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I go to a predominantly white institution (PWI), Breck School. My experience has taught me that we need to separate students by race.
When we hear about separating our students based on their affinities, our minds often rush to "whites only" signs and segregated buses. The National Review even labeled affinity groups as "the old Jim Crow." However, there are positives to grouping students based on their similarities. Separating students by shared identities in affinity groups will lead to better race relations and mental health.
According to an article in the National Association of Independent Schools, affinity groups are defined as "groups of people with common interests, backgrounds, and experiences that come together to support each other." The concept of affinity groups began during the civil rights movement in the 1960s when companies created spaces for their Black employees to share their experiences. Companies like Xerox and AT&T have had employee-based affinity groups for half a century.
America is an even more diverse country now than it was when the concept of affinity groups was created. Contrary to many beliefs, this diversity does not make children "color blind." As young as 9 months old, children recognize and categorize people based on race. At 4 years old some children associate wealth and higher class with the white race. By the time students come into the school system, they bring ideas and categorizations from their families.
Especially at PWIs, where the majority of the student body is white, marginalized students are often bullied for their differences. Because children are not "color blind," both the victim and perpetrator recognize the motive behind race-based bullying. Students often feel unheard and unseen when faculty and school administrations fail to effectively respond to discrimination.
Due to the lack of school response, in 2020, there was an uprising in Instagram accounts made for students to anonymously share stories of the racism they have faced at school. The account at my school called "Black at Breck" (@blackatbreck) was flooded with stories of both students and faculty discriminating against Black students.
This is why affinity groups are so important. They are a key part of what racial education in our country needs to be. They give students a safe space to celebrate their identities while learning about the prejudice that exists in PWIs and America as a whole.
Nonwhite students will be able to talk about race with people who share the same identities before having wider conversations with the majority white student body. Participating in affinity groups will teach students to love themselves for their identities, rather than internalizing any discrimination they face.
Students are only in affinity groups for a small portion of the day, ensuring that echo chambers are not created. Affinity groups create a balance between being in a safe space and being in the real world where marginalized students will have to interact with people who do not share their identity.
Students return to the full school community ready to learn and to celebrate others' differences as well as their own. By understanding and loving their own identity, students will be ready to embrace others.
At my PWI, we have affinity groups starting in elementary school. In my Asian American and Pacific Islander affinity group, I found a safe space where I could talk with people from my communities, bond with them and find upperclassmen to look up to as role models. We held conversations about intersectionality, issues specific to our communities and how to love ourselves for who we are.
I had never felt more connected and empowered at school than when I was with my affinity group.
All students deserve to have this same experience; to feel safe and loved in their schools. Predominantly white institutions must have affinity groups for their marginalized students.
Liliana Ahluwalia is a junior at Breck School in Golden Valley.