Toward Anti-Oppressive Mentorship in Mathematics

The eMentoring Network in Mathematics was created to broaden participation in mathematics through peer to peer mentorship. We hope to foster community among mathematicians across ranks, institutions and locations. I hope this blog and network is a service to all mathematicians, and I hope it disproportionately benefits communities of mathematicians who have historically experienced minoritization and marginalization. Most importantly, I hope this network is one small tool used to change the systems in place in academic mathematics (and beyond) that historically and currently privilege some and are biased against others.

How can we work toward these goals now, today, in post-Charlottesville America? I don’t see evidence that direct, individual, intentional bias is the primary obstruction to academic success for minoritized groups. I don’t know of prominent voices in the mathematics community that directly call for racism, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. (The systems of oppression are much larger and richer: mathematics education is a racial project [5]; even the language [1,2] we use and our framework of thought [1] contribute.) Just as it would be unjustifiable to adopt a position of pro-oppression, so is it unacceptable to attempt neutrality. In fact, it is quite impossible to do so, as inactivity necessarily reinforces the status quo. So, we are compelled to take a stance, and that must be to work against oppression.

What does that mean in the context at hand? What does it mean to engage in anti-oppressive mentorship?

The goal of this post is certainly not to answer these questions. As I’ll discuss more below, since the nature of oppression is situational and relational, and since identity is ephemeral and performative, there can’t be a unique solution, or one that’s fixed in time. Mentorship must depend on who is involved, and the specific context of that mentorship community. Our journey toward anti-oppressive mentorship is just that. We work toward anti-oppressive mentorship (and education, and behavior); this is part of our lifelong process of critical self-reflection and self-improvement.

This is not to say that nothing can be done. Quite the opposite. How do we get started? What do we already know? Let’s look at extant programs that have met with success, and look into the literature (I’m an algebraic geometer by training, but luckily whole communities of scholars think about these issues professionally).

There is indeed vast literature surrounding teaching and mentorship which is inclusive, equitable, rehumanizing, anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-oppressive, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this canon. However, I’d like to focus primarily on one paper, “Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education”, by Kevin Kumashiro, ([3]) as it provides a compelling framework and is a good launch for further reading. I’ll link to more resources below. (Thanks to Darryl Yong and Robin Wilson for telling me to read these papers, inviting me to your reading group, and informing my understanding of the works! This is all due to you.)

Kumashiro provides a rich theoretical framework for educational efforts working against oppression. I’ll provide an overview of this framework, and discuss applications to mentorship in mathematics. It’s worth pointing out that that education and mentorship aren’t easily distinguished. There is large intersection between the two. The moduli spaces are large and may share components. If mentorship involves learning, is it not educational? In turn, unless education happens in isolation, does it not involve mentorship? Nonetheless, some activities, such as classroom lectures, seem more educational, while others, such as individual formal mentor/mentee agreements, fall within mentorship, so the exploration of Kumashiro’s framework with an eye on mentorship seems warranted.

According to Kumashiro, there are four approaches to anti-oppressive education: (1) Education of the Other, (2) Education about the Other, (3), Education that is Critical of Privileging and Othering, and (4) Education that Changes Students and Society.

Mentorship of the Other

The phrase “Education of the Other” refers to programs and practices that provide knowledge and resources intended to help minoritized students succeed. Many existing programs working to broaden participation in mathematics engage in Education of the Other. Here are just a few.

  1. The EDGE Program (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education). Focusing on women and especially women of color, in my mind EDGE is one of the most successful programs ever developed working to broaden participation in the mathematical sciences. How many women of color in mathematics have not touched EDGE in some way, either as a participant, mentor, or both? A central focus of EDGE is to prepare for PhD programs in mathematics by providing content knowledge (crash courses in graduate algebra and analysis) and by discussing other obstructions to academic success, such as work habits and department cultures.
  2. MSRI-UP (Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program). This REU focuses on students underrepresented in the mathematical sciences. Students learn content knowledge (research level mathematics) and practice (how research in mathematics may be approached) and knowledge of the field (who is doing work in various areas, what is it like to visit a leading mathematics research institute, etc.)
  3. The eMentoring Network. This blog hopes to spread the word about all manner of things in the mathematics community, from REU programs, studying for exams, obtaining the PhD, through the tenure process. As above, we hope this information will help all mathematicians, especially those minoritized in mathematics.

