The Problem with Colorblind Mentoring

Malcolm X described an early encounter with an English teacher as marking one of the major turning points in his life. In response to Mr. Ostrowski’s inquiry about what the young man was considering as a possible career, young Malcolm surprised himself by saying, “I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.” The “reddish white man” with the thick moustache told him that he needed to be realistic and suggested Malcolm go into carpentry.

This excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X is included in the first edition of Leading Lives That Matter in a section that addresses the influence of advice from others when considering vocation (“To Whom Should I Listen?”). The scene makes a reader cringe to imagine the situation and its implications, and the take-away seems clear. Thankfully, young Malcolm did not listen to the advice.

The strategy of “colorblindness” arose in part as a way to deal with the racist attitudes of the Mr. Ostrowskis of the world. In a “colorblind” society, as Omi and Winant in Racial Formation in the United States put the point, “racial inequality, racial politics, and race-consciousness itself would be greatly diminished in importance, and indeed relegated to the benighted past when discrimination and prejudice rules” (p. 22). But this imagined remedy often perpetuates racism by giving it a cover and does not sufficiently address the fact that racist attitudes are part of a larger racial system, a situation that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has called “Racism without Racists.” In this post, I want to briefly consider some recent work about how colorblindness negatively impacts mentoring.

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Ribs and Lungs: What I’ve Learned about Vocation from Young Professionals of Color

Craig Mattson has interviewed many young professionals about their work experiences and their lives following graduation. This post is part of a series about what he has learned and how it might inform our work with young adults about vocation.

In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi tells a story about his med-school days when he first tried to read an X-ray image.

At first, he says, he couldn’t see anything but the ribs. In desperation, he sidled up to some seasoned doctors and eavesdropped on their analysis. Oscillating between what they were saying and what they were seeing, Polanyi gradually stopped looking at the ribs and started seeing the lungs.

If you work as I do in a college community, you know the challenges of helping students see the lungs in the life of learning. Think of the ribs as the deadlines on the syllabus, the grade point averages at midterms, the multiple-choice questions on the final exam. The lungs are all the things that make you want to study something in the first place, all the insights and frameworks that enable laughter in the classroom and the smart hubbub of collaborative conversation.

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Vocation and the power of certain spaces

Have you ever had an experience of a physical space so powerful and so sudden that it energized your creativity and prompted the open question, “What if . . . ?” This happened to me recently, at the national NetVUE conference in Dallas. During downtime, my colleague Dr. Amy Hermanson let me accompany her on a long walk from our hotel to the site of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. As we walked, Amy fondly recalled the seminars and lectures she attended at the Institute earlier in her academic career. We were met by our host, Francis Ryburn, who graciously gave us a tour of their facilities at the Stroud House, on Routh Street.

The Stroud House is a modest, late 19th-century brick structure. Originally built as a residence, it was later used as a business center for small, arts-related designers and dealers, and the Dallas Institute acquired it in 2014 through the generosity of Dr. Joanne Stroud, who died in 2021. After chatting briefly with us, Francis offered to show us the interior spaces, which include a couple of large meeting rooms on the second floor. It’s here, in these rooms, where I was immediately impacted by the simplicity, dignity, and possibility of space—for the kinds of spaces that are perhaps needed for thinking about vocation and vocational discernment. These quiet rooms are places in which to dream, reflect, be befriended and mentored, and get clarity.

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Counter story-telling in The Purpose Gap

Patrick Reyes’ The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive is an engaging, highly readable, and thought-provoking book that can be used to spark important conversations with students. The book does several things simultaneously. At one level, it offers a timely and needed challenge to the traditional discourse about vocation, and for that reason alone readers of this blog should pay close attention. It weaves together insights about how personal and communal thriving are intertwined; the import of design thinking—the physical design of urban spaces as well as the power of stargazing far away from visual noise; institutional vocation; cultural commutes and the challenges of “going home” when that commute is vast; the power of networking; and attending to daily practices. In short, there is A LOT packed into this book of less than 200 pages. Reyes intersperses these discussions with reflection questions for the reader, making the book user-friendly and ready-to-use with students both in and out of the classroom.

Reyes also uses stories from his own life to underscore his larger point about “the purpose gap.” In its pedagogical use of autobiographical anecdotes combined with an invitation to the reader to reflect on their own life, the book is not unlike Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, and yet there is a world of difference between the two books and the stories they tell. That difference is both a matter of privilege and of the target audience for each book. In this post, I want to explore how Reyes makes effective use of his own stories because it is much more than simply “sharing” his perspective or conveying his personal story. It is a powerful example of what critical race theory calls counter-storytelling.

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Table Fellowship: Re-Imagining Vocation

A series of posts about a collaborative project at Wingate University, resulting in a first-year course called Food and Faith: Health and Happiness Around the Many Tables of Our Lives.

In our last post, we asked was whether a cosmic horizon of meaning for vocation––one inspired by Darwin’s entangled bank––would help navigate some campus challenges in a post-COVID world? Our answer was emphatically “yes.” Why? Because a cosmic horizon reveals that we are caught up in inescapable networks of giving and taking, feeding and being fed. Thus, by our existence we are given a place setting at a great cosmic feast and festival. This worldview appreciates vocatio as James Fowler does: the discovery, cultivation, and integration of rich patterns of our whole lives, including our plates, palates, and tables.

Embracing vocation as calling in this context inextricably grounds it in three central tenets: We are all interdependent, we live in overlapping networks of mutuality, and co-creativity is central to life and flourishing. With these tenets in mind, we have developed a Food and Faith course set to unfold in the Fall of 2022. This posts muses on the cornerstone metaphor that grounds our commitment in this course: table fellowship.

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