Are Affinity Groups Divisive?
Updated: Aug 12
“If you are uncomfortable or unable to understand the necessity of affinity groups, you probably have never needed one.” (Trina Moore-Southall, “How Racial Affinity Groups Saved My Life”)
When you have had positive experiences with affinity groups, it is easy to see their relevance in leading to progress in various areas of social justice. For many people, these groups can be transformational. However, if you have not participated in an affinity group before or have had an experience with poorly led or designed affinity groups, it can be harder to understand their value.
At Talking Together for Change, we regularly encounter people who wonder about the impact, appropriateness, or effectiveness of race-based affinity groups. Some people are worried that these groups may encourage or entrench racial division.
This fear of promoting divisiveness, arising from the idea of people gathering in a group where all the participants share aspects of their racial identity to talk about race and racism, is exacerbated if one also upholds a colour-blind racial ideology: “the belief that talking about race makes things worse – that it promotes racism and/or is racist in and of itself” (Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, 79-80).
Contrary to this concern, the goal of anti-racist affinity group work is to counter the racial divisiveness that already exists in society by deeply reflecting on our identities in the company of others who share a similar identity and, therefore, positionality within socio-cultural relationships and systems of oppression.
For Black and Indigenous folx and other people of colour, being part of an anti-racist affinity group is a place to find solidarity and celebration amongst people who personally understand the challenges of living in a racist society. Alongside being affirming and nurturing spaces, these groups are also about holding each other accountable, amidst people who share a racial affinity, for the prejudices that we have been taught about racial identities different from our own and reflecting on our anti-colonial responsibilities as racialized people living in a settler-colonial nation. Living in white supremacist cultures and colonial contexts shapes all of our attitudes towards race and place regardless of the make-up of our ethno-racial identities.
For white people, being part of an anti-racist affinity group increases our ability to have challenging but needed conversations about how whiteness is connected to systemic racism and colonialism. We do this with other people who identify as white so that we can dive into these topics without silencing ourselves because we fear judgement as we work through feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety and without the risk of harming people with different racial identities as we investigate the gaps in our experience or understanding.
White people who want to do this anti-racist identity exploration in the company of Black and Indigenous folx and other people of colour sometimes have difficulty grasping why doing this work with other white people is of value. This inclination towards mixed-race conversations is often expressed as the desire to learn about the experiences of people of the global majority while failing to understand that learning also needs to happen from unpacking one’s own experiences. White people need to recognize that these conversations are not new, and the prospect of participating in mixed-race dialogues in which white people are just stepping up to the table can be extremely frustrating:
“Talking about racism is an essential part of facing racism and changing it. But it is not the only part. I am painfully aware that many people of color have been talking about racism for a long time. Many people of color are tired of talking, frustrated that talk has not led to enough constructive action or meaningful social change. But in my own work, I have seen the effectiveness of talking about racism and teaching others to do the same.” (Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria)
White anti-racist accountability groups actively teach white people how to talk about racism in anti-racist ways, better preparing them to listen and respond when they enter into mixed-race dialogues about racism. These groups also encourage white people to move beyond talk towards “constructive action.”
White people can and should learn from each other and their experience of how racial identity impacts everyone’s daily life. As inheritors of white privilege, reflecting on how systemic racism operates in our society, in the company of other white people, is particularly significant since white people are customarily afforded the luxury of ignoring this reality. Obliviousness to the impacts of race on everyone’s lived reality doesn’t mean we don’t have our own racialized identity and do not perpetuate systemic racism. In fact, we uphold this system when we are unwilling to see or talk about the race-based oppression that has always been circulating around us.
If you bristle at the idea of anti-racist, race-based affinity groups, you may find it helpful to think about other areas where affinity groups are common, and no one raises an eyebrow. Indeed, you may be more familiar and comfortable with affinity groups than you think.
There are lots of reasons why people who share an affinity gather together to discuss issues that impact a particular aspect of their identity. However, you are likely not used to thinking of these as affinity groups. Some examples are parenting groups for new mothers; meetings amongst coaches, department members, principals, or guidance counselors; meetings for students or faculty in leadership positions; Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA); or support groups for newcomers to Canada.
