“I hate it when we talk about Martin Luther King and everybody stares at me,” a second grader said.
These words weren’t shared in a classroom. The girl who experienced this emotion revealed her feelings to students who knew firsthand what it meant to be a child of color in a predominantly white school. In the safe zone of her affinity group, she shed light on a classroom dynamic that might otherwise have remained hidden.
Even in the most progressive independent schools, issues of race often lie just below the surface of children’s daily experiences. In the relative security of an affinity group, these realities come to life. Affinity groups are places where students build connections and process “ouch” moments from their classes. Children talk about the isolation they sometimes feel. The relationships students gain through race-based affinity groups enable them to feel less alone with their emotions and help them build a stronger sense of self. At the same time, faculty facilitators gain valuable insights into ways their school’s curriculum and culture can support children on the road to identity development.
So, why isn’t every school clamoring to promote affinity groups?
When Do Children See Race?
I (Kimberly) am the director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). One early May morning, a faculty member of color walked into my office. Her son, who happens to be one of the few African-American children in his kindergarten class, was told by a classmate that he wasn’t invited to a party because he is brown.
The boy’s teacher handled the interaction between the children with gentleness and care, using it as a learning opportunity for both students. Nonetheless, the encounter stirred worries for the boy’s mother, stemming from her own childhood and school memories attached to race. She had hoped her son would not have to hear those words of rejection so early in his school journey, if at all.
I remember the stinging feeling of such an event. When my own daughter was in third grade at another independent school, she shared how it felt to hear another classmate say, “I hope I can dance with a normal white boy,” as her class was preparing for a colonial day re-enactment.
These are not isolated events.
Many adults believe that children see race only when it is pointed out. But as Beverly Daniel Tatum makes clear in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, children as young as three years old notice physical differences such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape of facial features. The research shows that, even in infancy, children demonstrate in-group preference. Consider the experiment conducted by Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas.1 Bigler randomly gave four- and five-year-old children red or blue T-shirts. She observed them while they played with each other freely at recess. Afterwards, when she asked children in red T-shirts, “How many reds are nice?” they said, “All.” When children in red T-shirts were asked how many students in blue T-shirts are nice, they said only “some” are nice, but other blues are dumb or mean. Bigler noted that children “form these preferences on their own and naturally categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.”
|Racial identity is being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.
The physical features that children see — such as eye shape, skin color, and hair texture — are connected to our society’s description of race. In their book, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards describe this physical recognition as children’s first encounter with racial differences. They conclude that racial identity is “being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.” The authors describe four interacting factors that affect children’s racial understanding: the larger society in which they live, their families and other significant people, their individual life experiences, and their stage of cognitive development.
A longitudinal study entitled “Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices” further supports this notion of preferences.2 A friendship nomination questionnaire was given to 80 boys and 65 girls in grades one through four and six. The results showed that race played a significant role (though less pervasive than gender) in children’s friendship choices, particularly when considering same-sex friendships.
Identity and Success in the Independent School
How does current research inform us about the experiences of children of color in schools where the dominant racial culture is white? A 2003 study by Edith Arrington, Diane Hall, and Howard Stevenson examined the variables that lead to success for African-American students in independent schools.3 Of the students interviewed, 75 percent reported making a special effort to fit into their school communities, 82 percent reported that they had negative school experiences, and 40 percent did not believe the school treated all students the same. The authors concluded that, “for black students, success is best defined by a strong sense of connection to the school community; a positive sense of self across contexts, but especially in the school; social and emotional health; and a racial identity that would serve as a resource as they develop, but particularly when students encounter racism.”
Another Independent School article by Michael Thompson and Kathy Schultz (2003), focusing on the “Psychological Experiences of Students of Color in Independent Schools,” highlights the fact that students of color, because they are in predominantly white schools, often experience intense social loneliness.
In Can We Talk About Race?, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes that it is essential for schools to actively address the “continuing significance of race and racial identity in ways that empower and motivate students to transcend the legacy of racism in our society.” She defines the ABCs of creating and maintaining an inclusive learning environment: A is for affirming identity; B is for building community; and C is for cultivating leadership. In this article, we emphasize “affirming identity” because we believe that one’s racial identity — reflected in the curriculum, faculty and staff, and/or classmates — helps to avoid what Tatum describes as “invisibility or marginality that can undermine student success.”
Facing the Tough Questions
The research is there. The need is there. So why do many schools hesitate to establish affinity groups? It’s mostly a matter of institutional will — and a willingness to take on critics and skeptics.
