White privilege frames teen’s Westport experience
Updated 10:45 am, Thursday, April 6, 2017
WESTPORT — There was no outrage; there was no controversy.
In the end, there were three Staples High School students sharing essays that grappled with the topic of white privilege.
When the topic was first announced, the fourth annual installment of TEAM Westport’s Teen Diversity Essay Contest drew an unprecedented amount of backlash in the form of hate-filled emails and phone calls. The blowback was received in the days and weeks after a Jan. 31 Associated Press story ran on the essay topic, creating an international news frenzy.
But when the time came for the winning essayists to be announced and read their thoughts, they were supported and encouraged by overwhelming admiration and applause by their fellow Westporters Monday night.
“I saw what was happening and I, personally, really didn’t want to write the essay,” said 15-year-old Chet Ellis.
Ellis’ parents, who moved the family from Manhattan to Westport when he was in fifth grade, encouraged him to participate, however.
“My parents really pushed me to write it and they really, really forced me to get it out,” said Ellis, who is black. “And once I got it out, I couldn’t stop going.”
His parents’ urging paid off and Ellis took home first place for his essay “The Colors of Privilege.”
In his winning essay, Ellis wrote he “never really thought much about white privilege” until his family left New York City.
While his classmates are aware of the plight African-Americans have endured and continue to encounter, Ellis said they do not see that struggle in Westport.
“Students get blinded by the thought that a student could get into college more easily because of their skin color, while not seeing that African-Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, and once employed earn nearly 25 percent less than their white counterparts,” the Staples High School sophomore wrote. “They don’t see that despite making up 12 percent of the population, we are 35 percent of jail inmates and 24 percent of people shot by the police.”
Ellis went on to explain the implicit bias he faces, even at his local Walgreens.
“But living in this place where almost everyone is white makes me question, when I’m in Walgreens and the manager follows me around the store, would this happen if I looked different?” he wrote.
Staples High School
Staples High School
Staples High School
Staples High School
Staples High School
Staples High School
Town government employees from the town clerk to the first selectman’s office received unsettling reactions from across the country. The Occidental Observer, a white nationalist website, called TEAM Westport a “Case Study in anti-White Activism.”
Harold Bailey, Jr., the chair of TEAM Westport, said in a February interview the topic of white privilege had been vetted with other members of the essay committee, local teachers and congregation leaders. It originated with the idea of implicit bias that came up during the 2016 presidential election, “the things that you don’t have to worry about when you’re a certain race,” Bailey said, adding implicit bias was another term for white privilege.
Bailey, who attended high school in the South during the 1960s, is no stranger to the dark side of race relations.
Although he now lives in Westport, Bailey went to school in Knoxville, Tenn., when white privilege was law. One of 20 black students selected in 1963 to be the first sizable class to integrate into Fulton High School, Bailey was bombarded daily with racial slurs, physical violence and threats of death. That year around 1 percent of black children in the South attended school with white children, according to ProPublica.
On Monday, Bailey commended, Ellis, along with his fellow students, for their powerful essays.
Citing the range of responses from praise to vitriol surrounding the essay topic, Bailey said, “It’s clearly an indicator that this is the kind of subject that needs to be discussed if we’re ever going to get any resolution to our relationships here in this country. And so I really applaud the three of them and I think we should give them all a hand.”
Westport’s first selectman, Jim Marpe, also spoke about the importance of addressing difficult topics head on.
“Westport has a long tradition of its residents engaging in open public discourse on difficult topics,” said Marpe, who is white. “We regularly and passionately debate and defend points of view on challenging and sometimes uncomfortable topics, but we do so in a civilized and respectful manner.”
“Unfortunately, some outside of our community chose to offer commentary related to this contest that has no place in civil discourse any place or anytime,” added Marpe. “Westport will continue to encourage and support open dialogue on difficult topics and issues conducted in a civil, respectful and thoughtful manner.”
Civility and respect were evident on Monday, as the winning students read aloud their essays to applause from the community members gathered at the Westport Library.
Josiah Tarrant, a white 16-year-old, told the story of his family bringing home his adopted, younger brother from Ethiopia. Tarrant acknowledged the white privilege he has experienced in his life and challenges those who maintain that white privilege is a “liberal tactic that creates white guilt” to think further.
“I say explain to me the racial gaps in our country’s education, health care, employment, wealth and incarceration. I invite you to sit down and assure me when my brother is a teen out in the world, he can walk with his black friends freely down Main Street as I did, and that clerks and customers alike will look upon him as the great future promise of Westport as they did on me,” wrote Tarrant, a junior at Staples.
