Guest editorial: Race talk in youth mentoring relationships

By So Jung Lee, Bernadette Sánchez, Carla Herrera, Lidia Monjaras-Gaytan, David L. Dubois, & Amy J. Anderson

An important part of growing up in the U.S. as adolescents of color is the verbal and nonverbal messages they receive about their race/ethnicity. This is called, “ethnic-racial socialization.” These messages are typically communicated by parents to their children, and research consistently shows that ethnic-racial socialization promotes healthy psychological, academic, and social development among children and adolescents of color (Anderson & Stevenson, 2019; Hughes et al., 2009; Neblett et al., 2012). Researchers have recently begun to examine whether and how nonparental adults, such as teachers, also engage in the ethnic-racial socialization of young people (Saleem & Byrd, 2021), but little is known about the role of mentors (Nicholas, 2000).

Our team was interested in learning whether volunteer mentors engage in ethnic-racial socialization by asking whether they have conversations with their youth mentees about race/ethnicity. In partnership with seven Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) agencies across the U.S. and as part of a larger ongoing study, we surveyed 196 mentors matched with mentees of color (most of whom were African American and/or Latinx). The racial composition of the mentors was predominantly White (75%, n = 147), followed by African American (13%, n = 26), Latinx (10%, n = 19), Asian (7%, n = 14), Indigenous (2%, n = 4), Middle Eastern (2%, n = 3), and Pacific Islander (1%, n = 1). At the time of the surveys, the duration of the mentoring relationships ranged from 2 to 34 months.

We asked mentors how often they had had conversations with their mentees about ethnic-racial identity (ERI; e.g., sharing your ethnic/racial culture and traditions with each other, discussing points of pride about your mentee’s race/ethnicity) and racism (e.g., racial inequality, discrimination, hate crimes). Preliminary findings show that more than half (56%) of the mentors rarely or never discussed ERI, and even more mentors (79%) rarely or never discussed racism. Among mentors who had these conversations with their mentees, most (79%) found them “slightly” or “somewhat” helpful. And those mentors who reported more frequent conversations on these topics perceived these conversations to be more helpful. However, mentors reported several challenges to having these conversations about ERI and racism.

The top challenges or barriers they reported were:

  1. My mentee hasn’t raised this topic.
  2. The topic hasn’t been relevant to our conversations.
  3. I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about race-related issues with my mentee, unless my mentee brings it up first.
  4. Lack of confidence in my knowledge of the topic.

These challenges may explain why mentors discussed these topics so infrequently with their mentees. Some mentors elaborated on these challenges in their open-ended responses, noting that they felt their mentee was too young to have these kinds of conversations. Others wrote that their mentees were multi-racial and/or had a White parent, so these conversations didn’t seem relevant to their lives. A few feared they could cause discomfort or damage their relationship with mentees, which may lead mentors to avoid or postpone these critical conversations.

Although mentors may believe that some youth are too young to talk about race or that race is irrelevant in mentoring relationships, research shows that by middle childhood (ages 8 – 12 years), children are aware of race categories and stereotypes (Pauker et al., 2017). Interviews with youth mentees showed that they are thinking about race. While some youth hesitate to discuss racism with mentors of a different race due to concerns about being misunderstood, they also recognize the importance of these conversations. One youth reflected, “We talked about the situation with Trayvon Martin…how it affected us and the importance of sharing these experiences to create a better environment.” Yet, another shared, “I feel like I can’t just come to her [mentor] when I’m with her and talk about things because I feel like she wouldn’t understand where I’m coming from just because we aren’t the same race.” Hence, by assuming mentees are not ready to discuss race, mentors may be missing an opportunity to acknowledge an important part of the experiences of mentees of color and to get to know their mentees better. Rather than waiting for youth to appear ready, what matters more may be how mentors approach their conversations with youth, such as showing empathy and creating a safe space for discussion.

Not only may this dialogue around race/ethnicity promote empathy among mentors but it may also help youth cope with racism in a healthy way and develop pride in their ethnic-racial identity, which could lead to other positive outcomes in youth (e.g., well-being). Yet, because some mentors may feel unprepared to have these conversations, supervision and training of mentors is needed to help them learn how to have these conversations in a productive way that promotes well being. Staff also need training on how to encourage mentors to have these conversations, enabling them to provide examples of culturally attuned topics and responses, and suggest relevant activities and resources. Providing training and support for both mentors and the staff who supervise their relationships are crucial to ensure these important conversations about race take place in a way that strengthens youth’s ethnic/racial identity and well-being.


Anderson, R. E., & Stevenson, H. C. (2019). Recasting racial stress and trauma: Theorizing the healing potential of racial socialization in families. American Psychologist, 74(1), 63–75. doi:10.1037/amp0000392

Hughes, D., Hagelskamp, C., Way, N., & Foust, M. D. (2009). The role of mothers’ and adolescents’ perceptions of ethnic-racial socialization in shaping ethnic-racial identity among early adolescent boys and girls. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 605-626. doi:10.1007/s10964-009-9399-7

Neblett, E. W., Jr., Smalls, C. P., Ford, K. R., Nguyên, H. X., & Sellers, R. M. (2009). Racial socialization and racial identity: African American parents’ messages about race as precursors to identity. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(2), 189–203. doi:10.1007/s10964-008-9359-7

Nicholas, L. A. L. (2000). Survivin’ racism: The influence of mentors, racial socialization and race-related stress on young African American women (No. 3025453). [Doctoral Dissertation, DePaul University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Pauker, K., Williams, A., & Steele, J. R. (2017). The development of racial categorization in childhood. In A. Rutland, D. Nesdale, & C. S. Brown (Eds.), The Wiley handbook of group processes in children and adolescents (pp. 221–229). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Saleem, F. T., & Byrd, C. M. (2021). Unpacking school ethnic‐racial socialization: A new conceptual model. Journal of Social Issues, 77(4), 1106–1125. doi:10.1111/josi.12498




This research is funded by a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation (#190902). We would like to thank the leadership team at Big Brothers Big Sisters of America for their collaboration on this project and the BBBS agency staff who have helped to carry out this project, including the Research Liaisons, training facilitators, match support specialists and enrollment staff.