Pulling Together: My Experience as an Asian-American Mentor to Black Students

I was the first to arrive. The desks were arranged in a circle and I chose the one closest to the door. Others shuffled into the classroom and took their seats, while I checked for text messages that I knew were not there. Once everyone was seated, I scanned the unfamiliar faces around me. My expectation was confirmed: I was the only non-Black student. “Welcome to the first meeting of Harambee,” the president of the organization began. “Harambee means ‘pull together’ in Swahili.”

Harambee is a program that enables LMU students to serve as mentors for a group of 9th to 12th graders at a nearby high school. The mission of Harambee is to empower the youth at this school through tutoring, college preparation, and dialogue about social justice. Although the high school is located in Westchester — a wealthy and predominantly white neighborhood in Los Angeles — it fits the description of the archetypal “urban” school. Dilapidated buildings and filthy bathrooms. Outdated textbooks and crowded classrooms. Difficulty in hiring and retaining quality teachers. A student body comprised almost entirely of Black students. But what I first noticed, and what first troubled me, were the police cars in the front parking lot.

I was recommended to become a mentor by a friend who told me I would be a “perfect fit.” The initial nervousness I felt gradually dissolved as I began mentoring. Throughout my first semester with Harambee, I genuinely enjoyed the time I spent with the youth. We engaged in thoughtful discussions about current events, college life, and career aspirations. We shared laughs and ate pizza. I even got some insight into the school gossip: who was planning to ask who to prom, why a fight broke out in the cafeteria, which of their peers they thought were cute. I loved being a part of Harambee. However, I was oblivious — perhaps naively or perhaps intentionally — to the obvious differences between my students and myself.

At the end of the semester, the president, a graduating senior, approached me and told me she was impressed with my performance. She asked if I would be interested in taking over her position for the following academic year. Despite my appearance of excitement and the immediate yes that followed, I felt my insides twist. For the next few days, my conscience badgered me about my decision to accept the role. What the hell do you think you’re doing? What kind of message would you be sending? How could you lead a group that you don’t even belong to?

My lack of belonging became glaringly apparent to me several months into my term as president. One day, we held an activity that allowed everyone to talk about challenging moments in our lives. The goal of the activity was to identify experiences that we all share in common. Tyra hopes to land a job at a local restaurant to help out her family, but job hunting has taken time away from her studies. Rain lives an hour away from school, but since she has to finish chores when she gets home, she does her homework during the noisy bus ride. Max, one of the few seniors of the group, got accepted into a university, but he is nervous about how his identity as an African-American male might affect his college experience. Sam’s father died when he was young. And so did Ricky’s. Both boys are trying their best to support their single mothers, but wish they had a male role model to look up to. Violence, racism, and poverty were some common themes throughout the narratives. But the most common theme was resilience. Omri, one of the mentors, ended the exercise by telling the students, “I see a lot of myself in you all.” At that moment, I realized precisely why I felt so unequipped to be a mentor. While Omri and I were looking at the same group of students, he was looking into a mirror and I through a window.

I came to understand that, contrary to what my friend assumed, I would never be a perfect fit as a mentor. A son of model Asian immigrants and a product of substantial race and class privilege, I could never truly connect with my students. I can talk about problems that disproportionately affect the Black community (mass incarceration, police brutality, income inequality, etc.), but I will only ever understand these problems conceptually. Unlike my students, my DNA does not demand that I worry about such things because they will never be a part of my lived experience. My success and my survival does not depend on it. So, I think about my own complicity in this system of inequality. A system that dictates my students’ perception of the world and how poorly they will fair in it. Asian Americans on the other hand, though still a marginalized group, have found ways to benefit from this system, mostly through our passivity. We witness injustice but remain silent. We achieve our model minority status only by standing upon the backs of other people of color.

Harambee has forced me to think more critically about myself and the world around me. Through constant questioning, dialogue, and reflection, I have learned some important lessons: Identifying as an activist or an ally comes with boundaries. I carry a complex, dual status of both an oppressed and a privileged person; this status is a responsibility. My students’ voices are silenced in society, while mine is merely muffled. Our voices are all struggling to do the same thing, which is to articulate a vision of a just world. To lead effectively, I must lead quietly, from behind. Sometimes listening is more important than speaking. Everyone has a story worth sharing. Talking about our differences can be difficult but it is how we learn. Community transcends race. Through an appreciation of our diversity and a celebration of our commonalities, we can begin to bridge the gaps that divide us. We can pull together.