Affinity v. segregation

4 Nov

Listening to a NPR piece on single-sex education on 10/25/11 (, I was struck once again by the power of language.

The argument against single-sex education marshalled the word “segregation” to its cause. Good move. The language of identity and diversity is never neutral, and this is a powerful example.

Segregation in the US connotes “separate but not equal” and a history of legally sanctioned injustice. So to speak of single sex education as “segregation” is to suggest that this mode of teaching and learning forces students into categories that deny their full humanity, and inevitably serves them unequally (with better resources being reserved for one group over the other). And in the grander scheme, “segregation” implies perpetuating and deepening division, resentment and conflict.

Who would want that for their child?

Now, if you listen to how schools are applying single-sex education, you’ll hear words like “choice” and notice that single-sex is often an occasion (as opposed to an absolute rule) within a co-ed institution. This is to say that a co-ed school may offer the option of single-sex math or science classes. This academic practice is actually much more flexible than the widespread tradition of single-sex sports teams that actually do enforce segregation: not just separate, but unequal resources and opportunities, as evidenced by the persistence of Title IX lawsuits going both ways across the sex divide.

So when single sex education isn’t segregation, what is it?

I would propose: affinity.

(And that sound right there is the sound of connotations rushing in.)

“Affinity” is no less loaded than “segregation,” mostly because people tend to confuse them. We think affinity means THEM excluding US just so THEY can talk about–what else?–US. But let me propose an alternate vision for and understanding of affinity.

Affinity is an intentional and mentored occasion that meets an individual’s developmental need to learn about her/himself in the world with others who share a social identity, in order to understand and build a community where everyone can thrive.

Say what?

  • Identity formation is part of a normative cognitive and social process that spans our lifetime. It will happen with or without intentional mentoring, and make no mistake: we will learn about our own identity and the diversity of the world one way or another. It’s just a question of how and from whom.
  • Affinity of a social identity doesn’t mean uniformity or unanimity within a group. Just because we’re all women doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything. We’re still diverse in our experiences and other identities. So rather than negating or competing with diversity, affinity facilitates a sense of group identity among an inevitably diverse group of individuals. 
  • Why bother to affinitize (can’t we all just be one big community all the time)? Consider why we don’t tout “large classrooms” as a best teaching practice: because students have more voice, are more active and have more accountability in a small group learning environment.
  • Affinity isn’t an end unto itself. The purpose of these occasions is to create a dedicated forum for normative questions about identity and diversity, with the purpose of cultivating healthy self-concept and engagement with a diverse world. In other words, you go into affinity in order to more authentically, inclusively and equitably connect with diversity.

I stop short of calling affinity groups “safe spaces” because the whole community should be safe, and everyone should take responsibility for mutual safety. Then affinity is not a refuge but another supportive occasion to learn and grow.

At its best, I believe that single-sex education doesn’t segregate students: rather, it helps them to interrupt their biases, act intentionally in both single-sex and co-ed environments and acquire more tools and resources to navigate the complexity of growing up. Of course, inherent in the structure of “single-sex”–whether classes, schools or dorms–is the “boy or girl” presumption, which is both problematic for individuals who identify across or outside those choices, and ineffective in addressing the dynamic of sexuality (in the blurring of sexgendersexuality, we presume heterosexuality in making the distinction between sexes). Hopefully, as the conversation about single-sex and co-ed education continues, the complexity of sex identity will inform a more complex and inclusive visioning of how we can help all students to thrive.

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