Kelly Powers: Westport Privilege Meant Straddling 2 Worlds

TEAM Westport’s essay contest on white privilege has sparked plenty of conversation, both on “06880” and — thanks to an AP news story that went viral — everywhere else.

Alert reader and Staples High School graduate Kelly Powers has a unique vantage point. She writes:

It was my first day at Saugatuck Elementary School. I had moved to Westport that summer, and was less than thrilled to enter a new school.

Little did I know I was extremely lucky. The Westport school system opened doors and granted opportunities I could only have dreamed of in my hometown of Port Chester, New York.

Yet instead of basking in my fortunate circumstances, I noticed — and pointed out, without hesitation — that no one looked like me.

Everyone stared. I had kinky hair, a “boys” haircut, tanned skin, and I used alien vernaculars no one seemed to understand. Those who did understand were quick to teach me the “proper” way of speaking.

I’d love to say that I had a remarkable ability at age 9 to deconstruct the stigmatization that was placed upon me. But I didn’t. Instead I answered questions like, “Do you live in Bridgeport?” I watched the confusion as people saw me with my white dad. Then came the next question: “So you’re adopted?”

I’m not denigrating my classmates for their curiosity, nor did I take offense. I’m simply noting that from the very beginning, I learned I would be under the microscope. To escape these confines, I would have to fully integrate into the new culture I was thrown into.

Kelly Powers (center), with Staples High School friends.

Kelly Powers (center), with Staples High School friends.

It didn’t take long to mold myself to Westport’s standards. The only thing I couldn’t mold was my skin color, which proved to be a blessing and a curse. I was just as much a Westport kid as my classmate who got a hand-me-down Audi for their 16th birthday. (I got a Subaru, which could be argued is more Westport than an Audi. But that’s not the point.)

I lived and breathed the bourgeois lifestyle. I expected the world to work with me, never against. Did I notice the bits of microaggression, stigmatization or alienation I endured? No, because I was feeding them. To escape the microscope, I fed into the hegemonic ideologies that form the bubble that encases the town, and more specifically, Staples High School.

I was not surprised to see a Facebook page filled with “mean spirited” (every “ist” you can think of) memes, from Staples students.

The Staples environment is filled with racism. The quicker you accept that, the easier it is to assimilate. For a student of color at Staples, it always proved beneficial to juggle the “us not them” and “them, but not really” outlook.

For Kelly Powers (right), life was not always a day at the beach.

For Kelly Powers (right), life was not always a day at the beach.

“Us” meant being a part of the Westport world, where we complained about having to put our laundry in the hamper for the cleaning lady. The “not them” referred to the other people that who match our skin tone but lived an incomprehensible, and disregardable, lifestyle.

On the flip side, “them, but not really” allowed students of color to pick and choose the desired traits of their racial background when it was encouraged and deemed appropriate by those around them, even if they really had nothing to pull from. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a student of color who grew up in Westport say, “I’m totally afraid of black people, I wouldn’t dare go to Norwalk alone at night,” but then turn around and say, “I’m that loud because I’m black.”

The way to survive was to feed the biases, which began by belittling the group of people your peers associated you with. I constantly stoked the fires of prejudice, to stay afloat.

The “us, not them” and “them, but not really” outlook paved the perfect path to shaping one’s identity by the group that was in power: white, privileged, heterosexual teenagers.

I experienced this first hand by constantly being told the way I acted was because of my racial background. However, the real reasons lay locked away. If I ever combated this assumption, I would have been ostracized.

I saw it happen to students of color who called kids out for their prejudice. Not only did I not realize how confining it was to be forced into a tightly woven box using the fabric of essentialism, but they didn’t even realize that it was wrong.

Even though I’m biracial, I was labeled “black.” Even though I’m Italian, I was labeled “ghetto.” Even though I lived in Westport, I was associated with Bridgeport.

Kelly Powers today.

Kelly Powers today.

In the Westport I grew up in, a place people would not dare call anything other than “open, inclusive, and liberal,” these issues simply weren’t discussed.

I believe Westporters are so afraid of the word “racist” because it’s heavy and is seen as a binary. In reality, it’s a spectrum. We all have racial biases — it’s natural for our brains to categorize based on superficial attributes — but it’s not okay to denigrate entire groups of people due to perceived differences.

