By Kendra James
I first heard about this book during Kendra James’ very funny guest stint on my favorite podcast “Yo, Is This Racist.” I highly recommend the episode, both because the hosts are always very funny and smart and because the stories James tells from the book got me hooked (granted after a few months). It is a memoir of her experience as the first Black legacy student at Taft, a fancy prep school in Connecticut, and the whole thing was a real eye-opener for me. In the early 2000s with nascent internet and social media, her high school experience was wildly different than mine, and it was often hard to parse whether that was due to the time period, the quality of the school, or race. Regardless, she captures this moment in her life with such detail that I really felt like I was getting a clear look into a life much different than mine.
On the one hand, I never really understood prep schools, feeling that at this point, for better or worse, most high schools sort of vaguely aim their students toward college instead of trade apprenticeships. However, James reveals the extraordinarily high level of guidance students at Taft got when applying for colleges, which really hammered home the extra privilege that makes these students much more likely to go to prestigious colleges and universities. (It also made me mad all over again about the college admissions bribery scandal, since they already had such a leg up!)
On the other hand, she was one of a handful of Black students in an overwhelmingly white school (in an overwhelmingly white state), and of course that came with a fairly constant barrage of aggressions, both micro and not so small. James is so funny overall in her writing that it came as a surprise how difficult some parts are to read. She does an equally skilled job at unpacking the oversized responsibility that is piled on all the students of color, who are also still so young and just coming into awareness of themselves and the world around them.
What struck me hardest from James’ memoir was how acutely James and other students of color could distinguish between individual racism, which was often more blatant, and systemic racism, which though more subtle, could hurt them in much wider ways. This really gets at what many white people, myself included, often don’t see: some rando shouting the n-word is disgusting, but a centuries-old institution requiring the Black, Latinx, and Asian students to continuously prove their worth to both their peers and much of the faculty is much more lastingly harmful. James and her fellow students of color recognized that immediately, and I felt bad that it took me so long into adulthood to begin to see the same thing.
I also have to admit that I recognized more of myself than I would have liked in her ignorant white classmates. My own high school was also very white, and while I did not actively hold racist beliefs, I just went with the cultural flow, and the flow in the Texas public school system was most definitely racist. Admissions gives a clear, fairly universal, real world example why not being racist isn’t enough, and why we need to aim to be anti-racist instead.
I only found out in the acknowledgements (for some reason, I’ve started reading them dedicatedly, and it feels somehow very middle aged of me) that James first began to write about her experiences on our beloved defunct website, The Toast!