The truth will set you free, but first it will make you anxious: How white mentors’ attitudes affect relationships

Simpson, S. B., Hsu, T., & Raposa, E. B. (2023). Trajectories and impact of White mentors’ beliefs about racial and ethnic discrimination in a formal youth mentoring program. American Journal of Community Psychology, 71(3-4), 465-479.

A recent study by Simpson et al. (2023) provides important insights into how White mentors’ beliefs about racial and ethnic discrimination evolve over the course of mentoring relationships with youth of color, and how these beliefs impact relationship outcomes. This rigorous investigation addresses a critical gap in the youth mentoring literature regarding the potential risks and benefits of cross-racial mentoring relationships.


Most adults in mentoring programs are White, female, and college-educated who are serving youth who are more likely to be male, from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds, and from socioeconomically disadvantaged families (Raposa et al., 2017). This mismatch raises concerns about whether White mentors from privileged backgrounds may inadvertently perpetuate harmful racial attitudes or biases in their work with youth of color.

There are racial biases among adults who work with youth, including high rates of explicitly negative stereotypes toward youth of color among White adults in youth-serving roles (up to 50% in some studies; Priest et al., 2018). Mentors’ explicit and implicit racial biases can contribute to experiences of discrimination, harmful stereotyping, or microaggressions for youth of color in mentoring relationships.

Previous research on same-race versus cross-race mentoring matches has produced mixed findings, likely due to confounding variables introduced by programs’ typical matching procedures. The current study aimed to resolve some of this ambiguity by directly assessing White mentors’ awareness of racial/ethnic discrimination at multiple timepoints, using a rigorous randomized design.


Participants included 290 White mentors and their mentees drawn from a nationwide formal mentoring program that pairs college student volunteers with elementary school youth from under-resourced schools. Mentors ranged in age from 18-24 years (M = 19.03, SD = 1.02) and were predominantly female (77.5%). Youth ranged in age from 7-12 years (M = 9.70, SD = 1.01), with 62.9% identifying as youth of color.

Mentors completed measures assessing their beliefs about racial/ethnic discrimination at baseline and after 9 months of mentoring. They responded to items adapted from the Symbolic Racism 2000 scale (Henry & Sears, 2002), indicating how much they believed discrimination limits the lives of Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans on a 3-point scale. Change scores were calculated by subtracting baseline from follow-up scores.

Relationship quality was assessed at program completion using the Experiences in Close Relationships-Relationship Structures questionnaire (Fraley et al., 2011), which measures anxiety and avoidance within the mentoring relationship. Early match closure was also recorded.

Hierarchical linear modeling was used to account for nesting of mentors within program chapters. Analyses examined: 1) whether changes in White mentors’ discrimination beliefs differed based on mentee race, 2) whether baseline beliefs predicted relationship outcomes, and 3) whether changes in beliefs predicted outcomes.


White mentors matched with youth of color showed greater increases over time in their belief that discrimination limits opportunities for Black Americans, compared to those matched with White youth.

Interestingly, this awareness about racism against Black Americans actually contributed to mentors’ anxiety, particularly when they were matched with youth of color.


The authors interpret these findings as suggesting that close relationships with youth of color may increase White mentors’ awareness of racial discrimination, particularly against Black Americans. However, this increased awareness appears to have complex effects on relationship quality that differ based on youth race.

The differential effects on mentor anxiety are particularly noteworthy. The authors speculate that for White mentors matched with youth of color, growing awareness of racial discrimination may lead to anxiety about their ability to provide culturally sensitive support or heightened awareness of their own racial biases. In contrast, when matched with White youth, this awareness may reduce anxiety by increasing mentors’ confidence in discussing race-related issues.

The study has several limitations, including use of brief measures, grouping diverse youth of color together, and inability to assess relationship quality for matches that ended early. The authors call for future research using more comprehensive measures of racial attitudes and relationship processes in diverse mentoring contexts.

Implications for mentoring programs:

• It might be helpful for programs to assess White mentors’ racial attitudes and biases during screening and training processes.

• Ongoing training and support is needed to help White mentors develop cultural sensitivity and navigate cross-racial relationships. Trainings, such as those offered by MentorPRO Academy, can help.

•Programs should provide additional support for White mentors matched with youth of color as they become more aware of racial discrimination. Such support should address the complexities of discussing race and discrimination, tailored to whether mentors are matched with White or BIPOC youth.

As the authors note, this study is “an important step toward understanding the beliefs about race that White volunteer mentors may bring to their work with BIPOC youth in mentoring programs, changes in these beliefs over time, and the potential impact of these beliefs on the quality of the mentoring relationship. Given the history of racism and oppression in the United States, even our most well‐intentioned interventions like youth mentoring programs can perpetuate forms of structural racism by exposing BIPOC youth to harmful discrimination and bias resulting in little to no psychosocial benefits for these youth compared to their White peers.”

Click here for a conversation with the authors about these findings.