How can I mentor someone who doesn’t look like me?

Author's Note:

This is a short piece offering some reflections on the practice of mentoring when the mentor and mentee come from different backgrounds. This is sometimes called "mentoring for diversity." I wrote this in 2001 while I was a Ph.D. student and have made minor revisions since then.

I welcome your comments. Feel free to circulate this informal draft to your colleagues who may find it helpful.

How can I mentor someone who doesn’t look like me?

As a woman of Chinese and Japanese heritage studying Western philosophy in Canada and the US, I have never been mentored by someone who looked like me. (In my entire life I have met exactly three people of East Asian heritage doing philosophy in the US; ­ this was at the Eastern APA panel entitled "Asian Americans and the Color of Philosophy" held in New York, December 2000.)

Encouraging diversity means much more than getting and keeping philosophers who are racially and ethnically different; in the mostly white male department where I attend graduate school, there are also very few mothers, students over 30 or professors under 40, out gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people, people with disabilities, or Muslims, let alone feminists (!). There are so many ways of being different.

And yet I have found wonderful mentors from first-year until now, most of them middle-class white men, who have encouraged and supported me in my passion for philosophy. I have also started mentoring some of the undergraduates whom I teach, and younger Ph.D. students in my department. Although only two are women who look like me, I have good relationships with several students for whom I've written recommendation letters and who occasionally "check in" with me to talk about their goals. At present I have little influence on recruiting, admissions, and hiring decisions, so my goal in mentoring the few "different ones" who make it into my philosophy department is to make sure that they (we) feel welcomed, supported, and encouraged to stay.

So, what is the secret of mentoring someone who doesn't look like me? Or, equally important for most of us, how do I find and cultivate a mentor who doesn't look like me? Here are some stunningly simpleminded things that I've tried, both while "cultivating" a mentor who's different from me, and while seeking to mentor someone who's different from me.

1. Say hello to someone who doesn't look like you. Not just the first time you meet her, but every time you pass her in the hallway or see her in class or at a faculty meeting. Whenever I walk into a sea of faces unlike mine and hit a wall of silence and benign indifference, it starts to feel like nobody wants to acknowledge my presence (even though usually it just means everyone is busy thinking about philosophy.) Every one of my mentors started with a simple "hello" and made the effort to remember my name.

2. Spend a little time with someone who doesn't look like you. This may mean anything from chatting while walking across campus together, asking her to meet you during office hours, making an appointment to discuss a paper or even inviting her to lunch. I am always surprised and delighted when a professor decides to spend a lunch hour talking to me instead of working in his/her office or meeting with "more important" people.

3. Make a point of meeting people who are different from you in spaces where THEY feel comfortable. (How effective would it be to have lunch with a female student in a gentleman's club?) I've noticed that when my advisor meets with a group of students in a Chinese restaurant, the familiar food comforts me and makes me feel more at ease than when we're in an Italian café. Similarly, I make a point of meeting gay/lesbian/bi/transgender people in queer-friendly spaces on campus whenever possible, even if that means a group study space in a library with an openly gay librarian working nearby.

4. Introduce mentees to others who resemble them, so that they can get to know each other and share their struggles and triumphs as part of a minority group on campus. I sometimes hesitate to approach other people of color, because I think we might have very little in common besides not being white. Having a mutual acquaintance do the introduction is very helpful.

5. Introduce mentees to people who resemble YOU - include them in your network. Since not every academic is equally dedicated to encouraging diversity, it is often difficult for a person of color to get to know a (white) senior faculty member. I call it the "try-to-catch-my-eye game." You can help your mentee overcome any initial awkwardness, misunderstanding, or unconscious bias on either side. Just­ say a few words of warm praise when you introduce her to others, or better yet, invite your mentee to join you and your colleagues in some activity.  Believe me, it can get lonely being the only minority grad student at a professional meeting, or attending a talk at another campus.

6. Now here's the hard part. Once you know your mentor or mentee fairly well, so you trust her enough to try this, ask her what it's like to be different from you. Ask for details. If she has children and you don't, ask her how she is dealing with child care and whether the academic schedule is hard for her. If she's an out lesbian and you're not, ask her if she has a partner, and how campus homophobia has affected her academic life.  (Yes, every campus is affected by homophobia - even yours.)  If she's African-American and you're not, show that you've noticed she's the only person of color in the department and bring up the topic of racism. Someone has to say it first. The junior person may not want to take the risk of jeopardizing your relationship. Each of you is probably afraid of broaching these sensitive topics for fear of offending the other.

If you have a history of being supportive of minorities in concrete ways, any efforts to start an honest discussion of oppression will be appreciated, no matter how awkward.  If you know the person fairly well, chances are it will be OK. For example, I don't mind having a colleague ask me directly whether I want to be called "Oriental" or "Asian" and I welcome the chance to talk about sexism with male colleagues, although they may occasionally say things that anger me. What really bothers me is when someone who barely knows my name assumes that she knows what it's like to be me.  You can vastly improve your working relationship if you find the courage to openly discuss your differences in race, class, cultural background, language, sexual orientaion, marital status, disability or apparent lack thereof, or anything else that affects the power differential between you.  And you may learn things that surprise you!

I hope these remarks were helpful.

Please send your comments, responses, and suggestions to me at sophia [dot] wong [at] liu [dot] edu.