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.

Faculty and other campus professionals who mentor students engage in a kind of colorblindness when they dismiss or deny the role of race and racism in their students’ lives. Often this can occur because both mentors and students are engaging in what David A. Thomas has called “protective hesitation,” avoiding discomfort of talking about touchy racial issues. This not only does a disservice to students; it can erode trust in the mentoring relationship.

As Juanita Johnson-Bailey and Ronald Cervero have shown in their work, based on their relationship which began as faculty-student and developed into colleagues and collaborators, trust is especially significant in the context of what they call a “cross-cultural” mentoring relationship (because Juanita is Black and Ron is White). They write:

In cross-cultural mentoring, what should be a simple matter of negotiations between two persons becomes arbitration between historical legacies, contemporary racial tensions and societal protocols. Cross-cultural mentoring relationships are affiliations that exist between unequals who are conducting their relationship on a hostile American stage with a societal script contrived to undermine the success of the partnership.

From “Mentoring in black and white: the intricacies of cross-cultural mentoring,” p. 11

The societal context of power and privilege cannot be simply set aside in the context of mentoring. When both people are in different locations in societal hierarchies, the mentoring relationship is unavoidably a site of struggle, but this means that it can also be a site for learning.

Colorblind mentoring harms minoritized students, especially students who arrive on campus already imprinted with cultural messages that they don’t belong or don’t have what it takes to succeed, and who also may encounter daily racial microaggressions from their peers. In their study of white faculty mentoring students of color in STEM disciplines, McCoy et al. (2015) found that using race-neutral, “colorblind” language often resulted in faculty describing their students as “academically inferior, less prepared, and less interested in pursuing research and graduate studies” while at the same time ignoring structural causes. While the white faculty who were interviewed described what they perceived as the low aspirations of their students, there is research that shows that students of color report higher aspiration and commitment than white students (Carter, 1999; Perna, 2000; cited by McCoy et al., p. 236). Well-meaning faculty who see themselves as advocates for students of color sometimes engage in a kind of White paternalism and condescension. As McCoy et al. note, students of color can pick up on these attitudes and internalize them—”they begin to see themselves as lacking academic abilities when they may simply need better mentoring” (p. 236; emphasis added). Some faculty, under the guise of being colorblind, imply that students should assimilate to a Eurocentric way of thinking and behaving (p. 233). White mentors need to be aware of how they invoke (explicitly or implicitly) ideas of students as being “disadvantaged,” “lacking preparation,” etc. These formulations perpetuate a deficit view of people and communities of color.

To read McCoy et al.’s article, “Colorblind Mentoring: Exploring White Faculty Mentoring of Students of Color” click here.

By avoiding (or even dismissing) issues of race and racism, mentoring faculty effectively erase students’ backgrounds and highly relevant experiences. While these may include experiences of limitation, set-back, or struggle, they also include what Tara Yosso calls the “community cultural capital,” assets that are just as much a part of their identity and which inform their horizons of possibility: “Community cultural wealth is an array of knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed and utilized by Communities of Color to survive and resist macro and micro-forms of oppression” (Yosso, 2005, p. 77).

Community cultural wealth is an array of knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed and utilized by Communities of Color to survive and resist macro and micro-forms of oppression..

– Tara Yosso

In a model that has become an important bedrock to the conversation about race and racism in higher education, Yosso identifies six forms of capital that are connected to each other and work together in a dynamic way:

  • Aspirational capital: the ability to maintain hopes and dreams for the future, even in the face of real and perceived barriers,
  • Linguistic capital: including the intellectual and social skills attained through communication experiences in more than one language and/or style,
  • Familial capital: cultural knowledges nurtured among familia (kin) that carry a sense of community history, memory, and cultural intuition… this form of cultural wealth engages a commitment to community well being and expands the concept of family to include a more broad understanding of kinship,
  • Social capital: networks of people and community resources,
  • Navigational capital: skills of maneuvering through social institutions often not created with Communities of Color in mind, [and]
  • Resistant capital: those knowledges and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality. Yosso, 2005, pp. 77-80

Colorblind mentoring can neglect or entirely miss these important forms of capital that students of color rely upon as they navigate the terrain of post-secondary education. But notice how important these forms of knowledge and skills are to an understanding of vocation as well (see my recent review of Patrick Reyes’ book The Purpose Gap for how he celebrates his own community’s cultural wealth and invites readers to consider their own). We need to pay close attention to how we talk with students about vocation and what skills and strengths are highlighted in any survey instruments we might use in vocation-centered programming. What is named and what is left out, and where does that leave our students?

For more on the six types of capital in Yosso’s model, see this article from Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning.

Because of the continued lack of diversity within faculty at post-secondary institutions in the U.S., most non-white students find themselves in the situation where their mentor (assigned or chosen) is white. This is especially true at private/independent colleges, including many where the church affiliation and faith commitments may be why a student of color has selected to attend (See Calvin University’s Jolyn Dahlvig on mentoring African-American students at a Predominately White Institution, 2010). Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) must proactively address this reality, through relevant opportunities for faculty and staff development and by attending to the larger campus climate around discussions of race and racism. The social location of our students as well as our own positionality/identity is operating within the mentoring relationship. As Amy Senta and Danielle Parker Moore have observed, “whiteness” is a topic that has not yet been explored in the field of mentoring studies (Senta & Moore, 2010). Their work suggests a model focused on not just white privilege but “white complicity” as the basis for a new pedagogy for mentoring. The forthcoming book entitled Mentoring While White: Culturally Responsive Practices for Sustaining the Lives of Black College Students (Lexington Books, 2022), edited by Bettie Ray Butler, Abiola Farinde-Wu, and Melissa Winchell looks particularly promising. See also this article on Georgetown University’s The Feed from last November.

What should Mr. Ostrowski have said to the young Malcolm X in that crucial mentoring moment? The conversation could have gone in several different directions. But what a difference it would have made if his first words were something like “Excellent. Let’s talk more about that.”


Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, more recently, “Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe: Anthropocene Reflections” (co-written with Mark Larrimore). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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