For most college students, graduation is a one-time event. But for a growing number of students from various groups, such as students of color or LGTBQ students, there might be multiple graduation ceremonies to attend.
These special graduation ceremonies for certain groups are known as “affinity graduations.” These ceremonies are drawing the ire of conservatives, who dismiss them as “segregated” graduations.
As scholars who focus on issues of equity and student development, we have a different take. We see such celebrations as not only relevant but critical to fostering a sense of belonging for students of color. This sense of belonging is particularly important among students from what we refer to in our 2021 book as “minoritized” groups – that is, groups that are not the dominant group and are seen as minorities even when numerically they are not.
Special programs to support students of color – both academically and socially – can also bring about a better sense of self, persistence and ultimately success in college.
A history of exclusion
As we state in our 2021 book, students of color formed their own fraternities and sororities in response to larger societal oppression and other forms of discrimination. More specifically, they formed these groups in response to discriminatory practices within historically white sororities and fraternities. These culturally based sororities and fraternities, some of which were founded in the early 1900s during the era of Jim Crow, emerged to serve and lift up minoritized communities.
Affinity graduations – in our view – are an extension of these efforts by students of color. Much like different student organizations, such as as LGBTQ+ groups, Black Student Unions or Mexican American Student Associations, they are not meant to segregate students. Rather, they are meant to create a supportive community on campus for students of color and other marginalized groups. The organizations also serve as ways for students from different groups to organize and advocate for changes in the curriculum and higher education systems in general to better serve their interests.
These kinds of efforts create spaces where students can feel seen and wholly affirmed for who they are. They also provide a refuge from discrimination students may experience elsewhere on campus. This discrimination can adversely affect student mental health. Further, these spaces serve as a venue for students to discover themselves and develop their identities.
When students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds graduate, many want to celebrate the joy they feel after having done what it takes to get through college. Affinity graduations are meant to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of particular communities that have overcome barriers to graduate from college. These barriers may include racial discrimination or anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation.
Affinity graduations are optional ceremonies. They take place at colleges and universities throughout the country. For instance, in addition to its main graduation ceremony, Penn State offers a Lavender Graduation for queer and transgender students. It also offers celebrations for Latinx, Black, Indigenous and Asian Pacific Islander Desi American students.
Harvard offers similar race- and ethnicity-based ceremonies. The school also offers a graduation ceremony for students with disabilities. So does California State University, Monterey Bay, which also has one for undocumented students.
Criticism and attacks
Affinity graduations go back at least to the 1970s. Their formation undoubtedly parallels broader social movements at the time led by minoritized groups in the United States.
As of late, affinity graduations have drawn attacks from conservative thinkers and news outlets. Some have gone so far as to say that affinity graduations serve only as a form of self-segregation.
Based on our research, we think the critics miss the fact that affinity graduations are not designed to segregate students, but rather to bring them together in community with others who share similar identities and potentially similar experiences.
Too often, we believe, affinity graduations are the targets of people who are trying to reduce the complex histories of U.S. higher education into overly simplistic narratives. We also see the attacks on affinity graduations as part of a larger attack on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on college campuses.
Many conservatives argue that American schools should not teach about the history of racism in the United States. The creation of affinity graduations is rooted in a response to racism. Given that there are those who don’t even want students to learn about racism, it comes as little surprise that there are also those who would want these affinity graduations to go away.
Author Bios: Crystal Garcia is Assistant Professor of Educational Administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Antonio Duran is Assistant Professor of Higher and Postsecondary Education at Arizona State University