How Racial Affinity Groups Saved My Life
November 27, 2017
Each year, I attend and look forward to NAIS’s People of Color Conference. It is the only time I sit in a room with other African American educators who also look to recharge. One year, an attendee shared with me that her experience at PoCC convinces her she is not crazy and keeps her from going insane. I feel like a member of a family and PoCC is the family reunion.
One of the many reasons I love PoCC so much is the affinity group experience. An affinity group is a group of people with common interests, background, and experience that come together to support each other. Affinity groups for people of color can be magical places in a historically elite and exclusive independent school system. Participants of both adult and student affinity groups often find it to be a place of encouragement and a way to increase their sense of belonging in their institution.
Brentwood School's family affinity group at a brunch for mothers of African American students. Photo credit: Brentwood School
Before I found affinity groups, I struggled to breathe. For 15 years, my tank was empty. I was exhausted beyond measure. Being the only African American educator and administrator in my predominately white institution had almost worn me down completely. My heart hurt for the efforts I made to advocate for and protect all families, but specifically families of color that existed in this white, affluent, independent school world.
In my second year at this same institution, a brilliant and talented African American young lady decided to start an African American culture club. Her idea was to celebrate African American culture and educate others about it, regardless of their racial and ethnic heritage. When one of her classmates responded, “We should start a White culture club,” I saw the strength disappear from her eyes.
This young woman battled in the same space I did. She shared in the same constant struggle to defend, justify, and give purpose to her existence as an African American on our campus. She wanted to tell her classmate that he was a card-carrying member of a white club all day, every day. That in each class his identity was so integral to the teaching and curriculum that he didn’t even realize it. She wanted to ask how it felt for him to sit in the lap of privilege and make a comment that served as a dichotomy when the reality was that his comment was why she was initiating this club. She wanted to ask him when was the last time (knowing there would never be a time) he was alone in his identity or was asked to be the spokesperson for his entire race. When had he ever been invisible? Rather than risk losing the breath that was so hard to inhale, she cried. This pain was all too familiar. I, too, was out of oxygen and could not let this be my death.
Right away, the African American Culture club became the largest student club on campus. It created a space where students in all stages of their identity development could belong. Black students and their allies addressed diversity topics in the school and globally. We talked about defying stereotypes, leaders and figures in Black history, and media headlines that affected us. When one student shared that he felt a heightened sense of surveillance on campus, another student could relate. Another student shared her frustration of people touching her hair and making ignorant assumptions — and yes, we could all relate. Students expressed how they were often called the name of another student of the same race by students, teachers, and administrators.
A Magical Place to Relate
The affinity space was a place of affirmation and empowerment that we all so desperately needed. We acknowledged shared experiences in ways that were productive, valuable, and meaningful. It was a brave space that preserved our dignity as a people. It was a place where people of the same identity could share how they navigate the complexities of a PWIS (predominately white independent school), and it was no longer an ostracized experience.
For the first time, I felt invited, welcomed, and included in an institution that pretended to represent the same moral and philosophical educational initiatives that supported all people. I knew I needed to help students stay alive in this institution so I continued to create the same space that kept me alive. I knew the time would come when I gave all I had to give and needed to align my own beliefs and experience in an institutionally supportive space.
Becoming a Change Agent
One day, I read a job description for Director of Equity and Inclusion in a different school that completely described me. The school called for an administrator who would speak to every constituent and ensure that the school was doing its best to envelop all members of the community, regardless of identity, so everyone could thrive. It was time to make a change. Now I’m in year two of being an effective change agent.
A Call to Schools
While developing and supporting affinity groups for my students, I’ve found that I’ve benefited just as much, and potentially more, than they have. Now I see the success of both student and parent affinity groups. Affinity groups allow us to support the humanity of others. It is the most inclusive effort we can make.
Most of our schools’ missions include a component of excellence or achievement. We have non-discriminatory clauses in our policies and procedures. The best way to not discriminate is to value and support the spaces of those who are underrepresented in your population. Give them a place on your campus to exist freely — and to thrive. Be committed to achieving excellence in every area of your school’s mission by recognizing that those whose identities lie in disadvantaged and oppressed groups are having a different experience. If you are uncomfortable or unable to understand the necessity of affinity groups, you probably have never needed one. However, if you are committed to providing an education that is truly excellent for all students in your institution, encourage and support the vital role affinity groups play toward this noble goal.
Trina Moore-Southall is director of equity and inclusion at Brentwood School in Los Angeles.