Kumashiro points out many strengths and weaknesses to the approach of Education of the Other. I hope strengths of these programs are self-evident. These programs are necessary. We must work to provide knowledge and resources to all, especially to marginalized groups. But Education of the Other is not sufficient. It is a deficit model, where the problem of underrepresentation is placed on the shoulders of the underrepresented. Education of the Other works to educate the Other out of their marginalized status. But minoritized groups in mathematics are not the architects of the systems that are biased against them. Education of the Other does not ask for change either from those already in the mathematics community or of the structures of the community itself.

Similarly, in our mentorship relationships, it is important to share information. This is necessary. But it is clearly insufficient. As we often point out in this blog, mentorship is always reciprocal, and both parties (or all parties) benefit. So, we should not expect to work toward justice in mathematics through mentorship by merely providing mentorship. We must go further, to learn ourselves, and then look beyond the individual.

Mentorship about the Other

Education about the Other refers to programs and practices that work to provide information about groups historically and currently minoritized in mathematics. It is motivated by the following question: Do you want to provide information about the experiences of marginalized mathematicians, including successes and obstructions to success, both historical and contemporary? And it gives rise to many other questions, for example:

  • What is the history of women in mathematics?
  •  What were the primary obstructions to academic success for women in math in 1960? What are they today?
  • Are there common obstructions to academic success shared by Black mathematicians?
  • What is the current status of gender inequity and underrepresentation in mathematics in the US? How have they changed over time?
  • What is the national landscape of programs working to broaden participation in mathematics?
  • What pedagogical tools have been used to minimize marginalization in mathematics?
  • Across mathematical subdisciplines, where do we find concentrations of Latinx mathematicians?
  • Do transgender and nonbinary mathematicians report feeling included and welcome in the mathematics community?

Education about the Other posits that in order to broaden participation in mathematics, we must not only educate the Other, we must educate ourselves. We must think about questions such as those above. We must learn from the answers we discover in order to change ourselves.

I know of no formal mentorship programs in mathematics with a central focus which falls cleanly within Education About the Other, but many programs incorporate such mentorship into their larger goals. For example, each of the programs listed above, EDGE, MSRI-UP and our very own eMentoring Network explore experiences of and issues related to those minoritized in mathematics. While they are not formal mentorship programs, it’s worth noting that programs such as Mathematically Gifted and Black and Lathisms work to educate the general mathematics community (and broader population) about mathematicians who self-identify as Black and Latinx, and their history, experiences, and contributions to mathematics.

As with Education of the Other, there are strengths and weaknesses to this approach. As Kumashiro points out, Education About the Other poses the risk of cementing and recreating the Other and the dichotomy between Normal and Other. In addition, Education about the Other runs the risk of essentializing, or even fetishizing the Other. We should not expect there to be a universal Black experience in mathematics, any more than we expect White students to have a common experience in mathematics. So, for example, what Black voice in mathematics are we trying to hear?

With regard to Mentorship about the Other, Kumashiro seems to tell us that, in mentorship relationships, we should attempt to learn about the experiences of people in our mentorship group, and that we should use that information to improve our own practices and inform our viewpoints. At the same time, we should be careful not to generalize, not to assume that the experiences of people who self-identify in intersecting ways will share mathematical experiences. And we must avoid, at all times, the false dichotomy of us/them or Norm/Other.

Mentorship that is Critical of Privilege and Othering

Both Education (and Mentorship) of the Other and Education (and Mentorship) about the Other focus on the level of the individual, and focus on those who experience bias. Less attention is paid to those who receive privilege. And the structures within the profession, indeed the structures that comprise the profession of mathematics, are not examined. In particular, the false dichotomy that defines the Other needs dismantling.

The goal of Education that is Critical of Privilege and Othering seeks to critically examine the structures and systems which historically and currently privilege some and bias against some, and work to define the Norm(al) and the Other. What are the mechanisms of oppression? Every aspect of our profession needs to be carefully (re)considered, including classroom practice, faculty hires, the publication process, committee work, leadership in professional organizations, and tenure and promotion. There is bias and privilege throughout.