The use of the term “affinity group” is more common in the context of social justice work. You may also already be familiar with other affinity groups that are connected to social justice issues like homophobia and sexism.
PFLAG is an organization that brings together family members who want to understand and support other members of their family who have come out as LGBTQ2+. The members of these affinity groups all identify as straight yet having family members who identify as LGBTQ2+. This affinity group brings these individuals together to talk about how to support their loved ones in their identities as LGBTQ2+ people, how to combat homophobia in themselves and society, and to learn and reflect on how to be effective allies.
PFLAG groups have been foundational in increasing family acceptance and awareness that helps to combat the historical alienation that members of the LGBTQ2+ community have experienced in coming out, a circumstance that has serious impacts on mental health and well being.
Just as affinity groups for LGBTQ2+ youth and adults are spaces where it would be inappropriate for straight people to participate, it would be unlikely to find anyone in the LGBTQ2+ community who feels excluded by the straight homogeneity of PFLAG groups. Both types of affinity groups exist to increase LGBTQ2+ acceptance and support social change. Of course, there are places where dialogue between straight people and members of the LGBTQ2+ community is the focus of gathering, but there are significant differences in what is accomplished in these unique spaces [Read the blog GSA or LGBTQ2S+ Affinity Groups: What's the Difference?].
Affinity Groups for Men
Various types of men’s affinity groups run across Canada and the globe. These groups range in areas of focus from men unpacking concepts of masculinity, men supporting each other as parents, men talking about their experiences with child sexual abuse, and the list goes on (a list from Psychology Today provides an example of numerous men’s affinity groups available just in Ontario alone).
Although men’s affinity groups may not appeal to some men, it would be rare to find men who suggest that men should not gather as an affinity group to talk about issues unique to men’s experience, and you would be equally challenged to find women who feel excluded by the idea of not being able to join a men’s group whose objective is focused on increasing men’s accountability, gender equality, and challenging ideologies like toxic masculinity, patriarchal social hierarchies and gender roles.
What’s the Issue When it Comes to Race?
All kinds of conversations about race with different groupings of people (community dialogues between members of various entho-racial groups, discussions in classrooms or amongst faculty, conversations with family members and friends) are necessary if we are going to work towards an anti-racist society. But depending on the make-up of participants in these conversations, the purpose and needs of the group will vary. And that’s okay.
Take a moment to reflect on how you feel about the rationale of the affinity groups shared above. Does it seem like their intentions or outcomes are to create division between different groups of people? If you are able to see the benefits that can arise from these affinity groups, can you think of the comparable benefits that could exist for race-based affinity groups? If not, that question is worth exploring, and an affinity group would be the perfect place to do so.
Race-based affinity groups allow participants to explore how they are impacted by or benefit from systemic racism and have goals like learning and unlearning, healing, building empathy and compassion, supporting each other, holding each other accountable, and motivating ourselves to advocate for justice in our personal and professional lives. Affinity groups are a useful tool in an anti-oppression toolkit. Yet, ultimately, we need to put that tool into action.
“While many people are afraid to talk about race, just as many use talk to hide from what they really fear: action. The more that I write about race, the more I’ve been surrounded by this talk disguised as action …. I’ve seen how addicted people can get to the satisfaction of knowing they are saying all the right things, that they are having ‘deep conversations’ – so addicted that it becomes the end-all and be-all of their racial justice goals.” (Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk about Race)
At Talking Together for Change, we design affinity groups as spaces where educators can practice being reflective; having difficult conversations; advocating for themselves; learning how to be an effective ally or accomplice; becoming comfortable questioning assumptions, biases, and misconceptions; and holding ourselves and each other accountable for taking action so that we are more able to do the same in our professional and personal lives.
We have affinity groups running in July for BIPOC and white educational professionals. Sign up and find out for yourself how powerful conversations and meaningful connections can lead to taking action for social change.