March 27, 2020

Finding diversity in the cracks: A mentorship moment for pause and reflection

The UCalgary Psychology Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Blog

Where a phenomenon of interest happens to manifest itself isn’t always obvious. When we are thinking about measurement or intervention, areas that are most accessible to research activity and most salient to our consciousness become areas of investigation and theorizing. Perhaps to understand a phenomenon it is enough that we derive consistent results across those multiple salient and accessible contexts, relevant covariates and moderators considered of course. Some phenomenon, however, are tied up with larger social goals, where a reasonable amount of sampling to understand how a construct operates is not enough. Such is the case with diversity. Even though it is far to bold to say we fully understand this construct, the social goals to eradicate unfair prejudice and discrimination, and to go beyond this even to create inclusive, equitable, and safe environments, pushes us to find its every manifestation. In these cases, lived experiences are vital to discovery. I’m writing to talk about a recent experience that caught me off guard, to offer it up for a moment of your reflection and, if you have the time and resources, maybe even some hypothesizing.

A few months ago, I met with a student over some chicken wings to discuss some analyses. During the conversation, the content matter and its closeness to home demanded that we digress and rabbit trail and tangent about a respectable number of things. One of those things had to do with being successful throughout the university experience, across levels (e.g., undergrad, grad, faculty). Not successful, that’s the wrong word. Surviving isn’t it either. I don’t have a good word for it. The best I can do is integrity or keeping one’s integrity throughout the process. And by integrity, I mean in the engineering sense, as in the strength of one’s structure to withstand pressure. The student didn’t voice concerns over their ability to do the work, the amount of work, or navigating the many bureaucratic and procedural duties we are expected to do. The student voiced difficulties around acculturation and the many subtle, ostensively helpful ways gatekeepers encourage it. As she was becoming acquainted with academia’s exalted values, language, motivations, mental models, role models, priorities, and ways of doing things (politely communicated through various gatekeepers), she could feel herself becoming someone different, or at least the urge to do so, and a heightened awareness of her difference from that ideal. I have no doubt that all of us go through this to some degree. For some of us, that transition is a hard but still positive thing, as we slowly begin to embody a concentrated version of some of the things our culture revers. Evidence of that embodiment is solidified as we accrue credentials and positions that reflect our inherent fit or excellence in honing those values.

For minority students, particularly those from groups with a history of marginalization within dominant culture (see discussion by Ogbu, 1992), this excellence has different connotations. Becoming a perfected version in these values is becoming a perfected version of someone else’s values. Not just someone as in anyone, but someone as in the same entity that helped to marginalize your group in the first place. People will tell you that your success in such a space is progress. It is evidence that today is better than yesterday. That you should be grateful since your grandparents would not have been allowed in at all. And while all that stuff is true, it is also true that change implicates connection with one cultural space and distance from another that raised you and where your group, family, and friends reside. This repositioning is framed as intellectual growth or evidence of capacity rather than acculturation. This is where it gets hairy. I told her my own resolutions: That most of us experience this, but especially marginalized minorities; to assume a culturally safe space is naïve; that to survive you must think like an ambassador, secret agent, or undercover cop, where you excel at the expectations of those who surround you while hiding, compartmentalizing, or negotiating elements of who you are so that when you return to your community they still recognize you. After all, it is your community who is still going to accept you when you fail to meet the Other’s expectations, and you got into this game to help folks like you in the first-place right?

A week or so later I was having dinner with my wife and friends, and I told them about my conversation with the student starting with a sample of the student’s experiences. I had hoped to pontificate my own solutions to the student’s problems, but before I could get to the part about my advice, they started quickly brainstorming the appropriate response. I can’t remember the ideas exactly, but it was somewhere in the ballpark of validating those experiences and identifying how those conflicts were evidence of a culture and system that further marginalizes identities. “Assert the need to bring these perspectives,” “you have to talk about them because no one else is,” “marginalization is not a construct amongst others, it is a process that gives voice to some perspectives over others,” and “you have the right to feel indignant,” those types of things. None of what they came up with resembled my resolutions. In fact, after listening to what they conjured, my advice felt a little insensitive, calloused, pessimistic, and wrong. Importantly, even after agreeing with their ideas, it did not change my opinion or the advice I give. It’s not just stubbornness on my part. It was advice I’d received and it helped me, and in a study I’m doing on Indigenous mentorship with a bunch of Indigenous folks in the health sciences, Indigenous mentors describe a similar type of advice for their Indigenous students (Murry & Crowshoe, 2019). Probably the hardest part of all of this is that as historically marginalized minorities there are legitimate ways we need to improve. The added difficulty therein is deciphering when advice is helping us to improve and when it is helping us rationalize conformity. Best of luck.


Ogbu, J. U. (1992). Adaptation to minority status and impact on school success. Theory into practice, 31(4), 287-295.

Murry, A. & Crowshoe, L. (2019). Indigenous mentorship: A behavioral evaluation model of college mentors in health sciences. Presented at the National Congress of American Indians mid-year conference. Reno, NV.