For any independent school that makes an effort to establish affinity groups — whether your school is deeply invested in multicultural education or just starting to examine the possibilities for your institution — you are bound to encounter resistance. At the Gordon School, which earned the Leading Edge award from the National Association of Independent Schools in 2004 for its work in equity and justice, one board member anticipated the response from the community when learning of the need for affinity groups. She knew it would be difficult for all school constituents “to come to the understanding that children of color can still be hurt in our school, even after we have done what feels like so much incredible work on diversity and multicultural practice.”
Introduce affinity groups and, on cue, some concerned parent will say, “I can’t believe you’re promoting segregation at our school, in this decade, in this post-racialized country. For goodness sake, we have a black president!”
You may even be accused of segregation or reverse racism. “My child tells me she wants to participate,” says a parent. “She thinks it’s not fair because white kids can’t join. My white student is being denied this opportunity.”
Undoubtedly, some of the most complex questions about affinity groups will be presented to you in the hallway or at pick up time. Sixty seconds, surrounded by other students or parents, simply isn’t enough time, nor is it the place, to consider these issues thoughtfully. However, this is a good opportunity to tell the parent that it is normal for a young child to question race in this manner, and to commend the parent for having a dialogue about race with his or her child. The latter point is important because too many in our culture avoid the topic, as if they believe it’s incendiary.
You can validate parents’ concerns by confirming that, yes, sometimes things do feel unfair, especially in the eyes of a seven-year-old. Make a plan with the parent to continue the conversation with you when everybody has more time to talk. Get the voices of dissension through the door, because if you don’t, those voices will go underground and undermine your efforts to create affinity groups.
Building relationships with skeptics is an essential step in the process of creating affinity groups. A bit of listening and friendly discussion goes a long way. If you can help parents understand racial identity development and clearly express the goals of your affinity groups, you may in fact create newly empowered allies.
|Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can allieviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race.
How do you define racial identity development? Tatum describes it as “the process of defining for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a particular racial group.” Children internalize aspects of racial identity from the adults and peers around them. For students of color in predominately white independent schools, resisting negative stereotypes and affirming carefully considered definitions of themselves are critical to counterbalance the limited number of role models who mirror them racially.
Over time, in our experience, more members of the school community will come to understand that well-facilitated, racial affinity groups are gatherings that facilitate positive identity exploration, where people can pose questions and process issues. As a learning base, affinity groups offer affirmation of identity, empowerment of the individual, and empowerment of the group within the learning community — all things worth fighting for.
Planting the Seeds of Change
Nearly a decade ago, Gordon School developed a Strategic Plan for Racial Diversity and committed itself to multicultural and anti-bias education. Two adult race-based affinity groups developed at this time: Parents of Students of Color (POSOC) and Faculty and Staff of Color. POSOC began meeting in the evening, with childcare provided. The informal get-togethers in the childcare area became the first school-supported opportunity where children of color from nursery to eighth grades could gather — even though the primary meeting was for adults. Children who participated began asking their families when the next POSOC night would be and demanding to go to childcare “so they can be with their friends.” The desire for students of color to gather and play in a majority experience did not go unnoticed.
In 2004, the school’s diversity committee created a task force to research student affinity groups in school settings. Committee members visited exemplary elementary school affinity group programs at Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Nashoba Brooks School (Massachusetts), and The Orchard School (Indiana), as well as programs located at independent secondary schools and colleges. At the same time, Gordon also embarked on its first Racial Climate Assessment — “racial climate” deﬁned as the current perceptions, attitudes, and expectations that inform the educational experience of various racial/ethnic groups at an institution.
The assessment included data from division directors and middle school students. Broadly, perceptions of the students’ needs and experiences were as follows:
• Students live in two worlds, both of which are critical of them.
• Students of color continue to sit alone within some classrooms.
• Middle school students were asking for affinity group meetings.
• Students of color felt an affinity with each other already.
• On their own initiative, students of color sought out faculty of color for support.
• The curriculum was driving some racially linked feelings.
• Students of color reported feeling socially lonely, isolated, and devalued.
• Race was used as one element in creating classroom groupings and cross-grade “buddy” pairs.
In 2006, based on these findings, Gordon created Common Ground, a race-based affinity group for the lower school (grades one to four). The task force decided to start with lower school students because the research reveals that it could be difficult starting affinity groups in middle school, especially an affinity group that can point directly to difference. Developmentally, middle school students feel the pressure to “blend in,” and middle school programs in other schools found it a challenge to recruit students based on this fact.
Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can alleviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race. The hope is that, when they reach middle school, the students who have participated in an affinity group in elementary school will feel more empowered and positively informed about their racial identity.
Common Ground met for one hour, once a week, after school, for eight sessions a season. It was a free and voluntary program for families of color. The school decided it would not be appropriate to charge for a program that exists because the greater institution was, in effect, broken.
Although participants included children of various races and ethnicities, and they belonged to several different social circles, they found commonality when they discussed their experiences as minorities in the school. During the first few years, nearly 50 percent of eligible families participated.
Learning from Experience
While working as a Spanish teacher at an independent school in the early 1990s, Zenaida Muslin observed a peculiar phenomenon. Her school would admit intellectually talented students of color, but by the end of the school year, academically, they would fall to the bottom of their classes. She concluded that her school was not prepared to support students who are linguistically, racially, and socioeconomically different from the majority. This realization inspired her first effort to create affinity groups for students of color.
|Can a White Teacher Facilitate an Affinity Group of Color?
When Gordon School launched its Common Ground affinity group, there were no teachers of color in the lower school, due to maternity leaves. This presented a dilemma. Could a white teacher facilitate an affinity group for students of color?
After some deliberation, I volunteered to co-lead the affinity group with a fifth grade faculty member of color. My logic was simple: I didn’t think that all diversity work should be on the backs of faculty of color, and I thought it would be beneficial for students in Common Ground to have a white adult ally they could identify with.
Like other affinity group facilitators, I participated in ongoing identity development. I also had some experience leading a white affinity group among interested faculty in my school. I engaged in dialogue and activity on numerous occasions at the White Privilege Conference and took part in a weeklong dialogue at the Social Justice Training Institute.
Six years later, I’m still at it. Common Ground now serves over 70 percent of Gordon’s students of color, who comprise approximately 30 percent of the student body. The program is facilitated by four women — one who is white and two who are faculty members of color.
White teachers who are thinking about leading race-based affinity groups in their schools need to think deeply and ask themselves some difficult questions, such as:
• What do I understand about my racial identity as a white teacher/person?
• How do I feel about issues of race as they relate to children’s school experiences?
• What issues are unresolved around my racial identity?
• How does my racial identity affect the way I relate to my students and colleagues within and outside of my school community?
• How do I help children of color find their voices to express their school experiences?
There is no perfect pathway or map to arrive at the answers to these questions, but it is important that we engage in conversation and collaborate with colleagues, administrators, parents, and board members to think about ways to address, affirm, and support all students around racial identity development. — Julie Parsons
In 2000, Muslin moved to the Bank Street School for Children (New York), where she serves as diversity coordinator. Here, she founded lower school race-based affinity groups that start in first grade and meet once a month for 45 minutes, facilitated by two teachers of color. At the same time that students of color work in their affinity groups, white children also discuss issues of race and identity. A follow-up lesson for the full class takes place during the same week of the affinity group meeting, allowing for cross-racial dialogue. The majority of students of color participate in the affinity groups, which encompass 70 to 80 percent of their student-of-color population.
Muslin describes experiencing “push back” from a handful of parents — primarily white parents, but also from those who have children of color, and from a smaller number of parents of color — but she also notes the value of the program.
“Our families need to be more forward thinking,” says Muslin, “and realize that race continues to be an issue in the 21st century and is a part of our human condition — and that our children need to understand the importance of this fact.”
Several schools have been doing this work for 10 years or more with clear success. Randolph Carter, a diversity consultant and director of the Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative, started a lower school affinity group at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (Virginia) in 1999. Carter’s group initially started in kindergarten, but he soon felt that second grade was a better starting point, as children of this age could understand the purpose of the group. The program ran from September until May during the lunch period, when he met with students by grade, once weekly. Eventually, the groups morphed into what he described as “multiracial groups,” as students were allowed to bring friends. Carter recognized the need for white children to engage in dialogue about race. He emphasizes, however, that racial affinity groups alone are no substitute for the broad institutional change that needs to take place in schools.
Even after 10 years of diversity and inclusion work at their schools, Elizabeth Denevi of Georgetown Day School (Washington) and Sandra Chapman of the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (New York) indicate that they still experience pushback from some parents around the issue of race-based affinity groups, but they also see the clear value for students.
Chapman encourages parents and colleagues to recognize that the white members of their community already spend much of their time surrounded by other white people. “For families of color, the affinity group experience can be profound,” says Chapman. “It creates that safe space inside the school building.”
Both Chapman’s and Denevi’s schools begin affinity work in lower school with informal meetings of children while their parents participate in parents of color meetings. More formal affinity groups for children begin in fifth grade.
