The Many Faces of Mentorship

Countless minorities have been propelled forward in their career by people who don’t look like them or share their experiences, writes Victor Menaldo.

December 10, 2020
 
 
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I am a child of immigrants. My family came from nothing to the United States -- they were dirt poor, dark and had zero opportunities back home. They fled poverty, corruption and authoritarianism. While my dad did not come over the border in a caravan, he was forced, like many immigrants today, by fate and necessity: having been shot by a stray bullet when he was a preteen, at 17 years old he made the voyage north, to the only place where he could get the surgery he so desperately needed.

The operation was successful, and he seized on a golden opportunity: to stay in this country. He mopped floors in office buildings at night. During the day he went to school, and against all odds he earned his college degree. To do so he learned English watching Sesame Street on TV and struggled his way through comic books.

After graduating, my dad suffered a lot of discrimination and prejudice and decided to return to Latin America with his family in tow. I spent the better part of my formative years in Venezuela and Mexico and cheered for the Bronx Bombers from afar because, after all, I was born in New York. Meanwhile, my father never soured on the American dream and always preached the virtues of education to me and my brothers: it changed his life and could do the same for us! He extolled the virtues of history, philosophy and the natural sciences. He taught us to revere logic and math.

I eventually made my way back to the United States. To my surprise, I was told by American society I was part of a racial grouping known as Latinos. OK. Thanks. Duly noted. But I have other things on my mind, and I've never been exactly sure what people mean by that.

When I was in college, a world-renowned philosopher who has now passed once told me -- during a symposium attended by fancy people who at the time I didn't know were big shots -- I should consider studying “Latino philosophy.” With great dignity but also respect and even admiration, I immediately corrected him and said, “Sir, there is no such thing as Latino philosophy. There is only philosophy, because philosophy is a birthright of all of humanity, the seeds of which were given to us by ancient civilizations that spanned the globe. In fact, Latin American countries, like most other modern countries, have embraced liberalism, even if they have suffered setbacks implementing it and sticking to it. So even if I wanted to study Latino philosophy, I would have to end up seeking your help.”

I found this exchange strange and discomfiting and, to my chagrin, continued to encounter versions of this scenario throughout my studies. I tried my best to ignore them, however, and ultimately managed to become a full professor at a top-flight research university. My dad’s voice in my head helped me cope with the adversity I faced on the long and difficult journey to where I am today.

Here’s what I learned along the way: across academe, as in our society, it has become common to hypostatize a unique Latino identity and culture, a people with shared interests and fate. The same goes, according to conventional wisdom, for people of other affinity groups. I’ve also heard some professors, administrators and students throughout academia put forth arguments that white folks cannot speak to my experience or others like it because “they just don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color in America.” Putatively, their “privilege” prevents them from ever really understanding me and people from other minority groups.

That perspective assumes there are distinct voices and spaces and ways of thinking that are somehow associated with one’s racial and ethnic background. Stronger variants of this thesis are that things like history, philosophy and science are social constructs that white people have designed for white people.

These are extraordinary claims. Does extraordinary evidence back them up?

We are academics. Rather than simply accept these ideas, we need to interrogate what has become conventional wisdom, even beyond the ivory tower, with facts, logic and evidence. Do these claims survive scrutiny? I am qualified to focus on assertions about Latinos and leave it to others to think critically about whether my insights apply to other racial and ethnic categories.

There are more than 20 Latin American countries teeming with almost 700 million people, and they all have distinct histories. If you conduct DNA tests across the region, you are going to be disappointed if you want to put us in a racial or even ethnic category. In some Mexican states, almost 30 percent of people have African ancestry. Other progenitors of Mexican people brought over by colonists include people from the Philippines, Indonesia, China and North Africa. It’s the same with Peru, Colombia and Brazil.

In addition, Latin American nations have experienced waves of immigration from all over the map. For example, while Brazil has the most people of Japanese heritage outside of the Land of the Rising Sun, it has also witnessed newcomers from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. Chile has welcomed many migrants from Germany and England, while Argentina has drawn émigrés from Italy.

The millions of Latinos who have come to the United States reflect that incredible heterogeneity and diversity. They are not members of some undifferentiated mass with a single minoritized identity.

I realize our avant-garde identity politics, with its neat, hermetically sealed categories and concomitant reifications, come from a place of deep hurt and anguish. For some folks, it seems like nothing else has worked to fix the racism and oppression that plagues our country. Yet I fear if we settle on this solution uncritically, minority students may come to believe it’s OK to distrust and discount the knowledge and ideas that flow from a liberal arts tradition that is just as much theirs as it is their so-called white professors’ and peers'.

