By Indonesia Omega ’21 and Myles Ross ’21
In predominantly white schools and institutions (PWIs), like those of the New York City Interschool, the subject of racial affinity groups has always brought some uncertainty to their purpose.
Despite the discomfort they might arouse, affinity groups have a clear place in the Interschool and hold a tremendous significance for their constituents—students of color. To do so, we are going to analyze the connections between Identity and Community for students of color in their respective affinity spaces: connections that are too important to ignore.
Although Community and Identity can be abstract and isolated concepts, both have specific points of convergence, namely affinity groups: safe spaces formed around a shared identity or certain identifier. These identifiers include the “Central Eight”: Race, Religion, Ability, Family Structure, Socio-Economic Status, Age, Gender, and Sexuality.
Traditionally, affinity groups have been places for individuals of each identifier to not only regroup and discuss the issues and experiences unique to them, but also to find solace and comfort in a community that reflects certain aspects of their own identity.
The Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC)—an annual conference focusing on conversations about identity in independent schools—is a prime example of productive and insightful usage of affinity groups. At SDLC, students focus on self-reflection, the formation of allies, and the facilitation of safe spaces for everyone. In our sophomore and junior years, the both of us had the privilege to participate in this conference.
In an Interschool made of PWIs, affinity groups have become central to the well-being of minority students in such spaces. Tyler Abernethy (Brearley ‘22) attends the Multicultural Affinity Group established this year at The Brearley School. She said, “We discuss issues of identity, liminality, and the unique experiences of multiracial people.” She continued “So far it has been very affirming because I haven’t had spaces to unpack this side of my identity aside from casual conversations with friends and occasional workshops.”Abernethy mentioned that although affinity groups are a “relatively new phenomenon at Brearley,” they have already had an impressive impact. “I go to Umoja (Brearley’s affinity group for Black students) because walking out of the meetings revitalizes me; I am always laughing and I love listening to different perspectives.” To an anonymous Collegiate student, Collegiate’s affinity group Jamaa “is a place where [he] can talk with other students who all share one common attribute: not being white.” Like Abernethy, he has found the space “to listen to different perspectives and connect with them in [his] own way.”
Derek Irby, (Trinity ‘21) reveals a similar relationship to the affinity groups at his school, The Black Affairs Club and The Men of Color Club. Derek says that the two spaces “provide a sense of camaraderie within the school that [he] cannot find anywhere else.” Irby believes that his connection is “due to the relatability between [him] and the people in these clubs with the experiences [they] share.” To Irby, their meetings “[resemble] a deep, almost spiritual connection that [he] cannot acquire in a regular school setting.” He says that they “provide a certain stability [for his] life that allows [him] to remain content in the predominately white environment that [he is] in,”. Arielle Benjamin, Spence ‘21, describes a similar scene as an attendant of Spence’s Afro Latina Alliance at Spence (ALAS). “It’s my only real safe space at Spence,” Benjamin says. “ALAS provides a space just for us to connect,” and above all, it’s “a space made for us.”
Despite leaving meetings feeling “revitalized,” Abernethy, like many students of color in affinity groups, claims that many members of her community are not as engaged in the subject—namely allyship—as they should be. She says that “discussions about allyship at Brearley did not have a lot of traction, even though it was a subject discussed often in Umoja open meetings.” Abernethy continued, “there isn’t a lot of emphasis placed on allyship at my school and there are no allyship groups,” Abernethy believes that fostering discussions around race and identity “[have] been placed on the students of color who organize open meetings, assemblies, and discussions.”
On a much more optimistic note, Irby believes that Trinity “does a good job of facilitating spaces for affinity groups and ally groups,” but also believes that they can “do a better job with remaining [consistent], with setting standards, and with [setting] expectations for these groups.”
On that note, Benjamin said, “I also shouldn’t have the responsibility of educating my peers, making policies, and trying to do the job of the administration while also balancing my own work.” As a 17-year-old rising senior in high school, she recognizes that “it's always been up to the students to take initiative with affinity groups” and general conversations about race. However, she feels “strengthened as a person because of everything [she’s] been through during [her] time at Spence.” Benjamin’s experience reveals not only the ubiquity of the struggles of students at PWIs, but also the perseverance of these same students.
Benjamin shared a similar anecdote that paints a picture of the close relationship between identity and community in regard to affinity groups. Benjamin has noticed that students of color, “mainly Black girls, [who] aren't as comfortable eating in the cafeteria ... cram into Ms. J’s office for lunch almost every day.” To Benjamin, the lunch-time meetings are “like another affinity space at Spence, although it’s not official. It’s a place for Black students to collect and speak freely without having teachers watching.”
These impromptu meetings reveal the quintessential function of affinity spaces: sustaining a safe network of support for People of Color. Furthermore, these meetings expose the correlation between Identity and Community by demonstrating the need for togetherness that those same people hold. Some of the Black girls at Spence have created a group that is bolstered by their shared identity. As Black girls, they find safety and solace in being among people who reflect them on both a physical and experiential level. Essentially, these meetings are points of convergence between their identities and their inherent connection.
