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Nothing to Talk About: Affinity in the Age of Diversity – Areo

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Ironically, diversity training in the United States creates the opposite of genuine affinity between Americans. In the real world, two individuals may have nothing to talk about until they grow to know one another. We—writer J. D. Richmond (aka Jen) and writer and attorney W. F. Twyman, Jr. (aka Wink)—have developed a close affinity. We have both learned more about who we are by talking to one another. A deep acceptance of one another has developed, which comes of our common interests and our common desire to improve ideas about race in America. None of this would be notable—save for the fact that we come from two different ethnic groups, a fact that seems to mean everything to diversity trainers.

Wink’s History with Affinity Groups

I was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1961. Growing up, my social world was all black. I attended the all-black Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal church, founded by my paternal great-great-grandfather Daniel Brown in around 1867. Only black barbers cut my hair, and only black teachers and classmates surrounded me until the third grade.

Public school desegregation came to Chesterfield County, Virginia in the fall of 1969. Segregated all-black schools were dismantled in the face of threatened loss of public funding from the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare. I entered third grade as the only black student in my class at the formerly all-white E. H. S. Greene Elementary School. 1969 was a pivotal year for my classmates and me. Gone were all-black and all-white schools. We were now attending schools no longer segregated by race.

The first time someone told me that my conscious affinity should be based on race was in the seventh grade of junior high school. A new black student, a transplant from a City of Richmond public school, noticed that black students were fairly evenly dispersed throughout the common areas at lunchtimes. Kids sat with friends based on common interests in sports, intellectual jockeying or student council. There were 37 black students out of a student body of 1,000. The new black student came to my junior high school from an inner-city public school system that was 82 percent black.

I was surprised by his suggestion that black students should sit with other black students. After trying this out for a couple of days, I got bored. I was in the intellectual clique and missed the conversations with those who had an affinity for student council politics. There was no reason to continue eating at the black table.

That was my first, but not my last, experience with affinity groups.

In college, I joined the Black Students Association. The group seemed easy to join and allowed me to do some tutoring at the Luther P. Jackson house and gain important extracurricular experience that I could cite on my law school applications. I enjoyed tutoring students in writing and hanging around notables like Larry Wilder, son of Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder. I never felt that I had to suppress my own ideas or opinions. In the early 1980s, the culture and consciousness of black affinity groups were such that one could disagree without being viewed as disagreeable.

My true affinity revealed itself in my choice of college roommates. I was determined to find the smartest roommates possible, roommates who would push me to the limits of my potential. My three chosen roommates all had straight A averages. Two were Jewish. None were black. The affinities that mattered were academic drive and performance. Race was irrelevant.

In law school, I joined the Black Law Students Association just because it seemed like the thing to do. Was there affinity between us? Yes, since we were all driven by uplift among the black Harvard Law School community. However, I found myself with two Jewish roommates, living in a two-storey wood frame house in a pleasant one percent black neighborhood in Arlington, Massachusetts. An affinity developed that had no bearing on race. Arlington reminded me of my home, a small town back in Central Virginia.

After law school, the next black affinity group I joined was the Congressional Black Associates (CBA), a junior league counterpoint to the Congressional Black Caucus. The CBA enabled me to show my solidarity with other black congressional staffers and expand my circle of friends on Capitol Hill.

And finally, upon moving to San Diego, I became involved in the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association. I was motivated primarily by the need to increase the number of black judges on the bench, provide stewardship of the neighborhood law school, held at a local black church, and activism to increase the amount of dollars flowing into black businesses.

Then, as Critical Race Theory (CRT) increasingly captured black law professors, my affinity for affinity groups waned. The advent of CRT meant disagreement was suppressed and repressed. While I was open to racial affinity groups, these groups still had to align with my intellectual interests. Otherwise, membership was just dishonesty. Now, affinity groups stifled dissent and intellectual curiosity and placed an unwarranted emphasis on policing thought as opposed to hunting for truth.

I attended a conference for law professors of color in Boulder, Colorado in the mid-1990s. In one session, thirty minority professors were discussing the Civil Rights Movement and Critical Race Theory. I felt that they were failing to acknowledge the wide range of black thought in the 1960s. I raised my hand and suggested that the Negro college presidents of the 1960s were often conservative and leery of political activism as they wanted to protect black institutions from its unintended consequences. (In the 1950s and 60s, black people used the term Negro as an expression of racial pride—see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.)  The room fell silent and people glared at me as if I had released a foul odor—just because I had mentioned a historical truth that contradicted Critical Race Theory. This was one of many such occasions. Eventually, the gap between ideology and reality became too great for me to swear fidelity to any group based on race.

