Learning and Growing in A White Affinity Space

In her blog post of June 2, 2020, Marissa Colston, Westtown’s Dean of Diversity of Inclusion, listed “Tools to Help us Heal” after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Colston reached out specifically to White people to do the following: “Continue to educate yourself.  If these recent events are shocking to you and you don’t understand that they are part of an ongoing, predictable pattern of violence against people of color, take the time to continue to educate yourself on the history of systemic racism in this country.”

Beginning on January 26, 56 White Westtown faculty and staff members have taken up this challenge, joining the Anti-Racists White Affinity Group. Facilitated by Adam Salo, Shelagh Wilson, Erin Salvucci, and me, participants meet once per month for an hour and a half to discuss an episode of the New York Times podcast, 1619, which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing  the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Each meeting of this group—divided into two to facilitate conversation—begins with the same question: How are you feeling about race, racism, and whiteness since our last meeting?  We then break into groups of three to discuss the podcast. After these discussions, we come back together as a group to share our take-aways.

The gathered folks come from a wide variety of backgrounds when it comes to thinking and reading about race in the United States. While some folks listening to the podcast are familiar with some of the concepts, historical background, and issues presented, each podcast presents plenty of food for discussion, reflection, and interrogation. The questions guiding the small-group discussions are quite general to allow for a variety of entry points: What central message did you take away? What questions do you have?  What emotions came up for you while or after listening?

The fact that these discussions are happening in an affinity space is critical to the learning that is going on. Admitting ignorance, asking questions, seeking clarification is much easier knowing that the space is a “safe space.”  But these conversations are not easy. Members regularly admit their pain, guilt, shock and sadness in learning further about the history of institutionalized racism. At times, most of us have wanted to cry out, “What can I do?” even as we understand that the scope and depth of racism in American defies this simplistic kind of thinking.

For me, one of the hardest tasks in this work is moving beyond the guilt to a “healthy racial identity,” something experts speak of regularly as being necessary to these discussions. Like so many White people in America, it has only been recently that I’ve been thinking about my own race. As explained on the website for the African American Museum of History and Culture, “Persons who identify as white rarely have to think about their racial identity because they live within a culture where whiteness has been normalized.” But thinking about my race usually means confronting the massive amount of privilege I’ve been given, and the guilt that comes with that recognition. At times, a “healthy racial identity” feels far away, but I know I am learning and growing with each book I read, podcast I listen to, and discussion I engage in.

Author Ellen Abbott

Ellen Abbott has been at Westtown since 1993 and has served in a wide variety of roles. At the moment, she is teaching World Mythology to 11th and 12th-grade students and is the ninth grade class dean. She is also the author of the Watersmeet series: Watersmeet, The Centaur’s Daughter, and The Keeper.