Schools considering affinity groups can explore approaches taken by schools in various stages of race-based affinity work by visiting the websites of Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Friends School in Baltimore (Maryland), The Hamlin School (California), The Village Community School (New York), and The Orchard School (Indiana). Even better, see if you can visit these schools to observe the positive impact of affinity groups on the entire school community.
Where to Begin
Schools interested in launching affinity groups for elementary age students of color can draw from the experiences of those who have been traveling this path now for several years. Although every school may bring unique challenges to the table, this short list of goals can guide educators in their program development.
• Conduct a Racial Climate Assessment to obtain useful data about students’ school experiences.
• Facilitate positive identity exploration, self-awareness, pride, and self-esteem through books, games, discussion, and structured play activities that connect students to each other.
• Provide students with the opportunity to discuss topics of race, identity, and diversity in a safe space that will enable students of color to develop their voice.
• Encourage and develop leadership skills.
• Develop accurate language and vocabulary to describe themselves and others.
• Increase the school’s ability to recruit and retain families and teachers of color.
• The purpose of the affinity group is to provide a majority experience for students regularly who are in the minority at school.
At Gordon, we have also learned to be flexible with regard to each student’s needs and the group’s desires. We want Common Ground to stay dynamic and to be fun. Ours is essentially a play-based program. Our third and fourth grade students receive more formalized programming around race and identity.
Some schools choose to focus on a theme for each season. Fall can be a time for building a sense of group identity and community. Winter weather makes a good time for projects such as scrapbooks, dance, and cooking that provide opportunity for more in-depth identity work. Spring is a good time to focus on closure, on celebrating what you’ve learned.
Every group creates its own traditions, whether it’s celebrating the graduation of our fourth graders into middle school or sharing our goodbyes to our friends moving into new schools. Many resources exist to help facilitators with social and emotional learning activities, including Open Circle (www.open-circle.org); Tribes Learning Community (www.tribes.com), the Roots and Wings Foundation (www.rootsandwingsnj.org), and various education and diversity-related websites.
Past participants are another valuable resource. These middle school mentors can have a profound effect on the developing identity of an elementary school child.
As we worked to establish our lower school affinity group at Gordon, we had board approval, and also met with lower school faculty to educate them about the nature of the affinity group structure. We encouraged faculty to connect with the facilitators about the experiences of students of color in the classroom. In addition, we shared strategies with teachers that aid in addressing parents’ concerns and questions about the purpose of the program. We have since learned that it is not a one-shot deal, but that we need to be continuously engaged with school personnel about how to talk about common ground with students and parents. Children will have developmentally appropriate questions and teachers need to respond accordingly. In 2008, Gordon School provided a forum for the school community to learn about Common Ground and voice questions. Voices of dissension were welcomed. In Spring 2012, we will be having a panel discussion about the value of affinity-group programming in elementary school.
Building a Common Language
First graders may not fully understand why they join an affinity group. By third or fourth grade, however, students often can articulate what the affinity group means to them and why it’s important.
This confidence becomes especially important when they feel scrutinized by other students who want to know what they’re “doing in there.” Affinity groups help to reduce the pressure on these children by giving both students and adults in the school community a common language in which to discuss not only the program, but also larger issues of race and diversity. Affinity groups are a present-day Band-Aid for the conditions and experiences children of color are having in predominately white affluent schools. In the larger context, schools must be prepared to examine systemic changes in their institutions to provide a more equitable space for all students. All students — not just students of color — must be engaged in examining and clearly understanding the multiple facets of identity.
Eventually, “positive racial identity development” may become a standard element in the school lexicon, fitting seamlessly along terms like “developmentally appropriate” or “academically rigorous.”
Julie Parsons is a kindergarten teacher and affinity group facilitator at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). Kimberly Ridley is director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School. The authors wish to thank writer Cindy Elder, a parent of two children at the Gordon School, for her generous assistance in editing this article. For more information about the Gordon School’s affinity groups, visit www.gordonschool.org.
1. Bigler, Rebecca, 2009. “See Baby Discriminate,” Newsweek, September 2009.
2. Graham, James A., Robert Cohen, Susan M. Zbikowski, and Mary E. Secrist, 1998. “A Longitudinal Investigation of Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices,” Child Study Journal, v28, n4, 1998.
3. Arrington, Edith G., Diane M. Hall, Howard C. Stevenson, 2003. “The Success of African-American Students in Independent Schools,” Independent School, Summer 2003.