The mentors dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide

These studies examined the consequences of critical feedback provided to White and Black students by a White mentor. Such situations are fraught with ambiguity when threatening feedback is provided to students who chronically face negative stereotypes about their groups capacities. In Experiment 1, Black and White undergraduates received detailed, largely negative feedback from a White reviewer on an essay they had composed. This criticism was either provided without additional elaboration (unbuffered criticism), accompanied by a comment generally praising the writer's enthusiasm and general writing style (criticism + praise), or was prefaced with comments invoking high standards but also assurances that the student could meet those standards (criticism + standards + assurance). Black students were significantly more likely to view the reviewer as biased than Whites in the unbuffered condition, and somewhat more likely to do so in the criticism + praise condition. In the criticism + standards + assurance condition, differences in perceived bias were eliminated. Moreover, self-reported motivation was lowest for Blacks who received unbuffered feedback, and identification with writing was lower for Blacks in the unbuffered and criticism + praise conditions compared with Whites. Experiment 2 unconfounded the roles of standards versus assurance in feedback by randomly assigning White and Black students to receive unbuffered criticism, criticism + standards, or criticism + standards + assurance feedback. Blacks suspected more bias than Whites but only in the unbuffered criticism condition, but Blacks' motivation was lower in both the unbuffered criticism and criticism + standards condition. Identification with writing was somewhat lower for Blacks than Whites in the unbuffered criticism condition. Across both experiments, an emphasis on high standards and student capability eliminated perceived bias, eliminated differences in motivation based on race, and preserved identification with the domain in question. These results suggest that feedback that might be viewed in terms of negative stereotypes differs in effectiveness, depending on the presence of an emphasis on high standards and assurance that the individual can meet those standards. Stereotype threat is eliminated and motivation and domain identification are increased by so-called "wise" mentoring that offers criticism accompanied by high expectations and the view that each student is capable of reaching those expectations.

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentors dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 13021318.