Why Does a Christian University have an “Affinity Group” for White Students?
Originally published: 10/13/20
In the fall of 2020, a student at Biola University forwarded an email newsletter to me for a rather unusual campus “affinity group” called Commune. Here is the description:
The mission of Commune is to provide an authentic space for white students to learn and process how their whiteness informs their understanding of pursuing kingdom justice in society today.
Now maybe I'm reading too much into this, but this sounds like a Christian-y way of saying that the group's focus is on helping white students understand their white privilege. This is an officially recognized student organization, supervised by paid staff. It’s listed on their “Affinity Groups” page. (UPDATE: As of 9/6/22, it's still listed on the Biola web site.) It's simply described on the Biola web site as a “Coed Group for White Students.”
In the higher ed context, affinity groups are often an extension of the office of Diversity. They are usually formed to build community among members of non-dominant groups and to foster inclusion and awareness in the broader university life for those minority groups. This seems consistent with the other ethnicity based affinity groups listed on Biola's web page. Students of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds connect and fellowship with one another. But the immediate question in my head was: What in the world is an affinity group for white students?
What Does Commune Do?
Here are a few screencaps from their October 2020 newsletter to give you a flavor of their point of view.
At the top, there was an announcement for an upcoming event –– a Zoom call entitled, “Examining Critical Race Theory (CRT) with Humility.”
My student informant wasn't able to attend this particular meeting, but she did ask the leader for recommended resources. These were the ones sent to her by the leader who said that "multiple perspectives" were considered at the meeting.
How Should Christians Think About Social Justice? (an interview with an anti-CRT faculty member from Biola, Dr. Thaddeus Williams)
What Christians Get Wrong About Critical Race Theory (an article by a pro-CRT professor from Wheaton College, Dr. Nathan Cartagena)
What is Critical Race Theory? (Time Magazine)
The first link represents a perspective that challenges the CRT/secular social justice framework in light of the Christian worldview. The second link represents a Christian page that is fairly CRT/secular social justice affirming. The third link goes to a secular article.
Now, this might give the appearance of balance if it weren't for the additional resources recommended in the digital newsletter. They encourage students to check out the PBS web page on Hispanic Heritage Month. Here is a link to the “New American Girls” webisodes that were also recommended. I watched a few of them. All of these were fairly affirming of the secular narrative.
The third part of the newsletter encouraged students to watch a documentary. It is described in positive terms, like "moving and informative."
Here is the full documentary. Make up your own mind about the pros and cons of this.
Again, I want to emphasize: this is an official, Biola sanctioned group, supervised by paid staff. According to the Biola web site, Alisa Andre is the Director of Intercultural Education & Assessment. Her leadership over the “Commune” affinity group is listed on her official Biola web page:
Alisa “works primarily with Biola employees in the development of their intercultural knowledge, attitudes, and skills by creating professional development opportunities such as Symphony. She also oversees the LEAD Scholars Program and leads Commune, an affinity group for white students. Her research interests include the intersection of spiritual formation, emerging adulthood and white identity.”
Ms. Andre holds a Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. One of her "research interests" is "white identity." (9/6/22 UPDATE: Ms. Andre's page on the Biola web site appears to have been scrubbed. But here is a link to her public page on LinkedIn, which states she still works in the same role at Biola.) This makes me wonder whether, or to what degree, the values of Critical Race Theory, antiracism and social justice inform her worldview and the programs she runs/develops at Biola.
A Peek Inside
In November 2020, we asked a student to help us get a look inside the group by attending the Commune meeting. There were two paid staff members (one male and one female) and three White female undergrads in attendance on Zoom.
Most of the hour was spent sharing about their favorite foods and going home to see their parents over the holidays. The students also discussed how their views were becoming more liberal than their parents. The staff members affirmed them in this.
At the end of the meeting, the female leader invited one of the students to share a reading from the book, Prayers for a Privileged People. This reading acted as a closing "prayer" for the meeting. The description on amazon describes this book as "prayers on behalf of those who are people of privilege and entitlement the haves at an urgent moment in our society."
The End of the Line
Biola has historically been a strong stand for the historic Christian faith. But I have a lot of questions about why the University sponsors a club like this. The wording in this newsletter is concerning. There are some definite red flags here.
This issue hit particularly close to home when my younger daughter received this text as her first communication from Biola last fall, shortly after her acceptance.
My daughter is white. So what "affinity group" would Biola be inviting her to join? The Commune, naturally. Before she even arrived on campus, the University began messaging her about her race. That incident played a major role in our decision to delay college for a year while we researched other options.
I think that many parents send their children to Christian universities like Biola because they have a reasonable assumption that their child will be learning about controversial and difficult ideas through the lens of a historic Christian framework. This assumption is often built by the school's public statements to this effect. So it's not without warrant.
The issues at Biola are, in my opinion, a microcosm of most Christian colleges right now. The more I have looked into these cases, I have grown increasingly skeptical that the schools are taking adequate precautions to hire carefully or create policies that are consistent with historic Christianity. Are there still biblically faithful staff and faculty employed at schools like Biola? Definitely. I bless them and hope they will continue to pushback against heterodoxy in their local context. But when problematic issues continue to persist, long after they have been brought to the administration's attention, there is reason to believe that these issues are deeply embedded at the institution.