Tarrant’s essay “White Privilege and Me” earned him second place, while third place went to Claire Dinshaw, an 18-year-old Staples senior who is white.
Her piece “The Privilege of Ignorance,” explored disparities non-white students in Westport face.
“Whereas I can find skin care products easily, non-white Westport residents will find that stores mostly carry beauty products designed for white skin; whereas I can turn on the news to find countless white role models, non-white Westport residents will find that the majority of politicians, anchors, and corporate leaders resemble their white classmates,” the 18-year-old wrote.
For their work, all three students earned prize money thanks to private contributions made to TEAM Westport. Dinshaw took home $500, Tarrant got $750 and Ellis won $1,000 for his first-place essay.
First Place: Chet Ellis, Staples High School
Essay: “The Colors of Privilege” Prize: $1,000
It was second period and our US History class quieted once the bell rang. But not just because of the bell. Our classroom, usually busy with thought provoking conversations was anxiously anticipating the lecture today on racial equality. My teacher was thankful to have at least some diversity in class this year. We three African American students in the same classroom at Staples High School was a rare sight. Since our town is 92.6% white and just 1.2% black, she explained how most years when addressing issues of race in the classroom she would get to use the line, “let’s ask all the black people in the class...” to a silent room. Her joke broke the ice, and we dove into a thoughtful discussion about race relations in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
In the midst of our discussion, a student raised her hand to add an anecdote about seeing a student from another school holding a sign at a football game. She said that on the sign was written, “Warde [High School] has N******,” except she used the actual word. In US History class. In our 92.6% white Fairfield County suburb. My body froze. Time stopped. I neverdid hear the end of her story. The air became viscous and the tension in the room felt palpable.The teacher deftly interjected to continue the flow of the conversation, pointing out the power, sometimes, of confronting such ugliness head on, but for the rest of class, I sat stunned. I knew the student hadn’t used the word in a malicious way, but the response from my body was primal.
The N-word is a word that takes African Americans back to 1619 on the tobacco fields of Jamestown and the very beginnings of the American tragedy of human enslavement. It reminds us of Jim Crow, of the senseless beating of Rodney King, and of the killings of 258 black people by the police in 2016. Nevertheless, several of my white friends want to use the N-word in recounting their favorite lyrics. Others even claim that keeping them from saying it is some form of reverse racism. They, like the student in my class, don’t understand how the word takes my breath away.
As a black teen in Westport, race issues in and outside the classroom are unavoidable. One afternoon at track practice, some white friends were discussing how hard it would be to get into college and then out of nowhere one said, “Chet you don’t have this problem because you’re black.” I was stunned and mumbled something instead of firing back, “Your parents are third-generation Princeton and your father runs a hedge fund and yet you think my ride is free?” Even seemingly safe discussions about our sport can be racial minefields. I remember a terrific runner on our team saying after he lost, “I mean I was running against two giant black guys” and the other teammates nodding with understanding.
All of this casual black envy doesn’t take into account American history. A history where slavery and segregation were the law, and black inferiority the unwritten law. In 1940 an experiment was conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark to help understand the physiological effects of segregation on children. Today this study is colloquially known as the “The Doll Tests.” In these tests, students would be given identical dolls, except for color, and asked which one they liked more, which one was more pretty. An overwhelming amount of participants from both white and black communities chose the white doll.
My own “Doll Test” occurred in the fifth grade, when I moved to Westport from Manhattan where I thought we were upper middle class. I would look up at all the houses bigger than our rental and imagine what life would be like if I were born lighter and richer. I had no grasp of the deep social issues that had been keeping my people from attaining such heights of prosperity; didn’t yet understand the lack of truly wealthy black residents in my town asindicative of larger social issues. Now as a sophomore in high school, I have a better understanding of the legacy of institutionalized racism. Now I see the history behind the big houses.
Second Place: Josiah Tarrant, Staples High School
Essay: “White Privilege and Me” Prize: $750
At 16, I’ve lived in the comfort of Westport my whole life. With the exception of a brief eight-day stint in Ethiopia while bringing home my little brother when I was seven-years-old (the first time I became acutely aware of the ghostlike whiteness of my skin), I really never thought much about race. Crazy considering the family I grew up in. Somehow my brother was always “just my brother.” Our family was normal to me, even though we often drew attention from strangers when we were out and about. I grew up surrounded by teachers, coaches, principals, and doctors, all of whom looked like me and shared my skin color. Like most Westport kids, the thought of this never crossed my mind. This is white privilege.
