The failure to wrestle with racial identity as a young person can have devastating effects on an adult’s psyche. I speak from experience. Despite growing up in an integrated, suburban community, I didn’t grapple seriously with my own racial identity until my 30s. That reckoning came with both heavy emotions and the need for serious reflection, and trust me, very few people wants to deal with the feelings of the grown White man who wants to process his guilt, shame, and fears about race.
Enter the “White affinity group.” Like many White educators, I encountered the concept of the affinity group in Beverly Tatum’s landmark Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – a book that I have subsequently recommended to at least a dozen White people who have asked me the title question verbatim. Tatum’s book explores the concept of racial identity development, focusing on adolescence, which can be the most turbulent period in the formation of a person’s identity. Whereas non-White children inevitably grapple with the concept of race during those years, White children can emerge from puberty with a sense that they do not have a racial identity at all, but are merely “normal” from the perspective of race. That’s more or less how I ended up being a thirty-something White dude who has a meltdown at work because he realizes how much the failure to deal with his own identity is a barrier to progress.
While the “affinity group” is an established concept in the academic literature on identity, the idea of meeting with a group of other white people felt strange to me, a sensation that Ali Michael and Mary Conger of the University of Pennsylvania describe in a paper on the topic:
Members of [a particular White affinity group] have complained that they never quite know how to describe our meetings—“I’m off to my white group tonight!” The thought of white people convening to discuss race conjures images of the KKK and other supremacist organizations. How ironic, given that white people routinely gather in monochromatic groups to discuss just about everything—except race— in our segregated society. Somehow, white people discussing race together can seem wrong or threatening. Because of this inherent fear, white people often wait to talk about race until we are in interracial dialogues.
Michael and Conger explain that mixed-race dialogues are often inappropriate for White people, given that placing White folks in interracial dialogue is like “placing pre-algebra students in a calculus class.” White people have so little experience discussing race, relative to their colleagues of color, that White people need something akin to a remedial course.
Based on encouragement from experts and colleagues, I got over my fears, and for the last several years I have been working with a range of affinity groups. Last week, I participated in an affinity group that brought together White leaders from education organizations across the country. Through working with this group, and talking to other folks who have done similar work, I have assembled these reflections for those who remain reticent:
1. The biggest pushback you will get about attending an affinity group will come from your White colleagues. Before convening our affinity group, we reached out to experts and colleagues across the country. While leaders of color were not monolithic in their beliefs, almost all agreed that White affinity spaces were a critical ingredient in accelerating racial justice action. White people, on the other hand, were more skeptical. They often pointed to negative judgments from their peers of color as a reason to avoid participation. When we dug deeper on those fears, it turned out that the negative judgments were inferred, but not based on actual conversations. Once those skeptical White folks talked to some colleagues of color, more often than not they discovered that they were making assumptions about the beliefs of their peers, versus actually soliciting those beliefs.
2. The affinity group is not something you do “for” or “on behalf of” your friends and colleagues of color; this is for you, White person. The “white folks work” you do in an affinity group is a part of reckoning with your own identity, and how that identity intersects with your desire to undo racism. This is not a paternalistic gift you are giving to your friends of color; it is a part of making you a stronger advocate for something you believe to be just. If you do not believe this, you might have more to consider before you are ready for an affinity space.
3. The affinity space is a place where White people can practice, model, and improve anti-racist practices. One attendee said that she was afraid to come to the affinity group, because she feared it would be a “minefield of micro-aggressions that went unchecked.” She was relieved to find that this was not the case, but her relief was not inevitable. White people in affinity spaces need to practice anti-racist behaviors. There is a risk that White groups will replicate the worst facets of dominant culture, so White folks who participate in affinity groups must be explicit about their desire to be held accountable for anti-racism. Those behaviors should continue outside of the affinity group, and it is useful to make accountability commitments to your friends of color, so long as you are not leaning on them to do the hard work of educating you about racism. The point of the affinity group is not to launder your guilt, but rather to practice living in accordance with your stated beliefs.
Racism is a system of power and control, and a big part of being an anti-racist is letting go of the artificial power and privilege that racism confers upon White people. As the oft-misquoted Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”
If you are a White person who aspires to be a “co-conspirator” or “ally” in the struggle for racial justice, you must start with yourself. You can organize, protest, write, give money, volunteer, and talk to other White people. All of those things will be impossible, however, if you do not have a community of people who can hold you accountable for those behaviors, help you to improve your practices, and provide emotional support. It is unreasonable to expect people of color to hold your hand through that process, so collect your people, and get to work.