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The Fallacy of Mentoring

News & Features | February 20, 2018

“Our job as mentors is to build a relationship with our mentees­­—but we can’t really build those relationships to their best capacity without at least engaging with and learning more about the factors that influence their lives,” reflects senior Priyanka Kumar, the current co-president of the Tufts chapter of Strong Women, Strong Girls.

Various mentoring groups exist at Tufts where undergraduate mentors teach specific topics to youth in neighboring communities. Through these programs, mentors meet with their mentees once a week during lunch and recess time to hang out. The linchpin of many of these mentoring groups is spending uninterrupted time together weekly to build a relationship between mentors and mentees.

While mentors feel that they are doing a public service by giving time to these groups, it is important to question the impact of their work and the power dynamics between Tufts students and the students they mentor. Part of the premise behind these mentoring groups is that Tufts students are seen as role models for students in Medford/Somerville partly because of their affiliation with Tufts, an elite private university.

When thinking about what makes a good role model, having shared identities with mentees is essential. However, many Tufts students do not share similar racial, ethnic, or class identities as their mentees. Per the New York Times report published last year, Tufts students are more likely to belong to the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent income bracket and 56.6 percent of undergraduate students are White whereas the majority of students in Somerville public schools are of color and 39.4 percent are economically disadvantaged.

So often, these White, wealthy Tufts students enter communities of color without understanding their extremely privileged identities in a society steeped in racial and socioeconomic disparities. The lack of awareness around structures in these spaces perpetuates disparities and inequality, frequently leading to acts of microaggression in the affected communities.

DREAM, a mentoring group that partners with low-income housing communities, is one of many programs on campus that has struggled to confront issues of race and class. Senior Suzannah Blass recalls her first semester of mentoring with DREAM: “Looking back, I had very easily fallen into the trope of the White savior and expected these kids to revere me as their ‘mentor.’ I didn’t realize the ramifications of my attitude or the many microaggressions that, looking back, I am sure I delivered when I was working with these kids.”

Similar to Blass’s experience, without a critical understanding of their racial identity, mentorship between White Tufts students and their mentees can easily become a case of White saviorism. This looks like White Tufts students entering communities of color, without any training or understanding of their mentees’ experiences, and expecting to “change their lives”, as the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program implies on their website. But Big Brothers and Big Sisters are not the only groups who normalize this attitude—this belief is prevalent across different programs.

Nihaarika Sharma, a senior, is a mentor for Strong Women, Strong Girls, and notes the way the organization does not address race and racism, given “how race evasive the curriculum is and how they have no concern for the fact that the majority of Boston mentors are White women.” Sharma adds, “Strong Women, Strong Girls choosing not to pay attention to race tells me that they don’t care about steering away from being White saviors… they aren’t being critical enough in their own impact and the power dynamics they bring to the work they are doing.”

Having also noticed the same trend of receiving curricula and direction from an organization that fails to acknowledge White privilege and the power White mentors wield, Kumar has worked to bring an “anti-racist” approach to the local Tufts chapter.

Kumar says, “As I understand it, the difference lies between being active and passive. Being actively anti-racist means going after having the hard conversations, it means doing the readings that provide new perspectives and lenses through which to understand the current racial situation, it means being critical about what your racial presence means in present-day United States.” Kumar adds that this kind of active anti-racism inherently involves “taking on the responsibility of learning.”

For mentors who do share identities and experiences with their mentees, mentorship can flourish. Black Tufts alum Maia Raynor, (A’16), says, “My mentees and I could talk about how they were disciplined at home and their thoughts on that, without the fear of being judged. We talked about our skin and how beautiful it was.”

At its core, mentorship is about the needs of the mentee, and Raynor’s story highlights how mentor relationships between mentors and mentees who share identities can be spaces of care and healing. Ultimately, there is no way that same experience could occur between mentors who do not share the same racial identity, like Raynor and her mentees.

However, there are still ways mentors of different racial and ethnic identities can meet the needs of their mentees. For example, HeeJae An, (A’16), says, “For complete strangers, the easiest shared experience we can have is our ethnic identity… I know for a fact if I were paired with a Korean kid, there would’ve been another level of connection between us.”

What An and Raynor describe is this: race and ethnicity are important and salient in mentoring relationships. Children have a wide range of thoughts, needs, and feelings; it is shared identities between mentors and mentees that allow an emotionally supportive and trusting relationship. This is made difficult when mentees of color are paired with White mentors.

Blass reflects, “DREAM taught me a lot about working with populations that have faced structural oppression but I continue to wonder at whose expense. I had to learn with the kids by making mistakes and slowly unlearning some of my biases. I think the kids in DREAM deserved better than that.”

She advises, “the best of intentions don’t really matter if the impact is only feeding into the structural oppressive systems in place… It’s the job of Tufts students to educate themselves if they actually care about these kids.”