How natural mentors help youth develop strong racial identities: Implications for school success

Child Development, 83 (4), 1196-1212.

Natural mentors as key factors in promoting both racial identity and educational attainment among African American teens


Great disparities in educational attainment exist between White and African American students. These differences can lead to increased rates of unemployment, poverty, and mental and physical health problems in comparison to Whites (Brown & Jones, 2004). Racial identity has been identified as an important predictor of positive academic outcomes for African Americans (Chavous et al., 2003; Sanders, 1997; Ward, 1990). One way to promote positive racial identity development is through the use of natural mentors (i.e., caring, non-parent adults who are in youths’ everyday environments).  The current study explored whether nature mentors affect teens’ racial identity beliefs, and whether such beliefs affect teens’ attitudes about school and their educational attainment

What is racial identity?

Racial identity has been viewed as a multidimensional construct that demonstrates an individual’s perception of the importance and meaning of race in his or her life (Shellers, Smith, Shelton, Rowley, and Chavous, 1998). This study focuses on the following dimensions of racial identity:

  • Centrality of race to one’s identity – degree to which an individual defines him/herself in terms of race
  • Private Regard  – positive and negative perceptions of one’s racial group and his/her membership in that group
  • Public Regard – individual’s perception of how society perceives his/her racial group


The current study included 541 African American late adolescents who were experiencing academic difficulties (GPA < 3.0).  The students were interviewed annually starting in their freshman year and continuing to senior year of high school; follow-up interviews were conducted 2, 3, 4, and 5 years after completion of high school. Participants reported on the presence of a natural mentor in their lives, their educational attainment and beliefs and, in order to assess racial identity beliefs, they completed the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identify (MIBI), specifically looking at centrality and both public and private regard of one’s race.


Over half (63%) of the participants reported having a natural mentor, with 54% of those mentors being non-parental adult family members, and the other 46% being a variety of unrelated adults. Having a mentor predicted increases in two dimensions of race: private regard and centrality. Additionally, the presence of a natural mentor predicted students’ placing more value on the importance of school for their future success, and subsequently, higher levels of educational attainment.


This study demonstrated how the natural mentors in African American adolescents’ extended family and larger social network can promote positive racial identity beliefs. It is believed that relationships with these mentors influence the process of racial identity development in a number of ways. Mentors may provide the teens with additional social opportunities in which to explore and develop their identities. More specifically,

  • mentees may incorporate the positive feedback or direct race-related messages from their mentors into their identity, and/or
  • mentees may emulate the models of positive racial beliefs and centrality that is exhibited by their mentors.

Mentors may also prepare their mentees to better cope with acts of racism or other negative race-related experiences.

Overall, the study suggests that natural mentors may promote both positive racial identity development and educational outcomes. By promoting mentees’ racial identity, mentors may help foster youth’s understanding of the connection between doing well in school and future success; this, in turn, appears to motivate them to pursue further education.