This gap has become even more evident in contemporary diversity training.

Jen’s Experience with Diversity Training

I didn’t fully realize the impact of racial dogma and of black-and-white affinity groups in the states until I attended a highly promoted two-day diversity training class run by the City of Austin, Texas in 2019. I had already published a lot of writing about race, but I lacked first-hand experience of this kind of training.

Our trainer handed out a white privilege exercise sheet, with questions based on Peggy McIntosh’s famous essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsnack,” which outlines fifty examples of how white people benefit from the hidden privileges of being white. The exercise constructed a contrived white affinity based on suppositions, caricatures and stereotypes. I came to the training looking for authenticity. Instead, I found artifice. The white privilege exercise asked us to evaluate how strongly we agreed with statements such as, I can go turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented.

A quick count of the advertisements on both Fox and MSNBC on a single afternoon in August 2020 showed that black Americans were portrayed at least as often as white Americans. White Americans, who represent 67% of the US population, are underrepresented on TV.

Another of the statements we were asked to consider was, I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a racial outsider.

Criticizing the government seems to be a multi-racial pastime. In fact, it may allow a non-white person to gain points as a woke racial outsider. As the monuments and symbols of the American past, including those featuring abolitionists, are openly destroyed with few repercussions, fear of the government does not seem paramount among non-white people. By contrast, as a white woman living in Austin, I am afraid to be honest about what governmental policies and behaviors mean to me. I fear the disdain of family and friends, the loss of employment opportunities and backlash from the woke and I believe that my personal life experiences will count for nothing. I cannot openly criticize current events or talk about how much I fear proposed policies without being seen as a racial outsider.

After finishing the exercise, participants were told, very dramatically, to line up without speaking in order of our scores, which were held like placards across our chests. After years of studying the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which was premised on public struggle sessions and shaming, this felt oddly familiar. People were then segregated into affinity groups based on their scores. I was marched off with a group of other pale faces, similarly tainted by privilege. Approximately eighty percent of the participants were white. The handful of people of color in attendance assembled at tables with those of a similar shade.

I was forced into a group with whom I felt little personal affinity. Our trainer instructed us to characterize whiteness. My pale-faced group members worked hard to surpass each other in descriptions of the evils of our race, ranging from rape and violence to capitalism and civility (classified as sinful). Even time is measured differently for black and white people, we were told. According to the facilitator, black people “bend” towards white society when punctual (an unsupported claim that even the Smithsonian recently made in its chart on whiteness, which they took down following extensive criticism of its fallacious propositions and stereotypes).

When the facilitator asked for divergent viewpoints, I raised my hand. A number of the previous white speakers had tearfully signaled their sorrow at their privilege. I questioned some of their stereotypes and assumptions, especially the idea that all relationships and interactions are based solely on race and power. This did not go down well.

After the recitation of our white sins, the facilitator—a dark-skinned, half-black, half-German gentleman in Kente cloth and African jewelry—highlighted a number of other racial differences. For example, he claimed that only black people like rap. When a black person turns down her rap music, she is bending to white society. If a white person likes rap, it’s cultural appropriation. The facilitator played John Denver for the white folks, assuming that that is the kind of music we like.

Wink doesn’t like rap. In fact, his affinity for Bruce Hornsby and the Range throws shade on the John Denver stereotype.

One of the statements we were expected to agree with in the white privilege exercise was, I am never asked to speak for all of the people of my racial group. Yet many people in the training did just that. Blacks do this; whites do that. Blacks like this; whites like that. Everything was expressed in this tedious monochrome. Everything was about segregation and safe spaces.

The justice promoted by these diversity affinity groups, as Irshad Manji has remarked, is more like “just-us”—a just-us that has devolved into empty slogans and caricatures. You are against us or you are with us. Rich, varied histories are reduced to a single narrative of oppression. This just-us is the new Plessy v. Ferguson, an enforced distance and disconnection based on ideas about race. Diversity trainers view Wink and me in black and white. Racists also see us in black and white.

Yet Wink and I have similar personality traits. We have affinity, despite our different skin colors. And we share a belief that racial consciousness washes away all that is best in our souls. Wink has felt that way since the 1970s.

So we choose civil disobedience. We choose genuine affinity. I had nothing in common with the other members of my white affinity group, whereas Wink and I have plenty to talk about—because our connection isn’t merely skin deep.

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