances of the historical situation. In the undersigned the attempt to fit these two traditions has sometimes led to insecurity – sometimes even despair – both before the vastness of the theoretical literature and the archival material at hand.

Hands-on problems: lost in the archives?

In my opinion, there is some truth to the claim of the non-reflexivity of the historiography tradition. The Finnish political history professor Kimmo Rentola has compared historical research to building a house: after the project is finished, the scaffolding (aka the methods and theoretical building blocks) are taken away. This does not help a novice history researcher or a scholar coming from another field to understand what they should actually do while building their research design and starting their work in the archives.

A good amount of time at the Traces of Law event was spent discussing the challenges posed by the archives themselves, especially those dealing with international criminal tribunals. Iva Vukušič (Utrecht University) captured the dilemma aptly: ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia) archives: Treasure chest and/or bottomless pit?

While state representatives have an obligation to publish some of their material, international bodies, such as crime tribunals, do not necessarily have similar obligations. This makes the researcher’s work difficult. What to do if all the material is censored? On the other hand, one may be at risk of drowning in the material if the corpus is very vast. How to tackle these questions?

A clear research question is always a good start. Also, it is important to familiarise oneself with previous literature and have at least some insight into the “pit” one is getting oneself into. On the other hand, the hermeneutic tradition allows some freedom in the formulation of the research design, and the questions may also change during the research process. At the same time, historical research might make good use of the practical research manuals of the social sciences in terms of approaching, sorting, analysing and labelling data and keeping a research diary as the ethnographers do. A neglected approach to obtaining documents for study within the social sciences is using Freedom of Information legislation, as discussed by Elizabeth Barkas (University of Glasgow). Though the ‘archive’ yielded through such an approach can be undermined by redactions, gaps, and the time-consuming nature of obtaining such releases, FOI raises the possibility of conducting research on subjects of contemporary interest.

Traces of Law left behind a group of inspired scholars who, I am sure, will continue to collaborate on these questions and develop something fruitful in the future. There is so much to learn from lawyers, social scientists, and historians alike.

to the archives
The author also sometimes faces the challenge of balancing between theory and practice

Aura Kostiainen is a visiting PhD candidate from the University of Helsinki. She will spend Spring 2019 in Edinburgh. She gave a presentation at Traces of Law on her PhD project on the ideological and conceptual foundations for the Finnish crime policy and criminal law laid by the Finnish Criminal Law Committee in the 1970s.