Navigating Conversations About Racism with Your Mentee
January 31, 2023

As mentors, we might feel unsure of how to handle tough conversations when they arise. It is  important to stay youth-led through every conversation. This allows us to focus on feelings and questions our mentee may be trying to understand. By focusing on the feelings, we can answer the questions our mentee has in age and developmentally appropriate ways. Remind your mentee that big feelings are something that everyone experiences, and these feelings can help us identify issues that we care about. 

Through extensive research by the American Academy of Pediatrics, we also know that children are impacted negatively by racism whether they experience it directly or just witness racism against others. Racism is a core determinant of children’s health. Impacts of racism can affect everything from a child’s birth weight to long term negative health outcomes (i.e., chronic disease).  Children grow into adults and have a lifetime of cumulative toxic stress and negative socioeconomic repercussions of living in a racist society. With this in mind, we must not shy away from hard topics like racism when our mentees bring it up; ignoring racism only allows its harms to continue unchallenged. 

To understand how profoundly racism can impact child development, we highly recommend watching the following short video.

The feelings your mentee has are valid, no matter what feelings they are. Feelings that are different than those of a friend, family member, or teacher are okay too. Everyone responds differently and that’s normal. Remind your mentee that if their emotions feel too big in the moment, taking a break to process and regroup is always an option.  Be patient and kind to yourself too. This is an opportunity to role model self-care while addressing a heavy issue. 

Together, you can brainstorm ways that are safe and age-appropriate for your mentee to stand up against racism; help them channel their feelings and experiences into something they can act upon. This diminishes feelings of hopelessness and builds confidence and agency for your mentee. You can do anything; explore your mentee’s racial and ethnic identities in greater detail,  read age and developmentally appropriate books together that explore issues of race, or discuss ways your mentee can be an ally to others.

Developing a positive racial identity is crucial to mitigating negative aspects of racism. Even if your racial or ethnic background is different than that of your mentee, you can help them build a positive racial identity by learning about your mentee’s cultural history and practices. Recognizing and celebrating your mentee’s heritage can establish a strong foundation for your mentee to develop a sense of identity and pride. Be positive, respectful, curious, and supportive of your mentee’s racial and ethnic identities!

Don’t hesitate to ask your Mentor Director for further guidance if you feel lost or overwhelmed. We have lots of resources to help, and want you to feel that you have all the tools you need to have positive and productive conversations with your mentee. When you show a willingness to follow your mentee into difficult conversations, it can go a long way to building trust and strengthening your relationship.

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