I am a Black woman and I signed up as a mentor for a law-student-mentoring program at my alma mater. I made a request for a Black mentee, but I was paired with a white woman. Now I’m second-guessing participating in the program. Black attorneys make up less than 5 percent of all attorneys and continue to face horrific experiences in law school and in the legal community. This is whom I envisioned myself supporting when I registered for the program as a recent graduate. I imagined deep conversations about law professors and law-firm culture, and sharing how I’ve learned to navigate them as a Black woman. Not only will these conversations not apply to my mentee the same way, but I can’t help wondering if assisting them will ultimately contribute to my own oppression. There are so many factors in her favor that I don’t really want to help give her even more of a leg up in my free time. On the other hand, I don’t have anything against her, and law school is universally scary during the first year. Should I be thinking about this differently? Is it wrong to bow out? Name Withheld
The political philosopher Amy Gutmann once argued that Black teachers provided what she called “diversity role models” for all students, whatever their race. Their presence, she wrote in an essay, teaches everyone “that Blacks are accomplished contributors to our society from whom we all may learn.” Gutmann, who went on to run a university for many years, thought that the same applied across all social institutions in which Black people provide models — by teaching or mentoring or simply by doing their job well. As it happens, this essay appeared in a book we published together more than a quarter of a century ago, but things haven’t changed enough since then, I fear, for role-modeling of this sort to be an irrelevance.
Still, you will have only one mentee at a time, and you judge that your efforts would have a bigger yield for a Black student. You think the mentoring program is wasting an asset; you could be more usefully deployed. Why not ask the people who run the program why they made the choice that they did? Maybe some thought went into it; maybe no thought at all did. Given that you conveyed the request when you signed up to volunteer, they ought to be willing to explain their process.
Mentorship, at its core, involves a more experienced person helping to guide someone else’s professional development. You’re clearly well equipped to provide such guidance. But mentorship can have additional aspects too. How do you compare with other mentors, including Black ones, with respect to professional seniority or status? A recent graduate from law school might know more about what the place is like these days; an attorney who has been away longer might have a more impressive list of contacts. In some mentorship programs, the mentees get a say in whom they will be paired with. A mentee may be drawn to make certain connections based on a sense of their professional influence. Maybe mentorship should be solely a matter of career advice, but the reality is more complicated.
You say that your prospective mentee “has so many factors in her favor,” and, I trust, this inference is based on her dossier, not simply on her race. But even if she’s already quite advantaged, the idea that helping her will somehow contribute to your own oppression is, I think, implausible. The wisdom you can offer her is scarcely going to affect the relative prospects of Black and white lawyers generally, or your prospects in particular. Indeed, if it makes any difference to the world at all, it may well be a small one toward equity. My impression, as someone who teaches in a law school, is that many white law students today are deeply concerned about racial justice, and the counsel of someone like you could make their concern better informed and more effective.
If you don’t like the way the program is run, you can certainly decide that you won’t sign up a second time. But it’s wrong to renege on our commitments absent a compelling reason. That you could have been put to better use may be a demerit against the program, but it isn’t sufficient for pulling out, and the other reason you mention is unconvincing. Unless you can come up with a better reason, then, I’d encourage you to see it through. A young woman has been told that she will be getting your advice and support. If you drop her, you’ll owe her and the program an explanation for why. You say that law school is universally scary for first-year students; for this first-year student, at least, it’s in your hands to make it less so — or more so.
My parents maintain relationships with many friends and relatives both domestically and overseas. Many people think fondly of them, and when they are in public they imitate friendly and kind people.
My issue is that they were terrible, abusive parents. They terrorized my brother and me, telling us every day we were failures, morons and worthless losers. My dad is an addict who has lied about his addictions and only seems to care about getting attention from others, and my mother is anxious and depressed. They’re old now, and we never developed an actual relationship. I don’t think they are capable of liking or loving their children, and I’ve given up on trying. The most important thing to them is cultivating the good opinion of others.
I want to know, what are my obligations to keep the family secrets once they die? Am I supposed to pretend I care when they die? And what are my obligations to care for them as their health declines? I have a cousin who lives in the same town as them, who they are very nice to and who acts like their child. But do I have a responsibility to two people I suspect are mentally ill who have treated me with unrepentant cruelty? We haven’t spoken in a few years, and I don’t miss them. Name Withheld
There’s a lot to unpack in this dispiriting story. Decent people want not just respect but due respect: They want to be respected for their actual virtues and achievements, not for feigned ones. You believe that your parents are hollowly preoccupied with the good opinion of others when they are not entitled to it. You’re troubled that they’ve successfully presented a kindly facade to cover up their character defects. At the same time, you wonder whether you should maintain a pretense of caring when they die, given that this, too, would be a facade.
If our parents were seriously abusive and, in consequence, we have no relationship with them that we value, then we may have no special obligations to them either.
As a rule, you shouldn’t display feelings you don’t have or misrepresent the truth about your childhood. The further question of whether you owe them some kind of care, though, is made more difficult by the fact that you think their bad behavior may be a result of mental illness. The philosopher Hanna Pickard has written, in the context of personality disorders and addiction, about “responsibility without blame.” She argues that it’s possible to hold people responsible for harm without blaming them for it — and that it’s actually important for clinicians to do so. (She worked with such patients for a decade at a facility in Oxford.) You’re blameworthy if you’re responsible and have no excuse, but, she says, “different disorders point to probable incapacities or deficits” and may indeed provide an excuse.
Yet your experiences have been outside the clinical context; you’re the one who has been harmed. In those circumstances, you may recognize that mental illness provides some sort of excuse and still resent your mistreatment. Ordinarily, we take care of our aging parents because we have loving feelings that grow out of a loving relationship — even if it has had its ups and downs, even if it’s stressful, even if, as the light fades, we get less out of our time with them because they have less to give. Philosophers use the term “special obligations” for responsibilities or duties that we have toward others in virtue of who they are to us. These obligations arise from relationships that we value. But if our parents were seriously abusive and, in consequence, we have no relationship with them that we value, then we may have no special obligations to them either.
Your parents are, in the brutal expression, dead to you. If they have the resources to look after themselves, what they will probably need in later life is loving care. And that’s something you can’t provide to people you not only don’t love but actively dislike.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)
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