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“I’m telling you this for your own good.”

Anytime anyone says that to me, my stomach churns. I know that something is going to be said that I don’t want to hear. I suspect you feel the same way. While I never use that phrase (or at least I hope I never use it), there are times when, especially as a mentor, I really need to say things to mentees that they are not going to want to hear. My current favorite euphemism is “not strong” as in your manuscript, proposal, evaluation plan is “not strong, perhaps you should consider….” Telling people that their work is not good, is not easy, but it’s a lot easier than telling them they are violating unwritten rules and this may come back to, ahem, bite them in the butt.

It is always tempting not to tell people the hard stuff- the stuff that makes us and them uncomfortable and it does seem harder to broach uncomfortable topics with some people than with others. But what are our responsibilities as mentors? Do we, as mentors, not say things that we should to some of our mentees? Are we more likely not to say hard things to mentees who are of a different race/ethnicity?

David Thomas says yes. He says that, in general, mentors and mentees “refrain from raising touchy issues because of a fear of disagreements and confrontations." Nowhere, he says, is this more true than when the issues are tied to race and the mentor/mentee are from different racial/ethnic groups and particularly when the issues are related to race. He calls this protective hesitation.

I’m finding this quite interesting. I know I have a responsibility to tell mentees uncomfortable things that are important to their professional advancement but do they have the same responsibility to me? Regardless of whether the mentorship relationship is same race or cross race, I think mentees are wise to practice protective hesitation. The power dynamic in the relationship is such that I am reminded of the difference between the chicken’s contribution to breakfast and the pig’s. A mentor might feel discomfort broaching touchy topics while a mentee approaching such topics may feel on the abyss (and very often they should feel that way).

The role of race in protective hesitation doesn’t seem clear to me. Is protective hesitation racial or is it more about not wanting to say uncomfortable things? Is it easier to speak about uncomfortable things when your mentee is the same race as you? Certainly race matters, but is race the salient factor or does race only become salient when the touchy issue may have racial implications or may tie into racial stereotypes. Thomas has an example that I found interesting:

Richard Davis, a white mentor, thought that his African-American protege's
style was abrasive, but he kept that feeling to himself in order to avoid any suggestion that he was prejudiced -specifically that he harbored the stereotype that all black men are brash and unpolished. Davis eventually found out that he was right when his protégé’s style became an issue with others. At that point, though, his protégé was deemed to have a problem -one that could have been prevented had Davis only spoken sooner.

Andrea* asked me if I provide different advice to Black and White mentees and yes in some ways I do because, well race does matter, especially when we are dealing with the unwritten rules. Is my protective hesitation racially based? I don’t know. I do know that I am much more apt to say the hard stuff to mentees who I like a lot regardless of race/ethnicity (I know you are supposed to like all of your mentees but hey…).

Mentors- do you practice protective hesitation? Does what you say differ based on the race/ethnicity of your mentees? Is it hard to even have this discussion because we speak so little about race we don’t know how? What do you think?

*Andrea has posted about protective hesitation from a somewhat different perspective. I think her point:

...challenging the assumptions and prejudices of others also means challenging the assumptions about yourself (and the cohort you identify with). Neither is particularly easy or fun and holds the real danger of being counterproductive.
is particularly important.