Experts explain effects of affinity groups

Published: Apr. 26, 2021 at 10:34 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -A UW-Madison sociology experts breaks down the purpose of affinity groups and how they’re used.

Experts said affinity groups are meant to bring people together with the same backgrounds or interests to discuss different opinions.

“It’s especially used among people who are basically all on the same basic side, but they still have different specific interests and so it’s helpful to be in a smaller group, where you can articulate and share your own experiences,” explained University of Wisconsin- Madison professor emerita of sociology Pamela Oliver.

Madison Metropolitan School District officials recently addressed a controversial email Monday that offered discussion groups to families about “all the police brutality and violence that is going on” divided between “Parents of Color” and “White Parents.”

School officials described the separate groups created by Madison West staff members as “affinity spaces,” which district spokesperson Tim LeMonds described as “a well established method” for allowing people who share a common identity to connect, especially in situations where they feel their identity is being marginalized.

West High School principal Karen Boran said many corporations, school districts, and other organizations use such spaces, saying they offer an increased sense of belonging to those included.

Oliver said when you bring race into Affinity Groups, there are multiple things to consider.

“It would be that maybe the white people would never get to hear just how upset and angry or concerned or what the concerns are of people of color, so that would be the downside is the white people not ever hearing from other groups,” said Oliver.

Historically, Oliver explained that minorities would form groups in order to articulate their beliefs or interests to avoid having them dismissed by the majority. Oliver also noted that having these difficult conversations with people of similar background can have different results.

“Many white people just will not talk about race at all, in the presence of people of color they feel very unsafe or they feel worried they’ll offend somebody,” said Oliver. “There’s absolutely no question that white people meeting just with white people often have different conversations.”

Oliver explained that affinity groups can be separated into groups by things such as gender, shared characteristics and political beliefs.

Full statement from Madison Metropolitan School District to NBC15 News:

MMSD district office has been made aware of this and is in contact with West staff to address the message and develop further response.

The message you are referring to was, unfortunately, a poorly worded message sent by West staff to only West families who identify as families of color, multiracial or blended, to promote the school’s effort to provide them a virtual discussion space and support, utilizing the Affinity Group model. Although their intent was to provide families an opportunity to process their emotions and feelings related to current events, the language used to organize the discussion was less than sensitive.

The Affinity Group model is a well established method to provide opportunity for people who share a common identity to connect with other people who share aspects of their identity, especially in a situation where they feel their identity is marginalized.

Tim LeMonds Public Information Office MMSD

Full statement from Madison West High School principal Karen Boran:

Last week, a communication was sent to West families who identify as families of color, multiracial, or blended, to promote an effort to provide families with a facilitated space for processing current events in the news and our nation. Unfortunately, this message did not convey our intention in a manner that supports our core values.

The communication involved offering families access to “affinity spaces”, which are often offered as supportive places for people with shared identities or common experiences to come together. Affinity spaces are held in many corporations, school districts, higher education entities, and other organizations. These spaces are often valued for increasing a sense of belonging for those who choose to participate.

At West, we are committed to being an intentionally anti-racist school community that is inclusive, student-centered, and uplifting. We are working diligently to value the diverse identities of all our students and families. Therefore, a diverse team of West staff members created a space for families of color to discuss the events which were happening in the country and our communities. We also created a space for white parents who have children of color. Unfortunately, our wording in the communication we sent lacked clarity.

Affinity spaces were specifically requested by students, families, and staff of color during previous discussions where they expressed frustration having to justify their experiences and perspectives. While we apologize for any confusion our messaging caused, West will continue to center this necessary anti-racist work around the voices and needs of our students, families, and staff members of color.

This is an extraordinarily challenging time in our nation, and we are committed to creating a safe space for our students and families to have discussions about current events. We are here to support you, and would like to encourage you to reach out to your student’s principal or the West Student Services department for additional resources or support.

Karen Boran, West High School principal

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