Research News

Researchers examine ‘White Faculty Mentoring of Students of Color’

February 19, 2016

UW-Madison’s Rachelle Winkle-Wagner is a co-author of a recent article published by the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education that explains how white faculty members who mentor graduate students of color using race-neutral, colorblind language can actually reinforce racial inequalities.

This critical multisite case study is titled, “Colorblind Mentoring? Exploring White Faculty Mentoring of Students of Color.”

Winkle-Wagner is an associate professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and is an affiliate with the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. The paper’s lead author is Dorian L. McCoy, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. UW-Madison alumna Courtney Luedke, who received her Ph.D. from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis in 2014, also is a co-author of the study.

The article’s abstract explains how the researchers sought to understand white faculty members’ perspectives on their mentoring of students of color.

They write: “The findings revealed that White faculty members often engage with students from a ‘colorblind perspective.’ ”

However, they continue, “Their use of race-neutral, colorblind language (avoiding racial terms but implying them) allowed White faculty members to describe their students as academically inferior, less prepared, and less interested in pursuing research and graduate studies while potentially ignoring structural causes. Faculty perceptions of students may influence the way Students of Color perceive their academic abilities and potential to achieve success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines and in graduate education.”

The researchers conclude their article by reporting: “Faculty mentoring may be one of the most important factors in students’ successful enrollment in and persistence through graduate and professional programs. For Students of Color, these mentoring relationships can help them to counter racial hostility and to find a place to belong in disciplines where there are few people who look like them.

“Alternatively, faculty mentoring can actually work to reinforce racial inequities. The findings of this analysis suggest that White faculty members in the STEM disciplines may not have many opportunities to work closely with Students of Color. However, when they did mentor Students of Color, they attempted to be colorblind, treating students the same. Even while White faculty claimed to treat Students of Color in the same way that they treated White students, they still asserted that Students of Color were academically underprepared.”

They researchers close by noting: “In STEM disciplines where there are few Students of Color, it is concerning that faculty view these students as unprepared for graduate and professional programs. There is a serious risk that in being colorblind, these White faculty members may actually be closing the doors of their disciplines to Students of Color. Whereas, if White faculty were made aware of these issues, there is potential for beginning to open the door, to grow their mentoring practices in a way that could reshape their own practices and their disciplines.” Winkle-Wagner reflected, “The findings of this study should cause all faculty members, but particularly White faculty, to evaluate their mentoring practices, particularly with Students of Color.” 

To learn many more details about this important topic, one can purchase a download of the report by visiting this American Psychological Association web page.