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  • Writer's pictureTalking Together

In Conversation: Experiences with Affinity Spaces

Join Aparna, Riisa, Antoinette, and Lindsay as they have a conversation about some affinity spaces they've been part of.


Aparna: I am so honoured to be here with you today and I'd love for us to have a discussion about some of our experiences with affinity groups. So I'm going to ask Riisa to start today.

Riisa: Thanks Aparna. Yeah, my first formal experience with affinity groups was actually running one as a teacher for LGBTQ2S+ youth at my school and and it was the first time we had done that at the school and it was really interesting to see in comparison with their experience with the GSA the very different kinds of interactions that happened in the GSA which was sort of welcoming to all kinds of students, and the kids of conversations and safe space and you know, place where we could question and also talk about challenges they experienced as queer youth at the school in that space was very very different. And for me as an educator, as a queer educator, it was actually, it felt so refreshing to even be part of that conversation and to get to think about my reality as a queer educator and what I was in connection to them as a mentor, as an adult, as a teacher in that space. And I remember also reflecting at the same time on how nice it would have been to have that for myself when I was a queer youth. And that wasn't around. The only kind of affinity spaces that I felt in that sense at that time was, you know, going to gay bars. Which was a safe space where I could explore my queer identity, feel that other people were doing the same, and you know it was really interesting to see the contrast when that was being done in a far more intentional way.

Antoinette, what about you? What about some affinity spaces and experiences you've had?

Antoinette: Well, you started out with the professional part. I'm going to start out with the personal part and my personal connection with them. When I think back when I was younger. And when I went to school there were five Blacks of course in the entire school. But I had a church that was a Black church. A predominantly Black church. So I had the weekend (and I went every weekend) and I got my fill. I really didn't want it more. I didn't really go search for more because I had this fill at church and I was very involved. That transpired to when I went to university and then of course that was U of T downtown and at the time, almost 30 years ago, there weren't a lot of Black students and my college was not near where the Black students would congregate because we knew. The few of us there were, we knew where they hung out near Robarts Library, over that side, and New College. I would trek my way over there and we'd get together. We'd have these discussions about what it's like being in white spaces. It was very informal but it was very satisfying.

And then of course I translate that to when I worked at the ROM and gravitating again in these white institutions to people who look like us and understood our experiences.

And then when it started to be more intentional and semi-formal was when I was doing my social work degree. And of course, once again we were in a very predominantly white space and the Black students intentionally got together and formed a group. And we also had that conversation about what we were doing. We were helping each other. We were talking about the oppression. We were talking about the structural racism. We were talking about systemic stuff. And we had these things. And of course today we still have these conversations. And it was networking, but it was very intentional. So that was information and moving into semi-formal setting. And then in my position in a formal setting supporting these Black girls in a private school, in an affinity group, and I see myself. Because now when I talk to them I see how much they're just dying to have this connection to have, to talk about the fact that we code switch and know that we understand. And I see myself in them seeing that when I was younger through the progression of being a teenager, university student, and then a professional. And seeing the need carry all the way through. And even now in the space where I am, I have my little affinity group professionally, it's only one other person, but we connect because we're people of colour and we can talk and have these walks. The other person is Aparna. And we can have these conversations, Aparna and I in spaces that we know we understand and connect. It is so important to see not just adults that need it, but to see, personally, me having the experience, and me also now helping girls. Students - I should say, not just girls - right. Students connecting with each other. It's so beautiful. It's a beautiful thing. Now, how about you Lindsay?

Lindsay: Sure, so my first experiences with affinity groups were very similar experiences to Riisa with LGBTQ2S+ affinity spaces but I want to talk little bit more about my first time walking into a white affinity space. It was actually at a conference. I remember there being this big door with a sign over it that said "White Affinity Space" and I remember feeling really really nervous being labelled as white and walking into this conference room with, I think about 1300 white people who were gathering for a white anti-racist affinity group. An accountability space. And I remember feeing so nervous to walk into that for the first time. Because I knew I'd been doing the work, but I'd never really talked with white people about what it meant to be white. And that was really a moment of change for me where I finally understood so much more about my own identity and by the end of the conference felt more comfortable saying that I was white. And understanding what that meant. And being able to say it and understand that I wasn't saying it in a supremacist way. I was stating it as fact and understanding what that meant and the structures and institutions that play in to my understanding of what it means to be white. And embracing it a little bit more. And claiming it in a way. And understanding how I then need to be anti-racist as white person. And what I really really liked about that space is that I didn't feel like I was burdening any of my colleagues or friends with my own unpacking of what it means to be white. And I also really appreciated that other white people were holding me to account. Having really honest and frank conversations about what it means to be anti-racist in a way that I'd never experienced before. And there's something about that intentionality that, like, not just finding affinity with people and "oh, we happen to be talking about race", but very intentionally finding other people who are on the same journey and having a conversation about what it means to be anti oppressive and anti-racist. What about you Aparna?

Aparna: Wow. There are so many valuable gems that you have all shared and I guess I have similar experiences with all of you in that I had affinity growing up in a small town in northern Manitoba where there were many South Asian families. Interestingly, none at my school. And so I would gather with those families on weekends and we would socialize and I could be myself in ways that I didn't even realize was happening as a younger, as a younger person. Similar to Antoinette and going to church. And then when I moved to Toronto even though the population of South Asians was much greater, I didn't find affinity growing up as a teenager and then even, similar to Antoinette, going to U of T. Although there were many around me, the connection wasn't there and I wasn't finding that connection. And then as I entered into my teaching career in predominantly white spaces, I was aching, and yearning for that real relationship. And so very unlike Lindsay's experience, when I first got into a formal affinity space, again, at a conference much like Lindsay, I was excited, I couldn't wait. I wanted to be free and I didn't want to have to code switch. I didn't want to have to hold back. And I also wanted to be held accountable. Because I think that's the other piece in all of these affinity spaces that it doesn't matter if you're Black, Indigenous, a Person of Colour, or white, it is a space to be affirmed and nurtured in your affinity and in your racial identity. But also to be held accountable to do the work. To be anti-oppressive and to be anti-racist. And to really engage in dialogue that allows us to reflect on our own identity, but also on our actions. So, the space to be with South Asian educators, but also with other people of colour allows me to be myself. Allows me to be free. But also holds me to account. And I look forward to doing that with others. Thanks for joining us tonight.

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