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10/29/2015

Should my mentors look like me?

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

This past week I attended the annual American Society of Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) meeting in Houston, Texas. One of my favorite ASBH activities is seeing members who I consider mentors and members who are I consider to be informal mentors. While at the conference I reflected on the value of mentorship. I reflected on my luck in finding really great mentors who are active leaders in the bioethics community, great professors to their students, and mentors who have always been encouraging and helpful to me in my budding career in bioethics. But it is not lost on me that only a few of my mentors look like me. I do not share the same race with any of my mentors and very few of my mentors are the same gender as me. Taking a quick look at the ASBH members gathered in the grand ballroom of the conference hotel, if I did want to find mentors who looked like me it would be a very difficult task.

I teach a research ethics course and like similar courses, my students and I discuss the qualities that are found in a good mentor. We discuss the typical traits such as willingness to guide future scholars and introduce them to the norms of the profession. But we never discuss the unique position that future scholars of color, future scholars that are women or transgender, or future scholars that identify as LGBTQ find themselves in while trying to become members of the profession and whether their mentors who do not look like them are in the position to help them navigate issues related to their unique status.

As a black woman, how I experience the profession is different than how my non-black or male colleagues experience the profession. There are some experiences that they will never encounter and there are some experiences that I have had that they probably couldn’t even imagine (as I’m sure there are experiences others have had that I will never encounter). They simply cannot relate to me in this manner. They have never been told by senior faculty members that when in the office they should try to discuss race and racism a little less (given that they rarely talk about race issues). They have never been told that they should accept being used as the “token black girl” to fill diversity quotas because that is just how the profession works. They have never been told to write a dissertation on race and racism because doing so will more likely get them a job than studying bioethics. They’ve never been told to make sure to wear dresses while interviewing for jobs because women who wear pants do not get jobs. These are just few examples of my race and/or gender-focused experiences and my white and/or male mentors can’t understand how these encounters make me feel about myself and the profession of bioethics.

My mentors who do not look like me may not be able to understand my experiences that are race or gender centered, but if ASBH is representative of the racial and gender make-up of the field, I don’t really have much of an opportunity to have a mentor that looks like me. Membership in ASBH and the profession of bioethics lacks diversity, so “diverse” students and junior faculty do not have the opportunity to learn from “diverse” members of the profession. This also means that there is no one to understand and advise us on how to handle the unfortunately very frequent race and gender related issues that come up while working in the profession (this also means that there are less people working to change the frequency of these occurrences).

So what is a mentor to do? Mentors have to be aware of who they are as individuals, their shortcomings, and aware of the profession of bioethics. For instance, mentors must be aware of their natural shortcomings regardless of how accomplished they are in bioethics. Becoming a member of the profession is not just about scholarly work. It’s also about navigating personal relationships, which means navigating people’s biases and prejudices. Some mentors are not in the position to relate to their mentees racially charged experiences, but that does not mean that they cannot offer great advice. There are ways to be good mentors to “diverse” students and junior faculty, even when the mentors themselves are not “diverse.” At the minimum good mentorship to “diverse” students requires mentors to be aware of the race, gender, and sexual orientation related issues that “diverse” individuals face while in the profession. You don’t have to be “diverse” to recognize unprofessional and demeaning behavior.

Reflecting on what makes my mentors great is that they embody this sense of awareness. They are realistic about how they can personally relate to me and when they can’t relate they acknowledge this shortcoming, which is also beneficial. Pointing out that no one has ever told them to talk about race just a little less around the office lets me know that what I experienced was not right and that it’s not all in my head (which is a part of the comment’s demeaning nature). Sure, it would be great to have more mentors who look like me, ones who could relate to my stories and could advise me by telling me how she handled her own racially and gender motivated experiences, but given the few “diverse” members of the profession, there simply aren’t enough to go around. But a little humanity and understanding goes a long way in mentoring “diverse” people and these are traits that anyone can possess and use to guide the next generation of professional bioethicists.

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