We should have ‘common humanity’ groups, not ‘racial affinity’ groups in schools

The concept of race-based affinity groups is gaining popularity. In today’s safety-oriented culture, many people believe that racial affinity groups help people of color feel safe and find belonging among others who share a common ancestry.

Earlier this year, in response to the brutal shooting in Atlanta that caused eight deaths, where six of the victims were women of East Asian ancestry, Wellesley Public Schools in Massachusetts hosted a Zoom session called "A Healing Space for Asian and Asian-American students and other students of color.” The school administrators who organized the event wrote that “This is a safe space for our Asian/Asian-American and Students of Color, not for students who identify only as White.” This exclusion understandably upset white parents, who filed a complaint with the department's Office for Civil Rights for alleged racial segregation. I too was appalled by the brutal killings. A few months later, the frustrated parents sued the Wellesley school system. The victims reminded me of my own female family members and friends. But I am very concerned about the affinity group organized by Wellesley.

I am the leader of several advocacy groups with the word "Asian" in the title. There are good reasons for these sorts of identity groups: pursuing common political goals, celebrating cultural events, and advancing economic interests, among others. In my view, affinity groups that are organized by students without school involvement are acceptable, irrespective of how the group decides its membership criteria and what topics they choose to center. But I have concerns about affinity groups that are organized or sponsored by schools, as they tend to be racially exclusive and aimed at promoting “psychological safety.” I worry that such groups will not achieve their express purposes, and may in fact achieve the opposite by sowing distrust, division, and fear, and making everybody feel less safe overall.

I can empathize with people who advocate for affinity groups. I grew up in China and migrated to America in my early 20s. I speak with a foreign accent. I am acutely aware that I have been stereotyped, flattened, and “othered” as a faceless member of a racial group. I felt invisible and taken for granted; career opportunities were denied as a result of these stereotypes, but I kept quiet to avoid conflict with my white peers. 

However, I have found it difficult to explain my negative experiences to my close friends, who are white, and watching them struggle to understand has been painful. There is no denying that I am jealous of my white friends and colleagues, and so I have felt both guilt and bitterness at the same time. I’ve been annoyed with my white friends who tell me that my race has had no impact on my life. I’ve been overly sensitive. I’ve also had many private conversations with others who share my cultural background, and we have tried to figure out how best to navigate what is going on in our lives. 

On the other hand, a fair share of my white friends do understand what I have experienced. These friends are some of the so-called “privileged straight cisgender white men” who supposedly never face discrimination against them because of their identity. Moreover, I have to admit that my frustrating experiences pale in comparison to other people of color who have grown up in America. Some of them have experienced frustration and psychological pain over decades, so their desire for affinity groups—where people in similar situations can express their feelings without being judged—seems both intuitive and understandable.

If a thirsty person needs water, and a glass of water is right at hand, why would we refuse them this simple request? The water of affinity groups seems like an easy way to quench their thirst. But what if this water has been polluted? 

Unfortunately, all racially exclusive groups, intentionally or not, are polluted by a message of “us” vs. “them,” suggesting one race of people is a danger to another. The Wellesley email implied that Asian students weren't safe when their white peers were present. It told students of color that, at best, their white classmates are incapable of understanding or respecting their feelings and, at worst, that their white classmates are a threat to their mental health. It teaches them that only people who look like them are safe to be around. 

The message that white classmates cannot be trusted because of their immutable characteristics, rather than their words or actions as individuals, will naturally foster distrust, resentment, and fear. It will result in a self-fulfilling prophecy of hostility and alienation. 

Rather than one-time gatherings in response to a tragic event, many school-sponsored affinity groups have become entrenched in the culture of our schools. In the long run, these affinity groups could condition impressionable young children to be hypervigilant and distrustful of their peers. Students interacting with one another in this environment will inevitably see threats in places and in people where none exist. When people feel threatened, they are more likely to make errors in judgment and behave aggressively in what they perceive to be self-defense. 

It also concerns me that schools organizing such groups create conformity. Schools and teachers have great power over children. When encouraged by authority figures to hang out with and find safety among people from the same “race,” students may feel pressure to participate in these groups. When society as a whole promotes racial solidarity, students who do not attend may be viewed as not trusting their own people or “self-hating.” 

My greatest concern is the racial essentialism fostered by such groups. We need to ask ourselves, what is race and who created it? What qualifies someone as Asian, and who is allowed to be in Asian spaces? My Russian friends are no different, in my eyes, than my Indian friends. Yet my Indian friends and I are supposedly both members of the Asian race and, accordingly, entitled to be members of an Asian affinity group. My Russian friends are not deemed to be Asian, and are thus excluded from this space. In an effort to combat racism, many are ironically now insisting that race must be embraced as a person’s primary identity. It’s hard to imagine a better gift to white supremacists.

Many critics of racial affinity groups focus on the legality of such practices, but they often fail to offer constructive solutions. We must teach our youth that race cannot be essentialized; it must be transcended. We should not deny a thirsty person water, but neither should we give them the polluted water of race-essentialism. Instead, we must provide the person with a glass of clean water, untainted by the corrosive notion of race essentialism. 

Instead of practices that divide us, I advocate for practices that focus on our common humanity. The phrase “common humanity” may seem ambiguous at first. To the dismay of many people of color, the phrase is frequently used to dismiss their concerns and negative experiences. If common humanity is narrowly defined by what people have in common, we naturally overlook what people experience at the margins. Practices based on such definitions are destined to fail and will serve only to validate the majority’s experience by stifling voices that tell a different story. 

I argue that “common humanity” should refer to human beings’ innate ability to empathize with people who have drastically different personal experiences and identities. It is the ability to see beyond our superficial differences, stay curious, and look deeper, without being blinded by identity groups or other cultural identifiers. It means that when we find marginalized people’s experiences perplexing and unbelievable, we control our instinct to be dismissive and cast  judgment too quickly, and instead listen, understand, and respect each person as sharing in the human experience

Under this definition, centering our common humanity means we focus on our ability to empathize, care for, and understand each other, even when we find it challenging. Common humanity must be acknowledged, learned, and practiced. Doing so will loosen the rigid grip of the racial essentialism that is being forced upon all of us. Only then will we truly see others as part of our same human family. 

We need “common humanity” spaces—carefully designed, thoughtfully and compassionately facilitated, and rooted in human psychology and emotional learning. The common humanity group would not be merely a racially inclusive affinity group; instead, it would accomplish all of the goals that affinity groups purport to accomplish, without any of the worrisome unintended consequences.

It is time to give all of us thirsty people a glass of clean water.

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Dr. Ye Zhang Pogue lives in the Greater Boston area with her husband and two cats. She grew up in China and migrated to American in her early 20s. As a researcher, she is interested in mental health, disparity, and race-related topics. Besides her research, she teaches immigrants civic skills. She is also an avid Star Wars fan and writes fanfiction to redeem Darth Vader. 


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A guest post by
Dr. Ye Zhang Pogue grew up in China and migrated to America in her early 20s. As a researcher, she is interested in mental health, disparity, and race-related topics. Besides her research, she teaches immigrants civic skills.