“White Privilege” Essay Contest: Separating Facts From Fake News

The essay contest sponsored by TEAM Westport — our town’s multicultural commission — has sparked worldwide coverage. An AP story using “outrage” in its headline went viral. Outlets from the Christian Science Monitor to the Onion ran stories.

Like a game of Telephone, each telling brought more inaccuracies.

This AP photo of Main Street ran with many news stories about the

This AP photo of Main Street ran with many news stories about the “white privilege” essay contest.

This morning, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey issued a fact sheet about the contest. It won’t get as much press as the kerfuffle story, but for “06880” readers fielding questions from friends around the world — generally framed as What the hell is going on there?! — it’s a start.

The actual essay prompt reads:

White privilege surfaced as a topic during the recent presidential election. In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term “white privilege.” To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life — whatever your racial or ethnic identity — and in our society more broadly?

The challenge asks students to research the concept of “white privilege,” and describe to what extent they think it exists.

It does not

  • Make any statement one way or the other about its existence
  • Imply a right answer
  • Imply or signal anything about the town of Westport, beyond an openness to explore the topic.

The essay contest is voluntary. No student is forced to enter. Nor is it a part of any school curriculum or classroom requirement.

TEAM-Westport-logo2The contest is open only to residents of Westport in grades 9-12 attending any school anywhere, and non-resident students who attend public or private schools located in Westport. It is not open to individuals or groups outside the town.

The contest requires written permission of a parent or guardian for entry.

No taxpayer dollars are involved. All funding comes from private contributions (email info@teamwestport.org to donate!).

All members of TEAM Westport are volunteers.

This is the 4th consecutive year that the group has sponsored an essay contest. Previous topics involved race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

The takeaways:

The essay topic is meant to allow Westport students in grades to 9-12 write about what the challenge means to them.

It is not about what older people, people outside Westport, the press or political groups think.

Think about that!

TEAM Westport contest judges (from left) Jaina Shaw and Dr. Judith Hamer, and (far right) Mary-Lou Weisman flank 2016 essay contest winners Ellie Shapiro, Ali Tritschler and Jacob Klegar.

TEAM Westport contest judges (from left) Jaina Shaw and Dr. Judith Hamer, and (far right) Mary-Lou Weisman flank 2016 essay contest winners Ellie Shapiro, Ali Tritschler and Jacob Klegar.

22 responses to ““White Privilege” Essay Contest: Separating Facts From Fake News

  1. Thank you, Dan! I’ve had the honor of being a judge on this contest since the beginning. The most troubling thing about all of this news coverage is that nobody seemed to interview a single student or even parents of a current high school student. I look forward to reading essays from the talented and thoughtful students of our community!

  2. I’m proud that my old town is doing this.
    I would also like to see a future contest that deals with class privilege. This would address some of the concerns raised by people who condemned the contest.
    ADW Staples 1956

  3. Beth Orlan Berkowitz

    Thank you Dan this answers a lot of questions I was trying to field from Facebook friends elsewhere. It is very helpful that you posted this. Is there an easy way for me to copy and share your well written artical? I want your permission before I do so antsy. Thanks.

  4. Thank you TEAM! Excellent, provocative question, important prompt. I’m grateful to live in a town where some are raising this question–now more than ever. I grew up in this town and came of age during the Civil Rights movement. I remember James Baldwin speaking; seeing Blood Knot a Fugard play at the White a Barn Theater; personally knowing Tracy Sugarman, Venora and Leroy Ellis and having access to many people and ideas that helped raise questions and provoked my thinking about social justice. For me this thoughtfulness about our world represents the very best of Westport.

  5. Not to be picky, but I’m troubled that there is a grammatical error in the “prompt” and another one in the “takeaways”. I am not commenting because I will get a huge backlash. But the high school should make sure student communications are error-free. Bad role model for communications IMHO.

