Genuine Admissions: The Journey From Ally to Accomplice

As a white person in the United States, I have not been a victim of systemic racism. I grew up in an overwhelmingly white, wealthy suburb of Boston where the only Black students I knew (and I use the word “knew” loosely) were bused into my middle and high school from Boston. At least I assumed they were from Boston; I never took the time to ask. That was over thirty years ago. Throughout those three decades, most of which were spent in college admissions and counseling, race was something I had the ability to choose to educate myself about pretty much when I wanted to and depending on age and stage. I lived with a Black roommate in college in Richmond, Virginia, and mostly used that opportunity not to learn much of anything about race. I worked side-by-side with Black and Mexican American colleagues in my first four years in college admission and did much of the same. It never entered my mind that my roommate might not want to sit with me in the dining hall, or that my Black officemate might not want to go to happy hour with me and her other young white professional colleagues. I mean, we were nice!

When I moved to a K-12 school outside of Baltimore, my interest in issues of race expanded as I began to have more Black friends and neighbors and started teaching and college counseling Black students (I say “Black” specifically, because the community had relatively few Asian or Latinx students or faculty). I read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s seminal work, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race, I joined a Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (S.E.E.D.) group, and I was fortunate to be invited to attend a National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference in 2001. Through these interactions, I heard many stories from colleagues and students frustrated with the difficulty of living, learning, and working in our school communities. Naturally, I felt a strong sense of empathy (after all, I was nice!).  I prided myself on the investment I genuinely made in ensuring that all students were heard, respected, and valued in my office. I knew I had unearned privilege as a white person, felt guilty about it, and used it to help my Black and brown students to gain access to higher education through my college counseling expertise. But I did not really connect the dots outside of my work in my school to what was going on in America. While I was always happy to participate in school-sponsored diversity training, to read books about and to attend speakers on racial issues, I was not proactively pushing forward racial equity in my work or personal life when it was difficult to do so. I was a passive consumer. Like a Netflix binger, I was just letting the next show keep me on the couch for another hour without really thinking about whether I could be doing more. I did little to actively dismantle racism. I was an enthusiastic ally, but I was nowhere near an accomplice — a distinction illuminated by Colleen Clemens on Teaching Tolerance in 2017.

It wasn’t until I came to Loomis Chaffee in 2007 that I began to understand how superficial my understanding of racism was and the part that I played in keeping it that way. I think this is because I was forced to see the diversity of experience that made up my boarding school community, and I was blessed to have trusting students who were comfortable enough around awkward but well-intentioned adults to share those experiences. I built relationships over longer periods of time and in more intentional ways with students from more diverse backgrounds than I had previously, and I was blessed with empathetic colleagues and students who allowed me to ask awkward questions and would not let me be discouraged by the flush of embarrassment when my ignorance was kindly but directly pointed out. I became keenly aware that it was my turn to be uncomfortable — at times, very uncomfortable — and that I had to do it in order to learn. I had to risk looking stupid, or uneducated, or ignorant, or, yes, racist (a word that is difficult for white people to hear about themselves, and, I would argue, even more difficult for a white educator). I had to read White Fragility, a book that cuts to the quick of white racism and the difficulty we have in talking about race. And, after years of watching news reports of violence against black individuals, it finally hit home when a young man was tragically murdered who had virtually the same name as a colleague in my office I cared about: Ahmaud Arbery.

My Loomis Chaffee admissions colleague Ahmad Cantrell could have been Ahmaud Arbery. Ahmad, a Loomis alumnus, is only a few years older than Ahmaud and is also a frequent runner. Ahmad lives most of the year in a predominantly white community at Loomis Chaffee where he has also received his education. And yet, as a black man on a run, that Loomis Chaffee degree means nothing. The color of his skin means everything. When I saw the video of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, I could not stop thinking, “that could have been Ahmad. My God. That could have been Ahmad.” Suddenly and shamefully late, my line between the personal and the professional became completely nonexistent. Genuine admission: the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and resulting protests against violence against Black people and for racial justice in the United States have finally gotten me up off of my couch to put years of education into action. Hearing Loomis Chaffee students, former students, and colleagues willing to share their pain and frustration over these past few weeks and thinking about the obligation I have working at Loomis Chaffee to fight injustice makes inertia no longer possible.

As an admission professional at a school with a founding story based on educational access, I am passionate about my obligation to uphold the mission of Loomis Chaffee to enroll a diverse student body. I am also passionate about what the school has taught my own children about their obligation to the world as an informed and educated citizen. However, I need to make that obligation a proactive and sustained commitment not just personally but professionally. We need to make admissions less complex and more accessible. We need to multiply the underrepresented black and brown voices on our campus. We need to be more transparent and more proactive. We need to remove barriers to application for all. We need to find more creative ways to reach motivated and engaged students from less-resourced backgrounds. We need to consider carefully what we are really looking for in our students and tools we can use to find it that are steeped in equity and context. We need to not just conduct annual bias training but do it in a deeper way that forces us to see and name the bias we carry with honesty and a commitment to fight against it. We need to continue to push for greater financial aid budgets specifically targeted toward access for those who have not benefitted from racially beneficial economic policies in this country. We need to find students who are willing to be accomplices, not just allies, in anti-racist work — students who want to be the difference they want to see in the world and to use their Loomis education in concrete ways to benefit humanity, even on a small scale. And most importantly, we need to work as an institution to ensure that the experience our students have on campus is what they have been promised in the admission brochure. There is more we can do in admission to actively uphold these values, and we will do it so that we can find and educate the changemakers our Founders intended, creating “… a shrine from which boys and girls can take the highest inspiration for better and grander lives.”