In fact, as Danny Martin points out [5], and as further explored by Battey and Leyva, mathematics and mathematics education are examples of White institutional spaces, which are characterized by (a) numerical domination by Whites and the exclusion of people of color from positions of power in institutional contexts, (b) the development of a White frame that organizes the logic of the institution or discipline, (c) the historical construction of curricular models based upon the thinking of White elites, and (d) the assertion of knowledge production as neutral and impartial, unconnected to power relations. [5, p323]
Oppressive systems may not be visible. We may contribute via the language we use (oppression is discursive [2,3,5]) and our theoretical frameworks (mathematics is cultural [1,2,3]).

Once again, I know of no formal mentorship programs, or theoretical models of mentorship, that are critical of privilege and othering in mathematics. However, Piper Harron and our sister AMS blog, Inclusion/Exclusion, are doing terribly important work in this regard.

What role does mentorship play in this context? More than using mentorship to deliver useful information, more than building community, more than using mentorship to learn about the experience of those who have been marginalized in the mathematics community, more than learning about our personal privilege or lack thereof, we are compelled to consider mentorship relationships and groups as a potentially useful tool to question the systems in place in our profession. How better to understand these issues than collectively? How better to disrupt unfair systems than through mentorship?

Mentorship that Changes Mathematicians and Society

The fourth and final category of educational efforts that work against oppression in Kumashiro’s framework is Education that Changes Students and Society. Identity is ephemeral and relational. We cannot work to reinforce systems of Othering. We risk essentializing or even fetishizing those who self-identify as members of minoritized groups. Systems of power and oppression are relational and situational. We must work to not only understand, examine, question and critique our professional apparatus, but we must work to reduce bias and privilege.

We must turn toward practice (or praxis). As Rochelle Gutierrez points out [2], we must not only play the game, we must change the game simultaneously. And we must be willing to consider not only the best intent of our peers, but the actual outcomes of the systems in place. Is every member of your department or institution a good person who is, in their heart, opposed to racism and sexism? That’s very nice. How many Black faculty members are in your department? How do you support transgender students? Do women students and faculty in your department report feeling welcome, included and powerful? What are the graduation rates for minoritized students? When is the last time you had a departmental conversation about disability justice?

Do you have ideas for how best to foster such mentorship relationships and mentorship communities? What anti-oppressive mentorship programs can you imagine?


The literature and Kumashiro in particular point toward ways in which we can work against oppression, including the following recommendations. Share knowledge and resources in your mentor groups, with special attention paid to those who are marginalized in mathematics. This is necessary but not sufficient. Learn about the history (and presence) of bias, privilege, marginalization, and minoritization in mathematics, including institutional misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia. Learn about the experiences of people in mathematics who self-identify in ways you do not. This is necessary but not sufficient. Critically investigate the policies, practices, systems and structures that historically and currently privilege some, and bias against others. Focus not only on individuals, including ourselves, but critically examine the actual outcomes and results of our professional apparatus. Finally, work to change our societies and ourselves to become more equitable.

I don’t know how to construct a mentorship program that accomplishes these goals, and clearly there is not a unique or fixed solution. Whatever programs we imagine will need to differ in response to the needs of different communities, and will need to change over time. Working against oppression in mathematics is an ongoing lifelong process of critical (self) evaluation and (self) improvement. “An anti-oppressive teacher is not something that someone is. Rather, it is something that someone is always becoming.” (Kumashiro [4], page 15) Similarly, an anti-oppressive mentor is not something that someone is. Rather it is something that someone is always becoming.

Sources and further reading:

[1] Bishop, Alan J. “Western mathematics: the secret weapon of cultural imperialism.” Race & Class 32, no. 2 (1990): 51-65. doi:10.1177/030639689003200204.
[2] Gutierrez, Rochelle “Nesting in Nepantla: The Importance of Maintaining Tensions in Our Work.” Interrogating Whiteness and Relinquishing Power, 2015. doi:10.3726/978-1-4539-1716-9/31
[3] Kumashiro, Kevin K. “Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education.” Review of Educational Research 70, no. 1 (2000): 25. doi:10.2307/1170593.
[4] Kumashiro, Kevin K. Against common sense: Teaching and learning toward social justice, 3rd edn, Routledge: London, 2015; 162 pp
[5] Martin, Danny Bernard. “Race, Racial Projects, and Mathematics Education.” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 44, no. 1 (2013): 316. doi:10.5951/jresematheduc.44.1.0316

There are way too many projects, programs and organizations for a comprehensive list, but here are a few more:

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1 Response to Toward Anti-Oppressive Mentorship in Mathematics

  1. Robin Wilson says:

    Nice article. Thanks for the shout out!

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