As I sat in Cochran Chapel listening to Robert Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago (UChicago), and Head of School John Palfrey discuss free expression on college campuses, I realized that I was hesitant to disagree with the guest speaker. Zimmer is an older white male and a University President, the kind of person who seems to hold the secrets of the universe (and academia) in his breast pocket. Zimmer believes that the exclusive nature of affinity groups, spaces that bring together people with shared identity traits, puts a limit on learning. I disagree. Despite my initial hesitation, I’ve found a voice for Zimmer’s and my difference in opinion through the topic of affinity. Affinity groups make room for vulnerability, and they are the spaces where I’ve learned the most about myself and about how others see the world.
Late in the summer of 2016, UChicago’s Dean of Students in the College, John “Jay” Ellison, sent a letter to the incoming Class of 2020, stating that because of UChicago’s commitment to freedom of expression on campus, they would “not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The Dean of Students made it clear that UChicago’s education would be challenging, not only in terms of academic rigor, but also in the opposing ideas they would be sure to face. Classes would be, from the perspective of the administration, unencumbered by censorship and trigger warnings. Last Thursday, Zimmer echoed parts of the letter clearly and stated that closed affinity spaces had the same effect of lessening academic challenge in favor of safety.
In my experience, however, affinity groups are not about shared mindsets, and they aren’t created to shield people from intellectual challenge. Rather, affinity groups are about how one exists. The goal of these spaces is to connect students with common identities, which usually precipitate in common experiences. For this reason, they are necessary for student wellness and their understanding of self.
I’ve been a part of an affinity group on campus for underrepresented women and girls of color called the Sisterhood for the past three years. Our gatherings, whether it be group brunch or coffee with a faculty member, have been incredibly nourishing to me, especially in helping me adjust to Andover. The Sisterhood has also been a space in which I’ve experienced the most opportunities for growth around my identity. In one meeting, a black Teaching Fellow overheard someone refer to herself as a woman of color in conversation. She turned and said, “You’re girls, not women,” but not in a way that was mocking or demeaning. For a moment, I didn’t know how to react. Then, I realized I didn’t have to. Her words served as a gentle reminder of just how young I was and how I was taking on stress related to my identity that should not have been dragging me away from the present.
The Sisterhood has also helped me understand and release the significant weight of any microaggressions I experience as they add up. There is something incredibly validating — and yes, safe — about voicing your experiences within an affinity group and not having them be minimized. Thanks to the Sisterhood, I was not forced to carry the entirety of that weight through my time at Andover.
I now imagine having these same conversations with community members present who aren’t women and girls of color. Zimmer suggested that this would provide more space for learning, but all I can imagine are those heads nodding along with some question about my identity answered and some inquisitive part of themselves sated. That image paints my memories with feelings of embarrassment and defensiveness. There are times when moments of self-realization, or any other experiences for that matter, should not be treated as learning opportunities, especially when a community member often feels like they’re the “other.” To utilise these spaces as fishbowl discussions is to use people and their experiences as tools.
Affinity groups are not a threat to the goal of intentional diversity, either. Andover’s efforts towards inclusion allow exposure to ideas and perspectives one may never have had access to before, but community members should also have the choice to share what they want where they want to. Without these “closed” affinity spaces, I would not feel like I had a place to be vulnerable and feel understood. I may not have the secrets of the universe in my pocket, but I’m pretty sure about that.
Hywot Ayana is a three-year Upper from Stone Mountain, Ga. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.