However, is it fair to expect a group of students who very rarely escape homogeneiy to be empathetic to other walks of life?

We can break this cycle. We must encourage students to talk about it, encourage the difficult conversations, write essays about white privilege, volunteer at a soup kitchen outside of Westport.

It’s never too late to unlearn prejudice. But first you must acknowledge that it exists.

22 responses to “Kelly Powers: Westport Privilege Meant Straddling 2 Worlds

  1. Welllll, I’ll break the ice on this one….
    It’s a confused and confusing piece of thought and writing….sure, the last 4 paragraphs are the take away, but the rest of the muddled piece leaves one with the impression that though Westport, as represented by Saples sutdents is, in fact, a tough, prejudice laden joint, them that is the brunt of the prejudice are not only complicit in that prejudice, but,in fact, join in the prejudice once they are a part of a click that has overcome prejudice to allow in the object of that prejudice.
    Not much of a compliment to either the bigot or the” bigotee”.

  2. I think this is a great piece and quite frankly so utterly true.

    Sadly this country has too much racial prejudice. I’ve experienced racial prejudice in this town too. I’m brown skin with black hair, I often am asked if I am Mexican or Indian. In fact I was born and raised in London and I am British. The minute people here my British accent you can see their acceptance, followed by the swooning over the British accent. When they ask my heritage I explain my parents were born in Philippines and Mauritius (no one has any clue where Mauritius is).

    I spent a good 30yrs in London and never experienced any racial prejudice in my life. I’ve been in the US and experience it often.

    I am married to a British corcasian guy so our kids are complete mix. If my kids experience any racial prejudice I will quite frankly explode.

    The best gift I can give my kids is to travel as much as possible so they can experience different cultures and landscapes. FYI I am talking beyond the carribean. The second best gift is teach them respect, good manners and to always believe in what is right. Kids learn a lot from their parents. I do feel sometimes when people move from a city to the burbs they lose their tenacity and small town mindedness kicks in.

    I applaud Kelly Powers and I see a bright future for this girl!

    • ” I do feel sometimes when people move from a city to the burbs they lose their tenacity and small town mindedness kicks in”.

  3. Rob Simmelkjaer

    I think this is an excellent piece. I’ve heard other students of color at Staples say very similar things. It’s not surprising that the author would employ mechanisms to ensure she remained part if the “us” and not the “them” on issues of race.

    I think the most important point here is that prejudice isn’t binary – it’s a spectrum. We all suffer from implicit biases. The first thing we must do is recognize them.

  4. Dear Kelly,
    Growing up in NYC waiting for a light to change to cross the street, I heard at least a dozen languages spoken around me by people of all colors. It’s there I came to understand the essence of prejudice; When one judges others as above or beneath themselves. When you identify someone as different, for any reason,you chose if you are better or worse. In NYC that was harder to do. I also learned that it is based in fear. When you decide someone is different that allows you judge them and become fearful of what you don’t know. I believe all to often people make choices based on what they fear not what they want. Prejudice is also often passed on by those that raise us as we learn from them their perceived world view (mostly from what they fear). It seems to me the basis of all wars and acts of violence against others is based on being able to dehumanize another person by prejudice. Thank you for your thoughtful explanation of how you managed to navigate a very difficult mono-culture here in Westport. You change the world one person at a time. We all belong to one race; Humanity. We are all the same and everyone deserves to be respected as a human being first and foremost. It requires a daily vigilence of our own words and actions toward others. I too grew up in two worlds even as a Caucasian who learned to speak English by watching TV…. LOL
    Peace.

  5. Really excellent post, the insights and writing style, (anyone who thinks its muddled just isn’t comfortable keeping up with the inherent complexity of the topic). She shows a More sophisticated understanding of the issues that = ‘prejudice’ in ‘most developed’ societies than most popular media today do. (Susan Farley)

  6. Gary Dwor-Frecaut

    Mille mercis – sent it on to Kim

    Gary

    >

  7. Whitney Andrews

    If you feel that this piece is confusing, entertain the thought that maybe you are in denial (and probably not a minority). I am black, I grew up in Westport- this piece is honest and well said. I know first hand the racism that is woven into the fabric of this community, it’s the sort of racism that is mormalized. But it is not something I choose to accept. There are many sub cultures within Staples and even within the most seemingly accepting cultures, there is inherent racism. Entertain this as a fact before you reject it as an unfair cristicism of a place you hold on a pedestal.

