Student Affinity Groups

by Isabele Riser

There is a new affinity group on the rise. Partnering with Black Student Union (BSU), Nathan C. and Faculty Representative and sponsor Jordan Elliott are creating a white identity development group: Exploring Whiteness, (EW). I spoke with Nathan C., Regina L., and Sydney G. about the purpose of these groups, what we will be seeing of them in the future, and how we as students can approach and better understand their work.

Black Student Union

Why are you qualified to be a student leader in this matter?

Sydney G.: I have been doing a lot of this work since middle school, (diversity group), and issues around race and diversity are something I have experience in, and that I’m very passionate about. I’m an ISA leader.

Regina L.: I’m qualified to be a group leader because I’ve always been passionate about identity and diversity at OES. This is something I’ve been involved with since 8th grade diversity. I’m interested in creating a space where black students would come together to talk.

What is your job for BSU?

Sydney G.: I generate a lot of the ideas while Regina handles the logistics.

Regina L.: Sydney and I meet beforehand to decide on the topic for the week; then when the meeting comes around we facilitate discussion. If we have any articles, we bring those up, if anybody has any topics they want brought up we approve them. We also organize any out of school and in school events which means meeting with Jordan for budget, and Dorm Heads for transportation. I handle most of the logistical stuff.

What do you think the common understanding of your student union is right now?

Regina L.: I haven’t heard a lot about BSU this year, but last year there was a lot of backlash from students about how if a white person made a similar group would be called racist.

How do you want the students to approach BSU?

Right now the backlash is coming from people who are making the situation about them. Students who are coming at Black Student Union think BSU somehow hurting them. I wish people, who are already a majority at the school, would see it not as a negative impact on our racial majority at OES, but as a positive supportive community for students who make up the racial minority. We want to see students outside of BSU develop an understanding that BSU has formed to be a safe space where students within the group can talk about shared experiences and have conversations that they otherwise might not feel comfortable having in daily OES student life. BSU wishes for people in the community to come at BSU with more concern for the students in BSU, positivity, optimism, willingness to learn about BSU and understand the fact that there is a reason for the group.

How would making it an all inclusive group change the group?

Regina L.: I wanted it to be a place less about social advocacy or educating people and less diversity work and more of a community space. We don’t want to imply to members of the BSU that they are responsible for social advocacy, and making the group more inclusive would change that dynamic. We want BSU to be a space where students can share experiences and feel comfortable enough to do so.

At the same time we’re interested in hosting events on behalf of BSU and reaching out to the greater community in attempt to educate those outside of the groups, but we don’t really want to put that responsibility on the shoulders of students who are choosing to attend BSU. Those events are the responsibility of the Student Leaders and Faculty Sponsors of BSU

Why is it important to our community to have this group?

Regina L: There are a lot of experiences to be had for the members of BSU where they’re not the majority; so to have a place where people with those shared experiences can gather and feel supported without the feelings of obligation or responsibility for the education of others. I want my black peers to be able to bring experiences to BSU and have a support system. This support system is important for a culture that makes up so little of OES, Portland, and Oregon.

Exploring Whiteness

Why are you qualified to be a student leader in this matter?

Nathan C.:

I think I’m qualified to be a leader of this group because I’m interested in having these kinds of conversations, and I’ve also gone out of my way to immerse myself in literature on the subject. I feel that I’ve been able to develop a strong idea of my identity and who I am as a white person in this community, and from that base, I want to be able to help people discuss things about race in a way that is understanding and non-judgemental.

What is the purpose of your student union?

The purpose of Exploring Whiteness is to actively engage White students in self-reflection around what it means to be White in Portland, the United States, and the World. This process of self-reflection is driven by intentional discussion about the social construct of race, what it means to be White in a multicultural community, and understanding current and historical racial privilege and power inequities.

What do you think the common understanding of your student union is right now?

Nathan C.: I think it’s difficult to say because we haven’t “launched” yet. However, when we do, there’s going to be a lot of initial misunderstanding about what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do. I think our responsibility is to answer those questions for the greater community and create the common understanding that this group is going to be here in order to really expand the cultural understandings of the student body as a whole.

How do you want the students to approach Exploring Whiteness?

Nathan C.: I want students to approach it with an open mind and to understand that we’re not anything malicious. This group is not a response to BSU in a way that we’re saying: ‘they get their group, so we get ours’. It’s a response to how successful BSU’s work has been and hopefully people will see and appreciate the work that both groups are doing, and really dive into the kind of conversations we’re trying to have.

Why would making it an all inclusive group change the group?

Nathan C.: Having a mixed group of students could quickly turn into something where the students of color feel as though they are obligated to educate the white students; we don’t want to put the responsibility of educating white people about race on the shoulders of the students of color in the community. This is not to say that there are not students of color that are willing to talk about race, or that all white students are inherently ignorant about race. I just think it’s important to create a space where we can be sure that no one in the room feels too uncomfortable, especially when discussing a topic as sensitive as race.

Why is it important to our community to have this group?

Because, as members of majority culture, white people have a responsibility to understand the fact that we have an unearned societal privilege that is bestowed on us whether we want it or not, and it’s not something that can be cast aside and made to not be there. That being said, the focus of this group will not be to make white people feel shameful of their identities by any means. I want members of the group to feel empowered to bring up and discuss issues that matter to them in this group, and have it be a space where people can explore their identities. I don’t want people to spend time worrying over whether they’re right or wrong when bringing up an issue; as long as they approach it from a place of good-hearted, honest intention, I will be more than happy to discuss it with them.

An Exploring Whiteness informational meeting is being held Friday the 23rd during lunch in Room 60. The invitation is open to everyone and is a space to bring your questions, concerns, and curiosity on the subject.


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