Middle School Affinity Groups

Fall 2019

By Gabmara Álvarez-Spychalski

Are middle school students too young for affinity groups? Based on my personal experience, I would say no.
 
Growing up in one of the few black families in a small town in central New York State, I never quite felt like I belonged. I intentionally distanced myself from anything that wasn’t a part of the dominant culture. When my parents would speak to me in Spanish, I always replied in English; I ensured that I flat-ironed my curly locks until they were pin straight; and I made it a point to love Pink Floyd and Nirvana. These, of course, are stereotypical signifiers of whiteness, but in my adolescent mind, it brought me closer to fitting in. By the time I reached high school, I had already internalized a lot of self-loathing. Looking back, having an affinity space would have helped give me the tools I needed to be more comfortable and accepting of myself.
 
While anecdotes can be an effective tool, research is also important. When I think of William Cross’s Model for the 5 Stages of Black American Racial Identity Development1, which is not linear (other models exist in different iterations for other groups), and realize that identity development intensifies during adolescence, three stages immediately come to mind. The Pre-Encounter Stage is when a black child has “absorbed many beliefs and values of the dominant white culture, including the notion that ‘white is right’ and ‘black is wrong’; de-emphasis on one’s racial group membership; largely unaware of race or racial implications.” Middle school students in the Pre-Encounter Stage would most likely not recognize a need for, or even want to be part of, an affinity group.
 
The Encounter Stage is when a black child is “forced by event or series of events to acknowledge the impact of racism in one’s life and the reality that one cannot truly be white; forced to focus on identity as a member of a group targeted by racism.” This typically brings up feelings of anger, resentment, depression, confusion, or anxiety. After children experience that, if they are afforded the opportunity to be nurtured and supported through these complex emotions, the hope is that the Immersion/Emersion Stage will soon follow in which a black child has a “simultaneous desire to surround oneself with visible symbols of one’s racial identity and an active avoidance of symbols of whiteness; actively seek out opportunities to explore aspects of one’s own history and culture with support of peers from one’s own racial background.” For those middle school students experiencing this stage, not having the space to unpack and process these complex emotions could be detrimental to their identity development. This is where our affinity group, the Black Student Union, comes into play.
 
My black students expressed a need for a safe space that allowed for honest discussions with their fellow black students about shared experiences and issues, and thus the middle school Black Student Union (BSU) came to be. During our meetings, my girls have the time and place to discuss matters ranging from coping with microaggressions and racial stress, taking a knee, talking “white,” black hair, to the latest episode of Black-ish. We also plan activities such as the Flint, MI, Clean Water fundraiser, Stay Woke Documentary movie night, and participation as MCs in our annual MLK All School Assembly. A performance of note was their presentation of the poem “Ode to the Only Black Kid in the Class” by Clint Smith. The girls value the time they spend with each other on Fridays at lunch when they are surrounded by girls they can relate to in ways their other peers can’t.
 
Our time together has helped my students be better equipped to navigate and learn in white spaces and has increased their confidence as young women. When asked about the significance of middle school BSU, an eighth grade student who has been a member since sixth grade said, “I am thankful for middle school BSU because it’s helped me to express my feelings, embrace my African-American culture and helped make my voice louder when speaking about African-American experiences and rights.” In providing this space, we are guiding our girls to the Internalization Stage of Cross’s model: when a black child becomes “secure in [his or her] own sense of racial identity; pro-black attitudes become more expansive, open, and less defensive; willing to establish meaningful relationships with whites who acknowledge and are respective of one’s self-definition.” This is clearly not something that happens overnight, but if we are being true advocates for the character and identity development of our students, we cannot afford to wait until students reach the upper school BSU to begin the conversation.
 
In the middle school, there is specific time carved out on Fridays before lunch for clubs. After speaking with my BSU girls, we decided to have our meetings on Fridays during lunch instead so that they wouldn’t have to choose between their affinity group and another club that would not meet this particular need. Students bring their lunch to my classroom, and we start each meeting with an opportunity for the girls to talk about anything that may be on their minds. Our agenda looks different from week to week. Some days, if there is a current event that feels like the group would benefit from discussing, I will facilitate that conversation. Other days, if there is an article or short video a student would like to show and debrief, she and I will get together beforehand so I can preview the material and help support her preparations to lead the activity at the following meeting. In November and December, we are busy preparing for the MLK Assembly. And sometimes we just eat, chat, and enjoy being in the space together.
 
By acknowledging that race plays a role in adolescent identity development and providing a safe and nurturing environment during middle school years, we hope that, when students reach upper school, they are more comfortable and better equipped to grapple with and continue to grow in their black identity. Ideally, they will keep working on the Internalization Stage of their identity development during those years, which will guide them to the Internalization-Commitment Stage in which a black child has “found ways to translate one’s personal sense of blackness into a plan of action or a general sense of commitment to concerns of blacks as a group, which is sustained over time” and reach a level of “comfort with one’s own race and those around them.” Without the foundation of this identity development during middle school, students may struggle longer through the different stages. Instead, by giving them the tools and nurturing their confidence, we ensure that they will be on track to successfully navigate the next stages of their lives.

Notes

  1. Interaction Institute for Social Change, “Summary of Stages of Racial Identity Development”; online at https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/Compilation_of_Racial_Identity_Models_7_15_11.pdf. All descriptions of the five stages are derived from this source.
Gabmara Álvarez-Spychalski

Gabmara Álvarez-Spychalski (galvarez-spychalski@baldwinschool.org) is the MS Spanish teacher, grade 7 dean, DEI co-chair, and MS Black Student Union adviser at The Baldwin School, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.