If I had not given all my mentors, including my white mentors, the benefit of the doubt and recognized their legitimacy and standing throughout my studies and career, I would have never allowed them to encourage, motivate and inspire me. I would have never been open to learning the new things I needed to learn to get to where I am today. I might have read sinister intentions into the actions of those mentors that were white or non-Latino. I probably would have given up before having the chance to succeed. I might have been too cynical or afraid to try, fearing that failure would vindicate the idea I was a second-class citizen all along and not cut out to take a path that my white peers may have taken for granted.

Likewise, if I were to teach my minority students to distrust the legitimacy and standing of their white professors and eschew subject matters that some well-meaning critics have tagged as “white,” I would be doing them a huge disservice.

Rather, I tell my students to respect and admire their professors, whoever they are, and relish the opportunity to learn history, philosophy and science. No matter their background, race or ethnicity, their professors are potential role models who have something to share. They have important things to teach and, much more often than not, they do this job because they love it and want to see their students succeed -- all their students.

Reality Is More Complicated Than Critical Race Theory

It happens to be the case that several white professors and mentors in college mentored me and inspired me. They pushed me to get a double major in philosophy and sociology. They pushed me to write an honors thesis, apply for grants and awards, and seek to further my education by going to graduate school -- something I knew absolutely nothing about. They believed in me. Many of my football coaches were also white, and like my other coaches, saw me as more than a football player and encouraged me to excel at my studies. They held me accountable on and off the field.

While pursuing a master’s degree, I didn’t have the luxury of professors who shared my experiences and ethnicity. What I had were white professors. They were well intentioned, earnest and brilliant. And though I would love to see more people like me in my profession, it cannot be denied that white professors were the ones who nurtured and challenged me and sometimes used the tactics of tough love to help me achieve my potential. One professor in particular made me dream of Stanford University. His mentoring showed that this was not just a canned pep talk intended merely to make him feel better about himself. He walked the walk.

Once I got to Palo Alto, I felt lost. It was hard. Really hard. I was in over my head. I landed on probation by my second year. I did not think I was going to make it. I thought about leaving my program. But a professor who happened to be white but who, like me, traveled far to reach his vaunted perch at Stanford took me under his wing. He believed in me and encouraged me to reach for the stars. To be ambitious. To study economics and public policy and history -- even though my doctoral degree was in political science and I was struggling in those classes. Why did he do this? Was it because he felt guilty? Was it some long con to exploit me? I don’t think so.

We are linked in this country, if not by blood then by destiny, despite our nation’s baggage and the suffering of many of its people. My graduate adviser saw me as a fellow human being who needed his help and guidance. Even though he did not always say things the right way or understand my background and situation fully, he was exactly the person I needed at that moment in my life: someone with high standards and an amazing work ethic who expected a lot from me and held me accountable. It was he and other awe-inspiring professors in my doctoral program who put me on the trajectory I continue on today.

I now am a nationally and internationally recognized scholar. I research and write for all types of audiences -- laypeople as well as scholars in political science, economics and public policy. I’ve been able to meet policy makers from throughout the world who respect me, listen to what I have to say and value my expertise. Many of them are white. Others are not.

I am also a teacher and a mentor. I have had the privilege of helping countless undergraduate students attend graduate, law or business school and to land dream jobs. I have helped several grad students obtain tenure-track positions, postdocs and jobs in government and the private sector. Many of my former and current students are white. Many are Latino and Asian. Others are African American. When I look out at the sea of faces in my lecture halls or on Zoom, I see the mosaic that I am now proud to call my society. I see the future my kids will be part of.

Of course, I don’t have a monopoly on how to think about the thorny, painful and perhaps even intractable issues currently roiling our country. But students should know that things are complicated and that countless minorities have been propelled forward in their career not only by people who look like them or share their experiences, but also by lots of white people, too. And there is nothing wrong with that. If I had ignored, discredited or automatically distrusted every white mentor who helped me along the way, I would not have had the opportunity to write this message to you. To have the vocabulary and examples to express my thoughts. To even think about most of the things I just described.

And no, I am not implying that white people invented these concepts and the language and have perhaps colonized my thoughts. We are all constantly co-creating our ideas and language. Our culture is constantly evolving, just as our country’s music draws from jazz and blues and in turn -- as I understand it, at least -- Black spirituals. History, philosophy and science belong to all of us, and together we should keep the liberal arts torch alight. When it shines bright, so does the future of our children, no matter their background, race or ethnicity.

Bio

Victor Menaldo is professor of political science at the University of Washington and the co-founder of the UW Political Economy Forum.

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