What does it mean to believe you? Mentoring, whiteness, and what changes

I have been writing a letter to a group of students I mentored during their undergraduate years about what I learned.  I want this learning to spread and contribute to positive, lasting change on campus and beyond. 

To say it most succinctly, this is what I learned:

  • Be honest
  • Be yourself
  • Respect, trust, and believe the student
  • Listen to learn
  • Be ready to question institutional norms
  • Remember that you don’t know what is realistic for someone else
  • Keep your promises
  • Be accessible
  • Expect to move in ways not familiar to you
  • Lift your students up
  • Let yourself be lifted up by your students

 These lessons may sound simple, but applying them is not.

Being a mentor means getting to know and work with specific individuals in a specific context — in this case, students attending a college where I work.  Often in the relationship between a student and a college, something has to give.  It shouldn’t always be the student.  But when it comes to changing the institution, the levers and timescales are complex.

So a mentor’s ideas and assumptions about change need to be considered — made explicit, complicated, and perhaps enlarged.

One of the sources of my ideas about change is my identity as a white person. Being white is necessarily part of my understanding of academia, institutions and structures. To me, being a white mentor of BIPOC students and white students makes it particularly important to believe what students tell me, especially when it takes me into unfamiliar, at times uncomfortable, experiences. 

There is a way of listening that proceeds by finding in one’s own experience confirmation of what the speaker says. There is another way of listening that allows the speaker to take me someplace I haven’t been before, and to go there without looking for experiential confirmation or landmarks. This is what I mean by the necessity to believe students and to listen in order to learn.

Given the power of whiteness in defining what is normal and desirable in academia, white mentors needs to be ready to listen and to believe what we hear.