The Mentorship That Wasn’t

Recently I took part in a fine dining experience with senior colleagues in my field. Waiters whipped about us refreshing our wine glasses, ensuring not a single empty plate would sully the atmosphere of abundance. Somewhere between the hors d’oeuvres and the entrées, the conversation turned inevitably towards the current state of the job market. The three graduate students at the table tensed up. Having been in their position not so long ago, I was eager to help steer the conversation towards a frank appraisal of what junior scholars are up against if they hope to land that coveted tenure-track position. The graduate students perked up, having at last found an opportunity to discuss matters that weighed on them. We discussed the many things that remain obscure when you’re a novice – to the field, to the profession, to academia writ large: For instance, how exactly do you locate grants and fellowships? What makes for a “good” grant proposal anyway? How much are you supposed to publish as a student? Also, scholars don’t really network right? (Yes, they do! Start now!) 

As we catalogued the ways that academia remains a closed book to the uninitiated, we eventually came to the root question at the heart of it all: Why can’t we learn these things in graduate school, too? By way of answering, one senior historian quipped, 

“Because why should you have it any easier than we did?”

It was a kind of old boys club barb. A taunt draped in affability. Like all genteel insults, it hung in the air, liminal. Accustomed as we were to these micro-displays of power, everyone knew in that instant what part to play. The senior scholars guffawed on cue and got back to the business of enjoying dinner. We, the junior scholars, knew we were expected to treat it as a joke though, of course, it was not. It had its desired effect: it put an end to the otherwise productive conversation, it put paid to any prospect of genuine mentorship, and it put us – graduate students, women, POCs, the “problems” and “squeaky wheels” – in our place, where we belonged, at the bottom of the hierarchy. This faculty member taught us once again the only lesson power is ever capable of teaching: that we should have left well enough alone in the first place as, of course, we always already knew. 

Today, I’m used to these kinds of exchanges. If we wanted to be schematic about it, we could say, simply, it’s just capitalism at work, trying to convince us we live in a world built on meritocracy, a world in which Talent-Hard Work-Persistence, that sacred bootstrapping triptych, ultimately pays off equally for everyone so don’t go looking for handouts. It is, after all, so much easier to believe that one is exceptionally gifted than to imagine all the ways that being born at the right time into the right circumstances set one on the path to success. To be fair, it’s an attitude you find not only in academia, but in many industries. And it has suffused our national consciousness. In academia, though, I’ve found that the bootstrapping argument also serves as a kind of professional hazing: I had to go through it, so should you. It’s a professional smokescreen, too, ignoring as it does a number of larger structural realities, among them economic contraction and the slow disappearance of faculty jobs in the humanities.  Above all, it’s a logic inscribed in a system of relations that is itself deeply rooted in hierarchies organized along the axes of gender, race, class, and sexuality. There are, as we know, no horizontal bonds to be made vertically among unequals. All this is to explain why I wasn’t terribly fazed when the senior scholar above, an older white gentleman, said what he said. 

It took me a few years to realize I wasn’t cut out for a system like that, and I sought mentorship elsewhere.  Throughout college and graduate school, I often relied on female professors and administrators. And given the racial makeup of higher education, it was quite often white women who served as my mentors. I think they could empathize with me because they, too, had felt spurned by an academic culture that was always shutting them out and putting them in their place. Because many of them were several decades my senior, some even endured these slights and humiliations at a time when sexism was not only more permissible, but explicitly stated, encoded in policy and practice. My own graduate institution, I’ll remind you, did not accept women until the late 1960s. For them, academia had not been a hospitable place. Having suffered and yet succeeded under those kinds of restrictive conditions, several showed themselves willing to extend a helping hand to me. Rather than wonder at my impertinence at wanting to “have it any easier,” they were instead generous with their time and energy, offering advice and guidance for navigating hostile climates and institutions and, on a handful of occasions, more material aid and support. Through these select few, I witnessed the power of mentorship, which they articulated in the accents of (white) feminist sisterhood.

As both academic and professional opportunities started to come my way, though, I began to notice a shift in the ways that some white women, those who were not my mentors, interacted with me. Though self-proclaimed feminists, most of these other white women found ways – in word and deed – to make it clear that they expected me to place myself, interpersonally and professionally, in a position of vassalage towards them. That in our interactions I was to make myself small in comparison to them. That I was, always and above all, to prioritize their emotional lives before my own. Perhaps because these white women were not my mentors, I wrote it off as bad behavior – idiosyncratic, peculiar to a few, and while unpleasant to be sure, not necessarily indicative of a larger structural problem. Eventually, however, I had to confront the fatal flaw in the blueprint of white feminism.

My awakening involved bearing witness to the actions of a long-time mentor and self-described feminist. I watched as she opted, in her own professional self-interest and at the expense of female students of color, to shore up what she herself readily identified as the unethical workings of a flawed institution. She did this to protect the institution and to preserve her own position within it. I still wonder what she had to tell herself in order to rationalize her decisions, what moral reordering she had to undertake in order to continue imagining herself a benevolent, uncompromised leader. I am embarrassed to say that, before that moment, it had honestly never occurred to me that avowed feminists, regardless of race, could or would do such things, especially when the health and safety of other women were at stake. It was, I now see, precisely because up to that point I had enjoyed the privilege of such affirming experiences with the majority of my white female mentors that I didn’t see this coming.

