Affinity Groups - A Dangerous Form of "Benign" Discrimination

On this day celebrating the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is incumbent upon us to examine whether we are making adequate progress in fulfilling his dream.   A concept gaining traction nationally in independent schools has me doubting our progress.

Prominent New England private school have established “children of color affinity groups”, beginning as early as age 4.   The very definition of affinity groups should point out the problem with establishing them based on color of skin.   Both Oxford English dictionaries and Wikipedia define affinity groups similarly as a group formed around (or linked by) a shared interest or common goal (purpose).   Are schools really establishing skin color as a shared or common interest for young children?[1]

The “well-intentioned” explanation for school-sponsored affinity groups as early as preschool argues that “children are aware of race differences at a very early age and … affinity groups … help to minimize the effects of racial isolation.”[1][2] As the Founder and Executive Head of Torit Montessori, one of Boston’s largest early childhood schools, I take issue with the idea that children are aware of “race” differences at a very early age. [This articulation merely begs us to define what we mean by race differences.] Young children are aware only of color differences , but in a purely “descriptive” way.   They are aware of color differences in skin in the same way that they are aware of color differences, for example, in our Montessori color gradation boxes that refine the senses by asking children to grade series of colors from lightest to darkest (in the brown, blue, yellow, red, purple families, etc.) Children inherently ascribe nothing more to color differences.   Schools are twisting inherently observant young children’s notice of color differences to posit a disturbing “understanding” of “race differences.” (Should we even be saying there are inherent race differences? This seems more problematic than even positing inherent gender differences.)

Let me suggest an alternative that I would hope to see become a model.   At Torit Montessori, we designed curriculum to ensure that our children at a young age, from preschool through late elementary school will embrace a number of world cultural celebrations (because young children relate to holidays and celebrations), NOT as a study of “others” but as their own. As a community, we celebrate Eid, Diwali, Hannukah, Christmas and Chinese New Year.   A recent anecdote from two of our four year olds lets us know that we are succeeding.

After a school Hanukkah celebration (which followed larger scale Eid and Diwali celebrations), two unrelated four year olds (neither of them Jewish) asked their parents, separately, but both quite genuinely how they would be celebrating Hanukkah at home that night.  One of the parents promptly went out and bought a menorah and candles and ingredients for latkes and set to work on celebrating Hanukkah that evening. Why? The answer inculcated not by words but by experiences and actions, left deliberately undiscussed in the classroom but rather modeled in our school, is this: We recognize that we are best when we see ourselves as inherently the same at an early age.  There is plenty of time to grow from that foundation of similarity, and guide children’s intellectual thinking on why people may limit themselves as they grow older and why they may find a stronger connection to one or more belief systems (with inherent traditions and celebrations).   “Skin color” should never be the explanation presented in those later intellectual discussions about why people’s beliefs differ. And, of course, differences in beliefs would not inherently explain (or justify) differences in experiences, bringing us back to the flaw with the affinity groups concept.

We dishonor the work of Dr. King in positing, even benignly, affinities based on skin color for children. As educators, if we believe that we run School institutions that cause children to have different “experiences” based on their race, it should be a priority to eradicate those race-based experiences – not to feel “benign” in providing children with forums in which to find “support” in reacting to those experiences.   Recall Dr. King’s dream “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”   Judgment comes in seemingly benign, as well as pernicious, forms.

Kristen Mansharamani, author, is the Founder and Executive Director of Torit Montessori School in Boston, MA. She holds a BA from Yale University in Ethics, Politics and Economics and a JD from Harvard Law School.

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Endnotes

[1] When I first heard this shocking idea, I was “transported” back to constitutional law class, studying Justice Clarence Thomas’ controversial 1995 concurring opinion on the subject of affirmative action. (This moment was one of only a handful that stood out for me most strongly in law school, not least because I was surprised to agree with Justice Thomas given my strongly liberal leanings!) In an affirmative action decision, he wrote, “As far as the Constitution is concerned, it is irrelevant whether a government’s racial classifications are drawn by those who wish to oppress a race or by those who have a sincere desire to help those thought to be disadvantaged. There can be no doubt that the paternalism that appears to lie at the heart of this program is at war with the principle of inherent equality that underlies and infuses our Constitution.”

[2] For an articulation of this “well-meaning” support for affinity groups, in the National Association of Independent Schools magazine, see: http://www.nais.org/Magazines-Newsletters/ISMagazine/Pages/Identity-Affinity-Reality.aspx