It wasn’t until I was 12-years-old that my learning on racism really began. I still remember the day we returned from swim practice and my mom began yanking all of my childhood books off of the shelves. She enlisted my help to find my brother, then 6-years-old, an Early Reader book featuring a kid that looked like him. I stood next to her and my brother on those visits to libraries and bookstores when we were shown to the “slavery section.” That day marked the beginning of an awareness of how much I had taken my white experience for granted and a realization that things would not be the same for my brother.
It wasn’t smooth sailing for me. I still remember being appalled at my mom’s use of the word “black” as if she had said a bad word. “Mom you can’t say that, that’s racist,” my 12-year-old white male self said. In school, for as long as I could remember, we had been taught not to acknowledge differences of race. The messages I had received had been: “we are open-minded,” “slavery is over,” “we don’t have racism here.” President Obama was the only President I had ever known.
As I grew up, I started watching. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, their deaths marked my teen years. I started reading. Peggy McIntosh, Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates began to inform me. Recently I heard Professor Tricia Rose speak about “post-racial” racism, reinforcing that my childhood belief system had been a convenient myth. We were taught we must remain colorblind, and look at people of color and whites the same way. While I agree, it only makes sense if everyone is already on an equal playing field, which we are not. This is why a discussion of white privilege is critical.
When I saw the negative reaction of some community members and whirlwind media coverage of the white privilege essay contest “controversy”, I knew that I could not let my white privilege prevent me from taking a stand. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” So, this teenager who still has much to learn on this topic sat down to write.
What I do with the knowledge of my own privilege is what I have been thinking about most. Acknowledging it is a crucial start. It puzzles me that some white adults react so defensively to even discussing the term. The fact that we live in a town where we can and do strive to discuss white privilege makes me proud to live in Westport. To those who rail against it, I ask, how, when the fact remains there is so much not being taught in our schools? We are not learning that our economy was built on free slave labor, nor about voter suppression, mass incarceration and blocks to mortgages for non-whites, nor that nearly one in three black males will serve time, losing employment opportunity and voting rights, while white kids around me face minimal consequences for their mistakes.
To those who argue “white privilege” is a liberal tactic that creates white guilt, I say explain to me the racial gaps in our country's education, healthcare, employment, wealth and incarceration. I invite you to sit down and assure me when my brother is a teen out in the world, he can walk with his black friends freely down Main Street as I did, and that clerks and customers alike will look upon him as the great future promise of Westport as they did on me.
Third Place: Claire Dinshaw, Staples High School
Essay: “The Privilege of Ignorance” Prize: $500
When I was born, I was placed at the top of a predetermined racial hierarchy. Magazines told me my skin was beautiful. CVS carried bandaids that matched my skin tone. History textbooks and acclaimed novels told the stories of people like me. When I was born, the world made sure to tell me I was important.
Not everyone received the same welcome.
White privilege is like a trust-fund, a bonus given to every white American as a result of an ingrained societal prejudice that ascribes certain traits to white Americans and certain, often less flattering traits, to non-white Americans. Because white is seen as the ‘norm’ in America, white Americans have been granted the power to define what is moral, ethical, and successful. As a white American, I have not always been aware of my privilege, but I have come to see the innocence, predictable success, and overrepresentation I benefit from as byproducts of my race.
The Economics of Education found that test scores increase when a student has a teacher of the same race, Staples High School has only recently hired its first full-time black teacher.
I know from personal experience that wealth cannot overcome the deficits of underrepresentation. About twelve years ago, the only female power-players in Washington D.C. who frequently appeared on the news were Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton. At the time, women were so underrepresented in Washington D.C. that when I first saw Pelosi on television I asked my father whose wife she was because I did not believe women like me could be politicians. If I had been born a black women, I might still believe I could not be a politician.
The New Jim Crow, are three times as likely to use illegal drugs), and more likely to face discrimination in the housing and job markets due to stubborn racist beliefs. This equates to white Americans being more likely to be able to afford a home in Westport and other upper-middle class suburban towns.
As a result, despite the fact that segregation is illegal, integrated regions and school districts are rare, and white Americans are often quick to fight plans to increase diversity. When parents from the predominantly white Francis-Howell school district in Missouri heard that approximately 1,000 students from the predominantly black Normandy school district were going to attend Francis-Howell schools, they were outraged. The incident was documented in the This American Life episode “The Problem We All Live With.”
“We are talking about violent behavior that is coming in,” one parent says during the broadcast. “Is there going to be a metal detector?” another parent asked. The truth is, once white Americans have control of something, whether that be a school district or corporate America, the choice of whether to share that privilege with others also becomes our privilege, and we have not historically been very open-minded.