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Updated: December 7, 2020 outside the box

What it means to be an ally

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
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I interviewed Jake Sumner, upper school dean of student life at Worcester Academy; he is a white, cisgender man, and he is an ally. Jake desires to become antiracist. The opposite of being racist, is not being not racist, but rather actively working against racism, which is the practice of antiracism. Jake told me he cares deeply about being an ally because he wants a different world for the next generation of kids; a world where children of color are safe to go outside and play, learn, grow up, work, travel, and live; the same way his white boys are safe to do all of the above, right now. When I met Jake a year ago he shared his story of privilege, and ignorance, as an uninformed and insulated teenager, and how being called out for saying something inappropriate and oppressive, by one of his teachers, opened his eyes and changed his course. This interruption was the beginning of Jake’s journey as an ally. 

How does racism operate in one’s thoughts and actions? Can you recognize it?

Jake: Racism operates in both conscious and subconscious. At times, yes, I recognize it, and I try to be anti-racist in my actions on a daily basis.

I grew up with a privileged, racist lens to the world that cannot be unlearned in a few days, weeks, or even years of consciously striving to be anti-racist. Just as we are taught literature, math or other subjects, we are taught racist or anti-racist behaviors and thoughts through the systems and people in our youth, when we are most malleable in your thoughts and beliefs.

As a school leader, how do you use your power and authority to advance the work for racial justice?

Jake: In my work as dean of students, I try to have student conduct responses/disciplinary responses that are fair and equitable while acknowledging the nuances and the importance of each students’ experience, which may require new or different responses to conduct to support them in their growth as an adolescent.

In my class, I work to acknowledge the experience of various demographics in history and use authors of various backgrounds offering various perspectives on history. We look to better understand the human populations that are not always recognized.

How do you interpret and understand concepts such as white supremacy, white silence, and Black Lives Matter?

Jake: In the truest sense, Black Lives Matter is about humanity. It is about recognizing people for who they are; recognizing racially motivated violence or racially motivated actions toward the Black community cannot and should not be tolerated.

Understanding Black Lives Matter means understanding your own whiteness first. As a white person, you need to engage in your own path of identity development to both understand your role in systemic racism and understand Black Lives Matter is not some type of threat to you, but rather it is the acknowledgement Black people deserve the same basic treatment under the law and in society as white people.

Acknowledging that others deserve recognition, and celebration of who they are does not take away from who you are. That is why white people present such negative pictures of Black Lives Matter, because they think the notion of Black Lives Matter somehow takes away from their own existence, when it is actually the opposite that is true.

What are you doing to divest from white supremacy and how are you challenging white silence and complacency wherever you may find it?

Jake: I am constantly learning and relearning. I am constantly reading, listening to podcasts, and audiobooks, reading articles, and leaning into uncomfortable conversations with peers and colleagues. This is all part of me divesting from white supremacy because by continually educating myself, I am better understanding my role in white supremacy and how to dismantle it.

Sometimes what you can do can be very public (social media, protests, etc.) and other times it can be private (the education component). I post on social media every once in a while, and I do not share too much on my identity journey or other aspects or my action steps of dismantling white supremacy; but I am constantly trying to improve in my practices, especially at home in how my spouse, Kendra, and I educate our boys.

What personal work and professional development do white leaders in organizations need in order to effectively lean into and lead diversity, equity, and inclusion work on an institutional level?

Jake: First and foremost, engage in your own identity development. Someone asked me to do that eight years ago. I now understand my role in promoting and continuing white privilege; and understand what steps I can take to combat white supremacy. You must know who you are first before you can dive into anti-racist work.

Next, listen, listen, and then listen again. White straight, cis males, need to listen even more. You have had your voice heard from the founding of this country, it is time for others to have a voice. And do not take that as, “You need to be quiet and someone else is taking your voice away.”  You still have a voice, but instead of using it to project ideas of white, straight, cis male hierarchy, take a step back and look at how doing that has negatively impacted so many other populations for hundreds of years.

Being an ally is an ongoing, active endeavor, and no one ever quite fully arrives. It takes not only action-centered work to support others, but also a lot of self-reflection. There are peaks and valleys in the journey, times when you will get it right and other times when you will fail the people you are committed to being an ally to. When you mess up, admit it, apologize, and ask how you can do better. Become more empathetic and elevate the lived experiences of others, even when you can’t possibly relate or even understand. Jake often says, “I believe you.” When he says this, he isn’t saying, I’m sorry, you poor thing, which is patronizing, and he doesn’t say, “I understand.” How could he? No, he says, “I believe you.”

Bonnie J. Walker is the director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy, plying this arena in education in Mass. for 16 years. Contact her at

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