  6. David J. Loffredo

    Our kids at Hopkins dedicated all of last year talking about Race and it too wasn’t without its drama, and misconceptions mostly from the parents.

    Smart people talk about this stuff, isn’t the idea to have meaningful discourse and learn from each other? If you Google the word “diversity” it says “the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc”. So I think this whole thing is great, even the people who are six derivatives from the original topic are at least engaging in the discussion.

    Now – contrast that with what just happened at UC Berkeley or NYU. That’s the polar opposite of whatever perceived “outrage” this contest has created, and really what everyone should be worried about.

  7. I am glad Team Westport isssued the clarification and is going forward with the topic!

  8. Catherine Onyemelukwe

    Thanks, Dan.

  9. I am not interested in weighing in on the debate regarding the existence of “white privilege”, but I can easily point out the defense of the TEAM Westport essay prompt as NOT “Mak[ing] any statement one way or the other about its existence” and NOT “Implying a right answer” is easily shown to be false.

    Reading from the actual essay prompt:

    “To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life — whatever your racial or ethnic identity — and in our society more broadly?”

    If the essayist was to take the position that “white privilege” does not exist, he or she would be at full stop after answering the first question; the majority of the essay prompt only comes into play if you answer the first question in the affirmative. As every experienced test-taking kid knows, you’re doing it wrong if the answer you’ve chosen relieves you from answering or addressing the bulk of the question; the prompt clearly guides towards agreeing that “white privilege” exists

    • There is no right answer. That’s the point. Actually, writing from the perspective that it does not exist would make a more interesting read.

  10. I really do applaud any effort to increase racial tolerance and what people used to call “brotherhood.”

    I do want to mention, however, that Westport’s attempts to become more racially diverse have not succeeded – and this might lead TEAM Westport to do some new thinking.

    According to the 2010 Census, Westport had only about 1.2% African-American residents. This is only up fractionally in the past 35 years (.9 % in 1980)

    Before anyone mentions our high cost of housing, I’d like to mention that Beverly Hills, CA is 2.2% African American and has significantly HIGHER housing costs than Westport ($1.73M median home price in BH vs $1.04M in Westport.)

    Beverly Hills is also more diverse when it comes to other minority groups. In total, BH is 82.4% white, vs Westport being 92.% whirte.

    Westporters who celebrate their commitment to diversity should start thinking about why their commitment has not led to results.

  11. BTW I do not mention Beverly Hills because I think it’s any panacea of diversity. Quite the opposite, it is a place symbolic of wealth, exclusivity and privilege. Yet, Westport is whiter than Beverly Hills

  12. I’m just still surprised to see anyone in Westport, CT talking ‘white privilege’, it used to just be a conversation about ‘privilege’ that everyone shared in, and that was with a ‘rising waters raises all ships’ feeling-intention to it.

  13. Denise Michalowski

    Thank you Dan for your voice of reason.

  14. There are so many other matters in the world to have focused young minds on that could have been so much more positive and enlightening for them to think about. The are many complex issues in the world today and it’s important to help young people become better informed about these important matters. However, I’m not sure how coloring “priviledge” in a town renonwed for it makes this particular topic important relative to immigration, education, philanthropy, etc. Dan does a nice job explaining (perhaps defending) the exercise, but I truly wonder if the TEAM allowed it’s political senses to color this year’s contest.

  15. During this week leading to Super Bowl Sunday, please consider donating food to your place of worship or local food pantry. Please give pasta, rice, beans — basically any food items you feel represent the ethnic diversity of our great nation.

    When I was growing up, I was taught to be tolerant of people who were different from me. I was told of America’s great melting pot. In reality, as many have noted, America is more like an ethnically diverse salad bowl.

    So please consider sharing and let’s make this Super Bowl a super bowl of caring. Thanks!

  16. Frank R Collins

    Teaching our children to think outside the box, what a novel concept – although there are forces afoot in this country now who would prefer we not. I applaud Westport for this effort.