Affinity Spaces: A Tool for Racial Justice and Healing

Many people are motivated by the murder of George Floyd and other deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement or vigilantes to go deeper in their understanding of individual racism and structural racism. This journey of education and engagement has driven books on anti-racism, structural racism, and the history of white supremacy to the top of best seller lists and led to the formation of book study groups, online lectures and education programs, and other self-directed learning across the nation and world.

One way that people are learning together is in Affinity Spaces — places (often virtual during COVID-19) where learning occurs and where groups of people are drawn together because of shared strong interests, characteristics or engagement in a common activity. The concept of affinity spaces is attributed to James Paul Gee and co-author Elizabeth Hayes, who introduced it in their 2012 publication “Nurturing affinity space and game-based learning,”

The formation of White Affinity Spaces, for white people to come together to learn about racism, anti-racism, racial equity and social justice, is a common occurrence today, a product of the Black Lives Matter movement and the related awakening of white Americans. People are seeking safe places and committed groups in which to discover the consequences of their white racial identity within the context of a white supremacist culture and history. In many instances, they may wish to spare their Black colleagues, friends or acquaintances the burden of responsibility for educating white people about the racism they experience daily.

Black Affinity Spaces have been a feature of many universities attempting to create safe spaces for students to process various challenges that are unique to their college experiences as a racial minority. Universities, like all American institutions, did not consider the different expectations and lived experience of diverse groups. As such, these environments are often skewed to the needs of white students. Carving out a space where students can gather with others who look like them and share similar backgrounds can foster a sense of safety and belonging, and, far from sequestering them, can actually increase Black student engagement in the wider campus community.

Beyond institutions of higher learning, some interracial discussion protocols in workplaces, school systems and industry sectors, such as the Foundation-sponsored Courageous Conversation About Race series, often implements Black Affinity and White Affinity breakout discussion groups. This enables each to process their experience of the course contents within their racial group and come back to the mixed group with fresh understanding of the realities of the racial divide and possible ways to bridge it.

Are affinity groups another form of segregation?

Inevitably, in a culture deeply scarred by racism, segregation and hate-based racial exclusion, the question comes up: Are White and Black Affinity Groups racist? Are they a form of re-segregation?

The answer, we believe, is no. For several reasons: Affinity Groups are a concept based in a model of group learning and inherently constructive when driven by a commitment to knowledge acquisition in a supportive environment. When it comes to race and racism, the learning curves and needs of white people and Black people are very different. Many white people are seeking to understand—and perhaps confront for the first time– the history and current manifestations of white supremacy and racism in America. It seems entirely reasonable that this learning take place with and among those who need it most—a group of committed white people.

Black people often choose to form single race groups to process the pain, fear, exhaustion and grief that their white peers and allies can never completely understand. The idea of each group doing their own individual and necessary work and healing can lead the way to interracial dialogue that is more constructive, courageous and impactful.

How is the Foundation involved?

The Foundation is currently hosting an affinity group, “White Women for Racial Justice in Pinellas County.” It began with an exploratory conversation between St. Petersburg City Council member Amy Foster and Julie Rocco, Senior Community Engagement Advocate for the Foundation, about the role of white women in an anti-racism movement. Subsequently, a planning and facilitation committee was formed by Amy Foster, Alison Barlow, Susie Patterson, PhD., Caryn Nesmith, Julie Rocco and Zoe Turtle. They have been joined by approximately 50 other white women committed to a 7-session series on topics such as: white fragility, history of racism between black and white women, performative activism, power-politics-policy and race, and how to activate as an Black ally. Black mentors are learning partners in the development of the session curriculum and provision of additional resources. The mentors also present the topic of discussion during the session. Each session also consists of smaller breakout groups allowing for a brave space for participants to reflect on their personal learning and individual opportunities for growth.

The goals of the group are threefold:

  • To inform and educate and build individual capacity for conversations about race, and deepen understanding of the systemic drivers of racial inequities
  • To better understand one’s own judgments, perceptions and biases
  • To empower participants to translate knowledge into activism and advocacy work toward systemic change.

The current White Women for Racial Justice in Pinellas County is full. If you are interested in joining the waitlist for the Spring 2021 session, or learning more about the formation of other affinity groups, please contact Julie Rocco at Julie@Healthystpete.foundation.

Sources and further reading:

Nurturing Affinity Space and Game-Based Learning,” in Games, Learning and Society: Learning and Meaning in the Digital Age, pp. 129-153, Cambridge University Press, James Paul Gee and Elizabeth Hayes, Arizona State University.

The Fine Line Between Safe Space and Segregation

Stetson University

Racial Equity Tools, Caucus and Affinity Groups

Affinity groups offer a platform for voices often relegated to the margins