Community / Opinion

The indisputable importance of affinity spaces

Efforts by conservative Wellesley parents to eliminate affinity spaces in Wellesley Public Schools are at best misguided but more likely conscious attempts to protect their privilege. 

In light of the shootings in Atlanta last March that left six Asian American women dead, Wellesley Public Schools invited community members of color to a virtual affinity gathering last spring to process the violence. Now, at the urging of local parents, Parents Defending Education, a conservative organization based in Washington D.C., has filed a complaint against the district, alleging violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment due to “discrimination” against white students. 

These parents insist their actions are out of sincere concern for equality. However, they ignore the systemic inequality students of color face regularly and which affinity spaces help relieve.   

The unidentified teacher who invited students via email to the affinity space specified that the virtual affinity meeting was not open to white students. However, they offered different opportunities for those who identified as white to discuss the event. The controversy that this invitation sparked intensified after Dr. David Lussierant, Superintendent of Wellesley Public Schools, sent out a message “to unequivocally affirm the importance of ‘affinity spaces[.]’” 

What started as general discomfort among some Wellesley families became an organized campaign to abolish affinity groups in the district after residents involved Parents Defending Education.

I was appalled upon hearing this news. As a white student, it has never occurred to me that affinity spaces for students of color perpetuate “segregation,” as Nicole Neily, president and founder of Parents Defending Education, claims. 

The purpose of an affinity space is to provide historically marginalized groups with the support that an outsider—who does not share in the group’s experiences and whose very presence can undermine—cannot contribute to. While they may appear exclusive, affinity groups promote inclusivity as people are more likely to feel valued if they have opportunities to be fully heard and understood.

If the complaint against affinity spaces is successful, it stands to reason that students of color will feel less valued. Perhaps that’s the true intent. 

Ms. Rachel Nagler, Dana Hall’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, explained how, “in education and communities, affinity spaces hold an opportunity for people to gather together in a safe space…a place where they can be identity positive.” 

Encouraging identity positivity becomes increasingly important when a group is a minority, as is the case for students of color in Wellesley Public Schools. According to U.S. News, 69.8% of the Wellesley student body identifies as white. The remaining 30.2% is 14.4% Asian or Asian Pacific Islander, 5.1% Hispanic/Latinx, 3.7% Black or African American, and 6.8% identify with two or more backgrounds.

In an environment where one is underrepresented, I can imagine that identity could be a source of isolation. In this context, affinity spaces become even more valuable because they allow a minority group to have a majority experience.

Affinity spaces grant marginalized groups—who are often stereotyped rather than treated as individuals—the opportunity to appreciate the diversity within their identifier as well as similarities. “You can see what you have in common,” Ms. Nagler said, “but you can also see your uniqueness and your differences.” 

In my opinion, Parents Defending Education’s complaint stems from ignorance and fear. I suspect that those behind the complaint have neither experienced the beneficial effects of affinity spaces nor the sense of alienation that makes them necessary. While the complaint does not directly affect affinity groups at Dana Hall, our community must advocate for their existence and support community members of color and other underrepresented identities in any way we can. 

Photo: Wellesley High School.

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