However, with the joy that affinity groups bring People of Color, there is also a distasteful complexity in its relationship with the identities and the communities on the outside The shared joy that the groups present is corrupted by a shared pain brought on by those who oppose affinity groups, and by those who refuse to acknowledge the importance that students of color place on safe spaces. This dilemma boils down to the subject of perspective, and to who is willing to achieve a deep understanding of those who are different. Not many people have the empathy to do that. This issue further manifests itself in the distinct response that some white students exhibit when confronted with racially charged topics. Robin Diangelo, an American writer and activist, named her 2018 book White Fragility after this response. In it, Diangelo states the following:
The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I characterize this process as white fragility. (2)
These visceral reactions typically shift the conversation from that of the experiences of People of Color to a white perspective, thus invalidating, whether purposefully or not, the experiences of students of color. The convergence of ideas that affinity groups allow for, actively validates the lived experiences of students of color despite this fragility.
Consequently, students of color who have been at PWIs for so long are not always aware when they “[face] microaggressions, because [they are] so normalized,” Benjamin said. She continues, many “[students of color] [don’t] have people to talk [with]” about how to correctly de-escalate those situations in a school environment. This clearly specifies why individual meetings between people of similar identities are necessary for PWIs.
Affinity spaces provide students of color with the opportunity to talk about their identity without the judgment and fragility of their white peers. One example is at Brearley, where Abernethy says the Umoja club has only become an affinity group in the past few years. In her interview, she told us that previously “non-Black students were not barred from joining the club.”
When it comes to conversations about race, the group was never able to create the same safety as an affinity group because of the fragility and lack of authentic participation from some white peers. Yet, this occurrence is not unique to Brearley whatsoever. All around the Interschool, white peers feel annoyed that they cannot be a part of affinity spaces, but are simultaneously fragile when it comes to topics of race.
In the Collegiate student’s interview, he believes that “there are changes to be made,” and that “the most important action the school [community] can take is to show that they are willing to take Jamaa more seriously.” To accommodate this change in environment, he believes that “Jamaa should [continue to] be [for] People of Color only,” but that “there should be a few sessions where white students may also join so they can get firsthand experience of what Jamaa is like.”
What these white peers don’t understand is that generally, students of color don’t want to talk about the systematic disadvantages that plague their existence in the United States. However, students of color have to address their race because they don’t have the luxury or the privilege of leaving their identity, their livelihood, and their mental safety at the door. White students do not understand that when some People of Color congregate and speak about race, they speak about the parts of their identities that bring them joy. Because of this, there is a clear contrast in the way in which some People of Color and some white students inherently think about identity.
This divergence in perspective can be applied to a general understanding of affinity spaces as well. Many white students don’t understand them, because the elite PWIs in which they have grown up act not unlike affinity spaces. In the Interschool, white students generally grow up with other white students and do not have the ability to engage often with people whose perspectives differ from their own. This has resulted in a common misconception that the Collegiate student has communicated. He said, “some students outside Jamaa [believe] that Jamaa wants to ‘ruin Collegiate tradition’.” This student continued, “I believe that clarifying Jamaa's purpose and actions to the entire school would help those students understand Jamaa slightly better.”
As people who have been ‘on the inside’ for most of their lives, they don’t understand what it feels like to be on the outside. Therefore, when affinity groups are formed, the fragility of white students is in the balance. White students do not understand that People of Color are forced into talking about the painful aspects of race only because of what they encounter due to their race daily: the microaggressions, the racially charged comments, etc. It boils down to sitting with fragility, identity, and also being present for those who do not identify similarly to you. The symptoms of broken fragility are a given, but it shows maturity of thought and maturity of perspective when one can cope with that fragility and make it into something productive instead of destructive.
Affinity groups hold an important place in the identity, the livelihood, and the mental safety of students of color in predominantly white spaces. That is, when everyone abides by the standards and expectations set for affinity groups, they actively ensure that the conversations centered around race are constructive. Everyone within the space must be present and everyone must be cognizant of themselves in relation to the other people attending.
To those on the outside, to those with privileged identities, you must understand that your experience is not shared by everyone and that your experience might have benefited from the privileges and biases that you may hold for the members of those underrepresented groups. Those who are outside must acknowledge themselves and the roles they play, but they also must move on. Everyone must move on. No one can allow for the admission of their identity to weigh them down or to hold them back. We have to progress while being aware of it. We must continue to persevere and to allow ourselves to fix our communities to those in which we can be true to ourselves and true to each other.
We are not calling out white people or anyone who is privileged to find themselves an “insider.” Similarly, we are not attacking any of the schools mentioned in this article. This article serves to identify a problem that must be changed: the general lack of support and understanding of affinity groups in the interschool. We can only solve this problem with the help and cooperation of everyone in the Interschool: white students, students of color, and administration. We identify this problem out of love and care for our schools—our homes—and our fellow students.