Q&A: How can I mentor marginalized colleagues?

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I had a friend (a highly regarded white guy programmer) recently ask me how he could go about mentoring marginalized colleagues. I answered him, and we agreed that it might make sense to publish the question and my answer.

So here it is, with this disclaimer: I am a professional technologist, not a D&I consultant. There are professional DEI coaches; I’d be happy to recommend you a few. I answered this question based on my perspective as a practitioner; the advice may not apply universally. Let’s go.


First, let’s say I wanted to hold some free sessions where I teach some of my skills.

Second, let’s say I wanted these sessions to go to marginalized folks.

Third, let’s say I need to economize on the time and energy that I spend finding and/or filtering who I have these sessions with. How might I publicize this and vet the applicants?

My concern is that, I could tweet that I’m doing this, but then I’d just have an endless queue of pairing sessions with white dudes. I’m not sure if it’s better to publicly announce that I’m looking for marginalized folks for free sessions, or if it’s better to put the announcement in specific places.

My Answer:

Well, I’ll tell you what. Even if you publicly announce that you’re looking for folks from marginalized groups for free sessions, you’ll still get responses from white guys. I know this because I have tried it, and white guys responded, and when I sent them a rate, they called me lots of names (some of them too profane even for me to write down).

Folks in dominant demographic groups have been conditioned their whole lives, by society and by their relationships and by pop culture, to believe that every service is for them. That includes, paradoxically, services that explicitly are not for them.

An owl peers threateningly out of a box. Some text above the box says "You are not allowed in my fort."

This is why you see outrage when people of marginalized genders, or black programmers, who have been excluded from professional contexts, organize their own support systems for not-white-guys.

Those organizers will become subject to complaining, cussing, and insults from white guys who find it unacceptable that a group exists to which they don’t have access. Sometimes, they just force their way in anyway.

The box is opened. The owl looks outraged. Text below the box says "What the fuck did I just say?!"

So your best bet is going to be to go directly and individually to the places where marginalized folks are and white dudes aren’t. And that’s going to be tough for you because these clutches exist by not letting in the white dudes.

It’s a pretty common occurrence for a white dude to go to, say, a women who code meetup, and ask the organizers if he can “mentor.” In this situation, 99 times out of 100, he wants something.

Usually the thing he wants is to find the woman in the room he deems the “smartest” and somehow poach her into his company because they’re working on their “diversity numbers.” Except they’re not doing anything to make an inclusive work environment; they’re just trying to fast track a woman through the pipeline so people will stop yelling at them over their numbers. At the very least, these white dudes want ally cookies.

And they’re willing to be in the presence of women if they are the “elder,” the boss, the mentor, the upper, the above. They would never be caught humbling themselves to equal, let alone—shudder—the mentee, the learner, the listener, the patient, the below. The same men who so generously offer to mentor women coding groups disappear when they’re told that they’re welcome to come to our speaker night, and sit in the back, and listen, and not speak themselves.

Organizers have dealt with this dreck for years. So we don’t trust most white dudes who approach us out of the blue. Which is what you would be doing if you were to approach it like this. Your best bet therefore is gonna be to find organizers with whom you have a preexisting relationship.

Tell them you want to do this, and ask for their advice on how to go about making that offer. Unfortunately, there isn’t a low effort way to do it. And that’s not marginalized groups’ fault. It’s the fault of a system that has deliberately and repeatedly given them less access to people like you.

My guess is, as a trial run, what could work is asking those organizers with whom you have a preexisting relationship to directly connect you to someone who could use your help.

The process I’ve described, you wouldn’t need an application. You’d just trust people in those communities to decide who should get your help and make the connection.

Is this an example to outsourcing labor to folks with marginalized identities? Yes, but. If we organize meetups and events, we have deliberately signaled our interest in doing this kind of thing. You’re not just coming up to a random black programmer like “Hey, you’re black, I assume you’d love to connect me to some black people I could mentor—as my favor to you, pal 😉😉”. Also, once again, preexisting relationship. So this isn’t the first any of these organizers has heard from you.

Also worth being aware of: the less affluent and white, in particular, the people who you do this with, the less they’re going to think and talk like you, so it’s worth being prepared to spend extra time and patience figuring out your relationship and their work.

There’s an amazing book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, by Chris Emdin. Must-read for anyone in an instructor role, in my humble opinion. It’s theoretically for, like, Teach for America type people, but it fundamentally changed the way I teach, grade, and conduct class even at a pretty hoity toity institution.

I had never considered, like, solidly half of what he says in that book. And he suggests ways that white teachers like me can create an environment altogether different from anything we experienced in school, but more welcoming to folks who were uncomfortable in those school environments.

If you found this piece helpful, you might also appreciate:

The imposter syndrome piece, which famously lured some guy out of the woodwork to lecture me (yeah, ME) that I don’t know what imposter syndrome is

This rubric for evaluating and encouraging inclusive behavior at work, which I found out semi-recently was used by folks at Mozilla to inform their latest advancement evaluations (by the way, Mozilla, I accept Venmo, direct deposit, checks, and cash)

This piece about the role of anger and sadness in a work environment (another super popular one, especially relevant in times of crisis, and probably the post I would recommend on this site to managers)

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