December 4, 2021

affinity groups and caucuses

a mural of an archer riding a dinosaur
photo caption: a mural of an archer riding a dinosaur. i don’t think this counts as being dependent on fossil fuel.

Many of us spend our entire lives simmering in white dominant culture. These days, so many people are working to change the balance of society. We want a just, inclusive society. No group of people should hold the choking dominance that white supremacy has over all of us. This work to achieve equity is hard. For many of us, it’s necessary. We can’t live in the world as it is because it wasn’t made for us.

Now here comes the workplace, a place where many choose to enter but struggle to leave. Structural racism seeps into the walls of a place by the choices we make and the precedent we set. We spend time and energy dismantling the racism that constricts us. One balm for this struggle is an affinity group, or racial caucusing. I’ve written about them before. I wanted to explore how to create one.

What is an affinity group?

An affinity group is a space for people to come together on the basis of their racial identity. What kind of things happen in affinity? Here’s a few from Ruth King’s guide on starting an affinity group, Being Mindful of Race. In affinity, we:

  • share our experiences and histories
  • examine our impulses
  • reinterpret meaning
  • see clearly our role in racial harming and healing

Some people equate it to racial caucusing, but there are some differences I’ll address. Ruth King writes about the work of affinity groups as “intensely personal.” In affinity groups, we interact with people who share our racial identity. We can talk about our experiences without navigating the construct of race at the same time. Code switching takes mental energy. In affinity, we can talk about the harms and situations where racism has had an impact on our lives. In every affinity group I’ve been in, I didn’t have to explain why it was racist. Everyone already understood. I could tell my story without providing the context of living in white supremacy.

what is racial caucusing?

Affinity groups tend to address the emotional, spiritual, and mental impacts of racism. Racial caucusing is about the work we must do to remedy those harms. Caucuses can lend purpose to an organization’s antiracism efforts. This work is often loaded with the racism of the institution that sponsors it. Because of this some companies, hire outside facilitators to lead these groups.

Dismantling Racism does a great job describing the work of a caucus in their Dismantling Racism Resource Book. In a caucus, we:

  • assess an organization’s progress towards its antiracism goals
  • gain tools to talk about racism
  • create an alternative power base for people of color
  • create plans of action
  • provide a space to address how internalized racism can hold people of color and racial justice back

Like affinity groups, caucus members separate into groups according to their racial identity. Those separated caucuses or their leaders later meet to discuss and assign actions. BIPOC caucus members might ask white caucusgoers to review their internal biases. Some POCs, such as those of us in the South Asian diaspora, benefit from an association with whiteness. Our work to eradicate anti-Black and -Indigenous racism is different as people of color. In a POC caucus, we could discuss how we perpetuate or ignore anti-Black racism at work. It’s like how the white caucus’ work is different from the BIPOC caucus.

how we arrange ourselves

Depending on the size and racial makeup of an organization, caucuses often form in two groups. There’s a white caucus and a BIPOC caucus. Some caucuses create a third group for people who are Black or Indigenous. Non-Black or -Indigenous people of color often face racism that is less harsh. Affinity groups and caucuses group ourselves by racial identity. People who are bi- or multiracial can choose which group or caucus they identify with that day.

With all that said, why do we group ourselves into race at all? Kelsey Blackwell explains why we BIPOCs need non-white spaces, not just in affinity or caucus. “We need places in which we can gather and be free from the mainstream stereotypes and marginalization that permeate every other societal space we occupy. We need spaces where we can be our authentic selves without white people’s judgment and insecurity muzzling that expression.”

This need for non-white spaces is as true in the workplace as it is outside their walls. In society and in the workplace, we fit into boxes that dominant culture defines. Whether we like it or not, how people perceive us changes how they treat us. Segregation is how the world was for a long time. Those effects are still evident, in ways that are both overt and covert (mostly overt). Meeting in affinity is something we choose to do, not something that’s forced upon us.

check yourself

Now that you have an overview of what affinity groups and caucuses are, how do you know if you need one? If you’re a member of leadership, think about the racial dynamics at your workplace.

  • Is your organization’s workforce more white than the local demographics? Do your executives and management skew more white than the rest of your workforce? Do your board members skew more white than any other demographic group?
  • How is power held in your organization? Are all or most decisions in your company made by people who are white?
  • What are the racial dynamics between your employees? Has a BIPOC employee ever reported racist or unfair treatment from a coworker or manager? Is your turnover rate among BIPOC staff higher than your white staff?
  • How has your organization committed to antiracism? Are the people who lead this work mostly white? If the workgroup includes BIPOC staff, does it include all or most of your company’s BIPOC staff? Did they volunteer to take part, or were they asked to take part?

check your company

Affinity groups or caucuses at your workplace are essential to true antiracism practice. They help BIPOC staff build power within their workplace. They can also help build community among staff who are often marginalized at work. Before you can start affinity groups or caucuses, check in with your BIPOC staff first. Are they interested in having one? If the workplace has only a few BIPOC staff, they may not want to take on racism at work, especially if they already feel unsupported. They may not see the value in meeting. Affinity groups shouldn’t feel like another obligation or an unfunded mandate.

The work that happens in a caucus is an essential service and part of an antiracist practice. Unless it’s already part of their job description, be sure to pay people working in a caucus.

If people want to take part in affinity groups or caucuses, here are a few ways to set them up for success and well-being:

  • Offer paid time for staff to meet in affinity, and offer snacks or lunch. Encourage participation and ensure nobody is missing out by being there.
  • Fund race-concordant external facilitators for the white, BIPOC, and Black/Indigenous caucuses.
  • Show, don’t tell, how caucuses will have true power to change racist or harmful practices.
  • Consider power dynamics when management and their direct reports meet in affinity. Be careful and aware that everyone feels safe to speak up without repercussions.

not just venting

Above all else, affinity groups can’t be a place where people vent and then go back to work. It’s demoralizing to experience the same microaggressions over and over without improvement. Organizations often push to recruit BIPOCs and diversify their workforce. They’re later befuddled when those staff leave due to racist coworkers or practices.

Affinity groups help people feel like their concerns are valid and worth addressing. They can provide a mechanism where people can surface racist conflicts and situations. But there must also be follow-through to get something done about those situations. Dismantling the white dominant structures and systems that constrict us is a daily practice. Affinity groups can help build healing relationships with ourselves and each other. Caucuses can help us rebuild the systems and organizations we live in. Organizations should do whatever they can to foster these spaces for their staff.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture[dot]space

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