Unfinished Business: The Impact of Race on Understanding Mentoring Relationships

by Stacy Blake-Beard, Audrey Murrell & David Thomas

Overview — Race is a critical component of relationships in organizations, particularly in the United States and, due to shifting demographics, particularly for the future. As a socially embedded phenomenon, race also provides a lens for research on mentoring. This paper discusses why race and mentoring are important, how race has been studied or omitted in research to date, and what is known about the intersection of mentoring and race in organizations. The authors then discuss their own model, which aims to guide future research. Key concepts include:

  • There is an opportunity in the twenty-first century to show how mentoring helps to create access and inclusion that goes beyond the color line.
  • The strength of individuals' racial group identity, work group composition, and organizational culture all matter to the specific nature of mentoring or developmental relationships.
  • Important dimensions of these relationships include the strength of social ties, formality, content, complexity, and trust.
  • The study of race and mentoring remains unfinished business for organizational scholars, managers, and practitioners.

Author Abstract

W.E.B. DuBois's 1903 words are prophetic, as he proclaims the importance of an issue with which we are still grappling in the twenty-first century—race. As contributors to this volume, we were asked to focus on the relationship between race and mentoring. What do we learn about this important developmental relationship by examining the research on race and mentoring? Like DuBois, we believe that the analysis of race is fundamental within our society. Race continues to be a critical factor as we examine relationships in organizations, particularly if we are located in a U.S. based context. Race is a socially embedded phenomenon that affects just about every aspect of our lives, and as such, provides a critical lens with which to examine the mentoring literature (Thomas & Alderfer, 1989). Now, more than ever, is a timely moment in our history to examine the influence of race in the extant literature on an important topic such as mentoring. Foreman (2000:30) describes race as "America's major piece of unfinished business." Race is clearly "unfinished business" because of the plethora of conflicting emotions that are unleashed as we approach the taboo (Thomas, 1989). This tension speaks to the importance of this chapter as we explore the issue of mentoring as embedded within the social context of race within today's dynamic and diverse organizations. First, we delineate several important reasons why it is critical to discuss mentoring and race. We explore how race has been positioned within the literature to provide a context for our review of how the mentoring literature has discussed (and omitted) race as a key factor. We ask a critical question within this review: what do we know about the intersection of mentoring and race in organizations? Finally, we explore some of the unfinished business concerning race and mentoring and present a model to drive future research in this vital area.

Paper Information