MD faculty form White Affinity Group

Hanna Hornfeld, Staff Writer

The Middle Division (MD) Faculty White Affinity Group met twice over the summer and had its first of five meetings of this school year on November 18, Louise Parms and Dr. Christina Nichols, the group’s leaders, wrote. In their meetings, group members aim to become more actively anti-racist by identifying ways in which white privilege shows up in the school and impacts people of color (POC) in the community. 

The space was created by a group of white MD faculty members who wanted to create a smaller space for white MD faculty and staff to further their discussion of the book “White Fragility,” Parms and Nichols wrote. Approximately 10 to 15 faculty members have consistently attended each meeting so far.

MD history teacher and MD Faculty White Affinity Group attendee Caitlin Hickerson wrote that it is important for white people to have this group. “Since having a white affinity space does not preclude other spaces, it only serves to support necessarily multi-faceted work,” she wrote. “I want to do the messy work of processing my own racial journey in a space that doesn’t ask folks of color to carry the burden of seeing me along. These spaces help me enter cross-racial spaces with a better understanding of my privilege so I can act with intentionality.”

MD math teacher Tom Petras said the space is productive because it allows white people to unpack their own experiences without repeating information that many people of color have been aware of for a long time. During one meeting, for example, he realized that all but one of his teachers growing up had been white. “I don’t think there’s a benefit to having a conversation like that with a mixed group,” he said. “I think that non-white people would go, ‘yeah, I know that all your teachers are white. I noticed that years ago.’”

The affinity group is necessary beyond personal growth, as faculty members have the responsibility of supporting their students’ growth as well, Hickerson wrote. “In order to do that, we have to actively explore our inner selves — our biases, our assumptions, our default approaches — and how they show up in our behavior and potentially get in the way of making the classroom a brave and inclusive learning environment,” she wrote.

Theatre teacher Haila VanHentenryck said that the group’s last meeting was one of the best anti-racism professional developments she had ever attended at the school. She had expected the meeting to involve mostly passive participation — listening to speakers and looking at powerpoints — but it was actually an active and intimate conversation. Listening to and analyzing everybody’s individual experiences, including her own, was extremely helpful, she said. 

To deepen their discussions, members have watched Michael Bungay Stanier’s TED Talk “How to Tame Your Advice Monster” and Ali Michael’s TED Talk “How Can I Have a Positive Racial Identity? I’m White,” Parms and Nichols wrote. Currently, they are excavating Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones’ “White Supremacy Culture Norms” to learn more about internalized notions of white supremacy. 

To prevent the potential one-sidedness of white people talking about their experiences with race amongst themselves, Alex Felberbaum (7) said the group should simply open up to all faculty members regardless of race. Felberbaum does not believe there is a real need for a group exclusive to white people, and that such a space can end up doing more harm than good. “Minorities need a place where they can be safe and be recognized and have people they might not have in their daily lives, people they can relate to,” he said. “But white is not a minority.” 

The words “white affinity” might seem to imply a celebration of whiteness, in the way that other affinity groups celebrate the people in marginalized communities, VanHentenryck said. However, the space is an affinity group in a different way, she said. “It is an affinity group in the sense that it is white people only, investigating what it means to be white and how we can actually be allies rather than being performative white allies to our colleagues of color and our students,” she said. “It’s a matter of looking in the mirror and saying ‘What am I doing that’s harmful? What do I need to do to change? How can we change together and support each other?’ It’s not ‘yay, we’re white!’ it’s ‘oh, we’re white, and we need to do better.’” 

English teacher Drew Samuels, who has not yet been to any meetings but hopes to attend future ones, said that this space is essential because, as he learned from reading White Fragility, racism is white people’s problem to solve. “There is room for cross-racial discussions, but I think only one of those rooms has the real work to do in terms of working on racism, and that’s the white room,” he said.

A white affinity space provides a level of comfort that can lead to more honest and productive conversations, VanHentenryck said. “Perhaps a lot of white people like me feel obligated to be performative allies and won’t necessarily do an honest, frank investigation into their own biases with people of color present,” she said. “I certainly feel that pressure to not say anything wrong or to be a ‘good white person.’ I think that fear of mine gets in the way of actually taking a cold, hard look at things I am doing that are wrong and inappropriate.”

Overall, group members have thoughtfully and seriously engaged with the content they are presented with, leading to productive conversations, Parms and Nichols wrote. “Racism isn’t going to be solved in a day, a single meeting, or a series of meetings over the course of a year,” they wrote. “Our goal is to hold ourselves accountable by leaning in to actualize our commitment through anti-racist cultural practices that will result in concrete actionable changes as individuals and as a collective with a unity of purpose.”