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Adolescent Mentorship Programs: Does Race Matter?

080715_Maria_HengeveldAbout a year ago, I sat down with three Ivy League college students to find out how they felt about the mentorship program they had been a part of that year. All of them were White, came from middle- to upper-class backgrounds and had been matched with adolescent, low-income Black mentees, whom they met up with about once a week. What I wanted to know is how they believed the racial difference between themselves and the mentees affected their relationship.

My reason for asking them these questions, as part of my sociology assignment on youth mentorship, is that formal mentorship programs for low-income youth have grown exponentially the past two decades. This growth is grounded in the widely held belief that the attention, exposure and guidance of a nonrelated adult mentor can be a hugely positive force in the self-esteem and upward social mobility of underserved youth.

According to the national mentorship organization MENTOR, 3 million American adults had formal, one-to-one mentoring relationships with young people in 2005 and an additional 44 million adults were seriously considering it. Mentees tend to naturally gravitate toward mentors of their own race, but since White Americans dominate the mentor group, and minority adolescents are overrepresented in the mentee group, many mentees end up with a White mentor.

Since mentorship relationships are, at their very core, inscribed with meanings of authority, wisdom and seniority, and even though many programs have moved away from a top-down “paternal” approach to a horizontal “maternal” model, the programs still tend to present the mentor as a noble “knower” and the mentee as at risk, naive or in need of saving.

Therefore, it is critical to understand how issues of power and social difference play out between them. Because even though not much has been written about failed or damaging mentorship relationships, we know they exist and we can only imagine the role that power and difference play.

None of the college mentors I spoke to believed that their Whiteness made much of a difference. “I don’t think it matters,” one of them told me, “because we’re really comfortable around each other. It’s more a cultural thing.”

“To me, it doesn’t matter at all,” another mentor told me, “but my mentee seems more aware of it. At first, she was very surprised I was White and she still seems more aware of the looks we get on the street,” she continued, “but I’ve had mentors who were very different from me as well, so I don’t think a Black mentor would have made much difference.”

The third mentor, the only man in the group, didn’t think race was relevant at all. “It may change the way he views me, but I really don’t think so,” he said.

Of course, I’m not the first one to raise this issue. There’s a growing body of literature that grapples with this very question. Yet the studies that have been done don’t seem to paint a clear picture, which isn’t surprising, because it’s quite a complex issue to measure.

Some contend that White mentors are simply incapable of understanding the identities and experiences of Black and minority mentees and that same-race relationships build stronger and more fruitful connections. By contrast, others claim that shared interests and attitudes can compensate for racial difference and that this type of compatibility matters more.

One issue that most proponents of crossracial youth mentorship programs seem to agree on is that White mentors need some form of training to sensitize them to the possible impact of their Whiteness, a training that my interviewees hadn’t received. Race and ethnicity, they argue, should be integrated in the training design.

While this seems like a viable way to sensitize White mentors to the color blindness that racial privilege tends to produce, most programs that I have come across rely on a pedagogy of “cultural sensitivity,” which conflates race with culture (in a similar way that my interviewee told me that “it’s more a cultural thing.”)

Essentializing race as culture builds on the idea that particular values, lifestyles or norms are “inherent” to particular racial groups. It fuels the notion of the “culture of the Black poor American,” which, driven by academia, the media and politicians alike, has fueled pathological racist stereotypes and stigmas for decades.

By virtue of their race, minority mentees are not only more likely to understand the meaning of race, they are also at risk of harm if their mentors misunderstand race.

For cross-racial mentorship relations to play the transformative role that it is supposed to, it is critical that programs engage White mentors in trainings that move away from essentialized approaches towards race and are cognizant of the structurally oppressive dimensions of race in America. For that reason, it is critical that White mentors are trained in a way that uses anti-oppressive, rather than multicultural, principles.

Maria Hengeveld is a sociologist, researcher and freelance journalist, who recently finished her Fulbright Fellowship at Columbia University.

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