Every year we encounter questions regarding the role of race-based mentoring groups on campus. Some individuals question whether such groups are necessary in what is generally seen as a progressive college, while others critique these groups for being unfair or divisive. As student leaders and members of these organizations, we’ve come together once again to defend these groups and articulate the role we see them playing in our community. However, before we begin presenting the reasons we believe race-based mentoring groups are necessary at Pomona College, it might be useful to address why these questions keep coming up in the first place.
Many of us who have grown up in the United States in the last few decades have been taught that to see and draw attention to race is to contradict the fundamental American principles of individualism and equality of all people. Our history teaches us about the terrible oppression and conflict that arose out of racial distinction, which is—according to a common narrative—no longer salient in light of the gains of the civil rights era. Thus, we are taught that by categorizing people on the basis of race (as race-based mentoring groups most certainly do), we are returning to an era of racial divisiveness rather than dealing with one another as individuals whose race merely refers to certain non-essential physical characteristics.
The problem with this framing of race, however, is that it ignores the structural and material realities of race, and downplays the significance of continuing racist attitudes and actions. One must only look at the racial disaggregation of levels of high school graduation, wealth accumulation, prison populations (and disenfranchisement) or representation in government (this list could go on) in order to see the reality of racial inequality in this country. This pattern includes so-called progressive institutions such as Pomona: in 2011, 6.2 percent of the student body identified as black or African-American and 13.3 percent as Hispanic, compared to 13.6 percent and 16.3 percent of respondents to the 2010 Census, respectively. Furthermore, racist incidents continue to punctuate the experiences of students of color on this campus.
This brings us to our discussion of why race-based mentoring groups are absolutely necessary at Pomona: In an institution that is still predominantly white, students of color may feel marginalized and require extra support. Especially in the first year of college, with some students coming from communities where the majority is nonwhite, additional support systems for these students are key. It is important to emphasize that race-based mentoring groups are not only optional, but are designed to serve a complementary role to the sponsor group. Thus, while a student of color may participate in and benefit from their sponsor group, it may not always be perceived as a safe space for talking about certain experiences and concerns (especially those experiences which are specific to students of color in a white institution). This is not to suggest that conversations about difficult topics such as race should be avoided in the sponsor group—in fact, they should be encouraged—but we must also acknowledge that new students are not always equipped to deal with these issues in sensitive ways, and that their learning experiences sometimes come at the expense of students of color. In these cases, race-based mentoring programs provide an alternative space for students of color to seek solidarity and engage in dialogue on these issues.
Furthermore, race-based mentoring programs build community among students of color. They provide opportunities to connect with other students over shared experiences, while also learning about the broad spectrum of experience that exists in any given racial group, and recognizing the ways in which assumptions about a given community can affect not only that community but also society at large. Members can draw strength from these personal connections and equip themselves with knowledge about a greater range of experiences to create a socially aware and supportive environment.
Creating these safe spaces and communities provides students of color with an environment that promotes their ability to explore and create positive self-identities. Race-based mentoring programs work to prevent prevailing stereotypes and attitudes about race (many of which are negative) from dominating students’ perceptions of self. For many, mentoring programs are their first experience in directly addressing questions concerning the relationships between race, society and personal identity. Students of color should feel inspired rather than burdened by their racial identity, and mentoring group communities support students in the processes of identity exploration and self-empowerment.
Finally, mentoring programs provide an avenue for getting first-year students of color involved in the larger conversations around activism and raising awareness of issues related to race both on and off campus. Mentoring groups are consistently active in sponsoring educational events on campus that involve both members of the organizations and the larger student body. Equally important is the fact that mentoring groups are a vital incubator for new generations of people of color in leadership positions. In this respect, mentors stand to gain as much from mentoring groups as mentees do.
In closing, we want to emphasize the importance of allies in the work that race-based mentoring programs are doing on campus. As we noted at the beginning of this piece, these programs are constantly coming under fire from people within this institution—and in some ways, this represents an attack against the students for whom these groups are or have been indispensable. In the spirit of community and inclusivity, we encourage students who are not part of these groups or who do not necessarily need the support that these programs offer to act as allies. We want to create a supportive, rather than divisive, campus environment, and we hope that the issues outlined in this article will generate dialogue and reflection on the role of mentoring programs and their relationship to all students.
To read more about students’ personal experiences with race on campus and in race-based mentoring groups, see aamplify.tumblr.com.
Endorsed by Katie Bent, Head Sponsor; Leah Donnella, Head Sponsor; Karla Molina, Chicano-Latino Student Affairs Sponsor; Rebecca Raible, Head Sponsor; Richard Yannow, Head Sponsor; and the Asian American Mentoring Program.