I have struggled to make sense of what I witnessed and experienced and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage has been a godsend in that process. Overall, the book is a powerful mix of autobiography and structural critique of misogynoir, all informed by the history of anti-black racism in the United States. Cooper, a professor at Rutgers and co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, touches on a wide variety of topics, among them what she describes as “her own complicated relationship with white women” (39). In a chapter entitled “Strong Female Leads,” she describes how she first learned to navigate young white girls, from the real life white girls in her elementary school honors programs to the fictional white girls she read about in TheBabysitters Club. It was a mixed bag, learning to “lov[e] these fictional white girl characters, even as I learned the perils and possibilities of what it meant to live closely with white girls in real life” (45). Like many young girls of color, Cooper contends, she had to learn "to understand and negotiate the complex humanity of white women even before I learned to negotiate my own" (61). 

Because she had an early and ongoing education in white women’s interiority, Cooper could, as an adult, readily appreciate the likes of a Hilary Clinton, recognizing in her the same strength, fortitude, and audacity to lead that Cooper had long respected among Black women. Yet, even while Cooper could respect Hilary Clinton’s struggle to be taken on her own terms by the American public, she simply couldn’t ignore some of Clinton’s more unseemly past behaviors. She cites, specifically, when Clinton called Black children “superpredators” to support her husband’s 1994 crime bill, or when she alluded rather too nonchalantly to the possibility of Obama’s assassination in 2008despite heightening security over his physical safety as a black presidential nominee (55). In spite of her support of Hilary Clinton, then, Cooper couldn’t help but agree with assessments of the Clintons as “racist and neoliberal big-money politicians.” By way of resolving this seeming contradiction, she explains, “My problem was that every politician on the left since Bill Clinton has been exactly this kind of politician. I didn’t understand how people, knowing how patriarchy works, expected the first woman president in a deeply masculinist and patriarchal democracy to break the mold” (63, emphasis mine). In other words, how could we hope for better when we are, all of us, only what the system made us.

Like feminists of color before her, and black feminists in particular, Cooper offers a chilling look at the consequences of racism and patriarchy at the heart of white feminism in the US. And, in a subsequent chapter entitled “White Girl Tears,” she analyzes the various ways that white women have used, and continue to use, their status and privilege to protect and perpetuate patriarchy. Still, Cooper ultimately stakes out what I can only imagine is a fairly unpopular view: “[I]n the public parts of my life, for good or ill, white women’s racism has never kept me from admiring them, befriending them, or supporting them” (56). She espouses this view because, as she writes in the chapter’s conclusion, “the struggle to take down the patriarchy will be a very limited endeavor if white women aren’t a part of it.” (68) Hers is a deeply, even devastatingly, realistic appraisal. It is in part so devastating because of the troubling reality that Cooper lays bare along the way: that women of color, and black women especially, are often left in the uncomfortable position of having to support white women, “soft” racism and all, as the lesser of two evils. Their success, even their survival, depends on it.

I am grateful to Cooper for offering up this framework. And I am frustrated because I am both convinced by it and yet wish that women of color had better options.  

I’d like to apply Cooper’s framework to my own experiences with mostly white academic and professional mentors at PWIs, but with two major caveats: first, that what I’m describing does not apply to all white people; and second, that one need not be “white” in order to participate in, benefit from, and perform “whiteness,” defined here as, briefly, a social construction with a long history of weaponizing power and privilege against BIPOC. 

In the first part of this post, I sketched out a style of mentorship that white patriarchy offers. In my experience, it announces itself, loud and clear, as unapologetically rooted in unequal power relations. In the second part of this post, I then described another version of mentorship, one conforming to the principles of white feminism, that for a long time I managed to find a home in until I saw with my own eyes all the ways in which it can fall woefully short. Between the two, I find the latter more insidious because its purveyors claim to disrupt hierarchy and yet show themselves willing to do so only insofar as it affords them professional opportunity and thus a firmer grip on power. At the end of the day, it simply produces a version of inclusion that is only marginally more inclusive, and mainly for white women. Of course, if I’m serious about this line of inquiry, one day I’ll also have to ask myself some very difficult questions – namely, why did it take me so long to see what was always right there in front of me? And to what extent was my blindness to these oppressive dynamics premised on my complicity in them? But that is a blog post for another day.

Until that day, I’ll close with Cooper’s own last words in the chapter I’ve spent so much time with these last few months. There, she writes, plaintively and with a hint of exhaustion, “I do wish white feminists would embrace the notion…that in this new feminist movement we are all trying to build, they aren’t automatically our choice for ‘strong female lead’” (68). Her message to white women brought me back to words of wisdom offered by journalist and author Rebecca Traister who, like Cooper, published her own manifesto on female rage last year. In the final pages of her book, entitled Good and Mad, Traister also issued an appeal to her predominantly white female readership. That appeal serves as a good reminder, and a valuable tool, for all of us, and especially vexed white feminists who can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Traister writes:“What you're angry about now – injustice – will still exist, even if you yourself are not experiencing it, or are tempted to stop thinking about how you experience it, and how you contribute to it. Others are still experiencing it, still mad; some of them are mad at you. Don't forget them; don't write off their anger. Stay mad for them. Stay mad with them. They're right to be mad and you're right to be mad alongside them" (250). Anyone who would call themselves a mentor would do well to heed these words.

On the Limits of Representation