White savior. Good white person. Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side.
There are several names for this concept– the white mentor who chooses mentees of color. One name for it is the collector. A collector is a white mentor who intentionally and strategically chooses mentees of color, because they see the career benefits of visibly loving “diversity.” As a result, they utilize people of color as a stepping stone for their own career. Hence, they collect mentees of color.
I have both incredible white mentors and friends who are great white mentors for mentees of color. Folks who know when to step back and realize the role they play more often than not. They serve different purposes for my personal and professional development. Unfortunately, there are also white mentors who remain suspect and hence the term collector.
Don’t worry if we’re wondering if you are a collector or not.
The question has likely already been asked, and it’s likely a nuanced answer depending on the respectability politics of who asked the question.
But as an educator, I am a believer in growing, developing, and doing better when you know better. So here is a no-fuss guide based on lessons I’ve learned along the years.
DO ask mentees of color to join on meaningful leadership opportunities and projects– things they are interested in.
DON’T give them menial leftover tasks because you know your mentee of color will do a really great job on it (mostly because, as a rule, they have to work 10x harder to be on a equal playing field). Stop disguising stupid tasks as resume-builders. It’s only a matter of time before mentees of color catch on and lose patience with this one– you’re suppose to be an educator, not a bureaucrat.
Mentees of color experience the world very differently from you and always will. As Papa Pope advises Olivia (starting at 1:15), “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have!”
DO be visible with your mentee of color and introduce them to cool people, especially senior level professionals of color.
DON’T take selfies with them (or photobomb a NUFP group photo) and post it all over social media to show that you love people of color. Mentees of color are not your diversity prop, and you better believe we see right through you. Let’s be real– perception is (perceived) reality and photos are highly political (whether any of us like it or not). Think twice if the photo is more so benefitting you or your mentee of color.
DO realize that there are some conversations and lessons that you simply can’t teach them. You are not the person to chat with about the bamboo ceiling or navigating office politics as the other Brown person in the room. Young professionals of color greatly benefit from seeing people that look like them in positions of power– role models to aspire to and learn from. While you serve as a great instrument in showing them the ropes and even warning them about career missteps, there are
some many lessons that are best taught by your colleagues of color. If you truly care about your mentee of color, help to expand their network.
DO use your capital to help them get funding and resources for professional development, such as conferences and writing opportunities.
DON’T take credit for their success. It’s okay to be proud of them and show it. It’s another thing to brag about all the doors you say you opened for them to be there.
DON’T only pick mentees of color who are already on the rise. Sure, they need mentors in times of success, but they are more needed when we are NOT superstars, hitting rock bottom, or need to be uplifted. If you’re in this, you need to be there for those moments, too.
Why is this important? Because when a white mentor and mentee of color match up– there is a very specific dynamic at play. It runs a very thin line between helping and exploitation, particularly from what I’ve seen in higher education. A solid mentorship relationship is built on trust, and for this specific dynamic, trust can’t be established if the limitations are not acknowledged. And if you’re not ready to move through guilt and the reintegration phase, it may be time to reevaluate your mentorship participation completely.