I believe there is a definite difference between cross-race and same-race mentoring. My reason behind this belief is societal at its base. The ideal of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic melting pot, where race is not a factor is something I believe all should strive for, but the world-at-large very often falls short of.
I do wish to make clear that while I do not believe in enforcing limitations based on race in determining the qualifications of mentors, part of what I believe is so very impactful about mentoring as an institution is the example set for youth by mentors. A mentor obviously sets a conscious example, by guiding and teaching a young person and complimenting their primary education. However, it is the unconscious example that concerns me, which can be a pivotal (even detrimental) factor in the development of impressionable minds, particularly as every adult a child is in contact with reinforces unconscious examples.
Consider the example of the grouping of elementary school children in the 2005 independent short documentary, “A Girl Like Me,” by Kiri Davis. Ms. Davis revisited an experiment conducted by Dr. Kenneth & Mamie Clark, which influenced the famous Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case in the 1950’s. Like Dr. Clark, Ms. Davis chose a control group of Black children and presented them with two dolls: One white and one black. When the children were asked which doll they preferred to play with 15 out of the 21 children said they preferred to play with the white doll. When asked why they liked the white doll, they gave responses saying the white doll was “pretty” and “nice.”
When the same Black children were asked which doll looked like them, they chose the black doll. When they were asked which doll looked bad, they chose the black doll.
These children, while not being overtly indoctrinated into the belief that they or the race they are a part of are inferior or ugly, have demonstrated manifestations of subconscious messages society, at large, has sent them. There is a disconnection between what they are told they can achieve or be by teachers, parents and other adults of consequence and what they perceive based on societal imagery. With an emphasis in popular mainstream media placed on euro-centrically defined standards as being the ideal and preferred, there is no positive, self-defining, collective, Black self-image. At the same time, the most prominent images in popular Black media are defined by archetypes one can most readily associate with street culture, gang culture and offshoots thereof. When you combine these non-affirming media images and messages with what the average Black child sees in their immediate surroundings regarding criminal activity, literacy rates, domestic and street violence and ever-increasing incarceration rates, the expectation of their overall life standard ends up substantially lower than the average white child.
One way to combat such negative conditioning is with equally positive subconscious messages, which highlight and affirm the beauty and greatness of who they are inherently. They (like all children) are beautiful as human beings, but must have their identities as Black children held up as something of worth, which can be effectively aided by the example of someone accessible who looks like them, identifies with them and has overcome similar circumstance. I believe this holds true for children of all ethnic and cultural groupings, especially minorities, as theirs is an experience borne from being part of a perceived underclass from a socio-economic perspective. Armed with a positive mentoring example which a child closely identifies with, I believe a foundation has been established which a mentor of any background may build upon in a positive way.
I believe that a positive mentor of the same racial background as the young person being mentored is infinitely beneficial and an essential part of the fundamental mentoring process. The choice of a same-race mentor should not be exclusive, however, as a well-rounded youth can only benefit from the multi-ethnic socialization achieved by cross-cultural mentoring. A multi-cultural mentoring philosophy can only be beneficial when there is a fundamental, positive reinforcement of the base culture of the youth being mentored.