“White-identifying students can move to the room next door.”
At Columbia University School of Social Work, first-year masters-level students are required to take Decolonizing Social Work, a foundational course that delves into issues of privilege and oppression. I felt a palpable awkwardness one day when we were asked to split into “affinity groups” by race. White students would discuss a set of questions in one room, and students of color would discuss a related set of questions in another room.
I soon learned that this practice is well-established, and not just within the gates of Columbia University. Schools, workplaces, and social groups around the country have implemented “educational affinity groups” where members of a shared identity (race, gender, sexual orientation, age, veteran status, ability status, etc.) engage in activities and discussion centered around their identity.
Educational affinity groups are organized in formal and intentional ways. By occupying a space and time, and establishing ground rules for the group, they offer a sense of security not found in sporadic gatherings. They are typically facilitated by people uniquely qualified - personally or professionally - to lead a thoughtful discussion. While the term “affinity group” is used differently in other contexts, the present article will focus on the pedagogical practice.
Both the academic literature and the current iterations of this practice have suggested that educational affinity groups are a powerful tool for identity development, mental wellbeing, and social justice advancement. However, organizers must take certain considerations into account. This article argues for the utility of educational affinity groups while including three concrete recommendations for organizers.
The Basis for Educational Affinity Groups
Even after the end of de jure segregation, when crucial settings for identity development (first and foremost, schools) became more diverse, people have continued to form groups on the basis of shared identity. This type of voluntary grouping is understood by researchers as a necessary tool for development (Chun, 2016).
In 1971, William Cross proposed his racial identity model, a landmark contribution to this line of research. Cross argued that Black youth routinely undergo an “immersion” phase in adolescence, in which they actively surround themselves with symbols of their race. In this phase, Black youth reject the White-normative views they were raised with and explore their history and culture with others from their background.
Spelman College President Beverly Tatum has cited Cross’s work in her studies of race. She drew on Cross’s immersion phase to explain her observed pattern of Black youth congregating in schools. She argues that this behavior is a way for Black children to explore their identity.
Educational affinity groups exemplify the ideas of Cross and Tatum by bringing people of similar backgrounds together. Furthermore, the collaborative nature of these groups, where students may process ideas about identity on their own terms, treats students as the co-creators of knowledge. In this sense, educational affinity groups also reflect the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire.
In practice, educational affinity groups have been well-received at schools, businesses, and other organizations. A 2015 article in the publication Teaching Tolerance states that affinity groups provide a safe space for people of marginalized identities to meet and ultimately “transfer their discussion into action” to create a more equitable school environment. One student in the article credited affinity groups for empowering him to come out as transgender, stating that the group took a “weight off his back” and gave him confidence. A 2019 article in the journal Teaching Education reports that an affinity group for teachers of color provided a crucial space for learning and healing. The article advocated for the necessity of affinity groups to support educators’ “personal, political, relational, and pedagogical growth.” The Society for Human Resource Management credits affinity groups for increasing diversity, morale, and productivity.
Challenges and Recommendations
The previous section suggested that shared identity spaces yield great potential for positive outcomes. Yet, organizing these spaces also presents a number of challenges.
Without the right support, participants of educational affinity groups may define identity characteristics in ways that are arbitrary and even detrimental. Tatum cites cases where Black youth have associated academic success with Whiteness. These youth were discouraged from performing well at school, worried that doing so would invalidate their racial identity (Tatum, 1997). A poorly facilitated group may pressure students to act in ways that are not true to themselves, or even in ways that are directly harmful to them.
Furthermore, grouping people together who share a certain identity marker does not necessarily produce an inclusive environment. Without due consideration, individual group members may still feel that they are silenced by more dominant group members. They may dislike the group’s activities but feel they have little say in the planning.
The following three recommendations aim to create supportive spaces in which participants can openly engage and learn.
Recommendation 1: Organizer Proficiency
Group members may most benefit when the group includes organizers who are knowledgeable about the relevant identity and social justice discussion. Without this type of support, the group is vulnerable to arriving at harmful ideas, such as the association between Blackness and poor academic performance noted earlier.
They should also be familiar with how other affinity groups have been conducted. While the affinity groups at Columbia effectively covered biases against people of color, they also received criticism for being too negative. For example, questions like “What power do White folks hold in society?” were more common than questions like, “What do you love about your identity?” Organizers should consider the positive and negative aspects of any given prompt and balance these prompts accordingly.
Finally, organizers better serve group members by being well-versed in specific resources. For example, if a participant discloses that they are the victim of a hate crime, it would be ideal for the organizers to be able to refer them to the appropriate legal services.
Recommendation 2: Group Intentions
Organizers need to think critically about what their group should hope to achieve. Should the group be a space where people contemplate identity in an academic way? Should it be more of a hangout? Should it be more of a counseling space, where people can process negative experiences they have had? The ground rules and the activities should all be tailored toward the agreed-upon goals.
Recommendation 3: Collaboration
Group members are best served if they may engage in the planning process. The success stories about affinity groups rarely incorporate the “banking model” criticized by Freire, where participants absorb information from an indisputable source. In contrast, participants must be actively involved in their learning and all group matters.
Organizers may ask group members about their intentions and expectations, above and beyond ground rules. They may ask group members what they hope to get out of the group. Every group decision must involve transparency and democracy. Organizers may even choose to share leadership. For example, they may allow a different group member to lead every session.
In short, the present literature strongly supports the use of educational affinity groups as a tool to facilitate identity development, mental wellbeing, and social justice advancement. These recommendations address the challenges inherent in the planning process and bring organizers closer to the ideal supportive, pedagogical space.
Bell, M. K. (2015). Making Space. Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from
Cross, W. E. (1971). The Negro to Black Conversion Experience. Brooklyn: The East.
Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Pour-Khorshid, F. (2019). Cultivating sacred spaces: a racial affinity group approach to
support critical educators of color. Teaching Education, 29(4), 318–329. doi:
Tatum, B. D. (1997). "Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" And other
conversations about the development of racial identity. New York: BasicBooks.
Taylor, M. P. (2019, October 11). Today’s Affinity Groups: Risks and Rewards. Retrieved