The first documented use of the word mentor dates back to the 8th Century BCE, from Homer’s The Odyssey. In the epoch poem, Odysseus left his young son, Telemachus, at home to protect the family as Odysseus embarked on a journey with his band of brothers to fight in the Trojan War. Needing someone to guide Telemachus into adulthood, Odysseus asked his old friend Mentor to look after Telemachus. Throughout the poem when Mentor provided guidance to Telemachus, Mentor functioned as a vessel for the goddess Athena, and encouraged Telemachus to draw upon his ancestors’ heroics and wisdom. Athena wanted to embolden Telemachus’ courage as he defended his home and his family from the suitors who were seeking to take advantage of Odysseus’ prolonged absence.
Mentoring in contemporary US society takes on a similar meaning. Often, we see those taking on the role of a mentor are older and experienced adults who seek to impart their insight and wisdom for the benefit of a young person. However, history has changed the context of how we view youth mentoring relationships, where most of are made up of mentees of color (mostly boys like Telemachus) and mentors who are mostly white women, just like Athena.
It seems we’re continuing Athena’s deception, in the sense that most mentees are young black boys, tasked to try to be something that they are not, by modifying their actions. Interestingly, most public- school teachers are white women, and the most disciplined among youth are children of color, particularly Black boys and girls, and they’re disciplined mostly for their actions. If the goal of mentorship is to increase the aptitude for young people to succeed, then white women are failing, at an extraordinary rate.
Yet, we do not often highlight the negative impacts when those mostly white and well- meaning mentors leave their mentee, sometimes making the situation worse. When youth of color are taught in a colorblind way, as if we live in a meritocracy where hard work pays off, the reality of racism/sexism/paternalism prove the opposite, and those youth feel more marginalized. A 2017 study stated that that led to ‘lower self-esteem and behavioral problems’ and that ‘they may come to believe that they deserve their disadvantaged place and are to blame for their obstacles and setbacks.’ When we push for colorblindness, whiteness is the default, whereby youth are taught to act and engage in white culture, practices, and policy, erasing their own existence. In books, ‘a man walks down the street’ means a White man. If the character were Black, Latinx, Asian, Trans, Differently Abled, or any other identity, the character would be named as such. In Super Bowl LV, a team playing is called ‘The Chiefs,’ though that is a derogatory term for people of the First Nations. We are to take for granted that if there was a team called ’The Ofays,’ that would be completely unacceptable and there would be swift backlash. Even on progressive mentoring sites, when discussing the positive benefits of mentoring, when it speaks of how mentoring helps youth of color, it centers on how mentoring helps youth ‘lessen the negative impacts discrimination’ but does not address what actually causes that discrimination.
Mentoring for youth of color continues to focus on deficits and on overcoming their circumstances, proving themselves(to the default, white establishment), and dealing with their trauma. Meanwhile, for White youth, their mentoring programs are asset based, focused on careers and education. Their mentors are often family friends or colleagues in leadership positions. There is no discussion around living in a just world, an equitable world, a world where whiteness should NOT be the default in 2021. Whiteness laid the foundation of our country’s success, which was built on the backs of enslaved people. The irony of course is that as Christianity was one of the country’s founding principles, where service and giving back is key, that type of empathy and charity is only designed for people that still look like the country’s founders.
Our nation tells a story of “forefathers” invigorated by the ideals of The Enlightenment Period to build a more perfect union. This union was centered on white patriarchy, where only men white men could own property and only property owners could vote. In other words, our forefathers believed that only white men that owned property were warranted the ability to properly direct our country. Lest we forget that this property was not limited to land or cattle, but also to human beings. Human beings that were considered only three fifths of a human, for 94 years, yet still couldn’t participate in the electoral process until 1965. The deeply engrained discursive formation in our education system is not just limited to this historical narrative, it is reflective in educational funding, it is reflective in college admission, it is still reflective of our representative republic, and it is reflective of our mentoring practices which continue to view youth of color as property to be controlled by white superiority.
Vargas, et al. argue that, “the discursive properties of a dysconscious dialog that rationalizes modern racism is pervasive throughout our ecosystem.” Such pervasive racism has been embedded in our practices through the historical and culturally specific schema in which white supremacy has been embedded in our ecosystem since the Birth of our Nation. It is not a matter of external determinations being imposed on an individual’s thoughts, rather it is a matter of rules which has resulted in reflexive white supremacy constructs, white is right.
Yes, we have made some course corrections in our educational paradigm, in fits and starts, with some districts embracing critical race theory. Yet we still see significant disproportionality in punitive discipline across the nation, as mentioned above. Unlike The Odyssey’s Athena, this country must be honest about who it is, and its intentions, or the abhorrent narrative of white supremacy, will continue to plague our nation. No mentoring program, not even a divine intervention, will be able to right that wrong.
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