    • MR. Andrews,
      My comment began by acknowledging the last 4 paragraphs(which, perhaps you should re-read if you’ve already read the whole article) as the take away from the article.
      My point, and I’ll cop to being at fault, is that I found the article convoluted and confused both in the writing and, more important, in just who is the discriminator.
      I do not hold Westport on a pedestal and I surely do not deny that many Westporters, myself included, hold untenable prejudices.

  8. A remarkably honest and open piece of writing and observation. I hope we can all accept the feelings expressed and resist the urge to post defensive comments. Regardless of how any of us may behave we need to be aware of how others experience the world. I’m white, I’m male, I’ve lived in the nicer parts of the US my entire life, I attended an Ivy League school. There’s no question that I am privileged but that observation is only possible because I haven’t spent my life envying those who appeared to have it better, I’ve tried to be aware of how much luckier I am than so many others.

    • Dayle Brownstein

      I found this essay to be honest and illuminating. If there is anything “muddled and confusing” about it, it is because it is a muddled and confusing subject. I agree with the person who said that one of the most important take aways is that racism isn’t binary, it is a spectrum. I know many young people in Westport, and most of them are caring and interested in being open and tolerant, but they are as much “victims” of their particular circumstances and experiences as anyone else. As usual it comes down to education. I can see no better way to educate than to hear from someone, like Kelly, who has the experience of being in one world – but sometimes seen as an outsider. Of course the other side of education is being willing to listen. This piece made me think a lot and I really appreciate Kelly’s honesty and courage. It is of utmost importance, especially today, to keep this conversation alive.

  9. Totally agree that it’s the topic that is muddled, not this beautifully written and thoughtful message.

    I have 2 bi-racial children that were born and initially raised in NYC before moving to Wspt. They are young and may not fully comprehend how Kelly described her experiences, but I ant wait to share and discuss it with them. Thanks Kelly!

  10. WOW! Fantastic piece Kelly Powers! Thank you for sharing!!

  11. I was sent this letter by a family friend, My daughter never mentioned she wrote this. I am Kelly’s dad, and honestly we had a few conversations over the years about skin color, and I knew she felt a bit like an outsider. But she also had some great friends and support along the way. But as we all know you are alone at certain times and not surrounded by your support team. That’s when things happened that she spoke about,some name calling and looks and the fact is that she was more of an outsider.
    Now recalling some of our conversations, I realized through reading this letter it wasn’t the easiest thing growing up in a predominately white privileged town for a young girl of color. However I do know that she did have an advantage, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Even recently I said to her keep your eyes on. some people hate you just because of your color. stay alert to whats going on around you especially in this political climate.
    Looking back on the whole experience, she still had more opportunity through education and a better shot out of the gate. I would always say to my daughter even from fifth grade all the way through 12th grade. Education is power, Power is money, Money is freedom. Freedom to do what you choose in life to be gratifying and fulfilling. Kelly is a young woman who wants to help people, She loves to nurture and teach. She is a good sole and I’m proud of her for writing this letter, and I support her on her journey. Love…. dad !

  12. Kelly,
    What an amazing, honest and excellent piece. I admire you for your courage to write about a controversial and very complex subject (which I think you did eloquently, btw, and not at all in a confused or confusing way – from the first paragraph to the last) I am most impressed by your courage to be equally honest about your own response to and role in prejudice behavior. In that way, you have highlighted the complexity and expressed so clearly how any of us can be alternately on both sides of an issue, can flip-flop according to circumstances, fear, etc – can be both victims and perpetrators. It makes so clear how necessary it is for all of us to heighten our self-awareness, do all we can to truly empathize with those around us and stay vigilant to the source & intent behind our actions and their effect on others.

    Thank you for sharing your insights…

  13. Abby Gordon-Tolan

    Thank you Kelly for your articulate and honest piece.

  14. “The Staples environment is filled with racism.”

    This statement floored me. I hope that Ms. Powers can provide a more examples of why she feels the Staples environment is “filled with racism.” Was she referring to the students only? Did she experience racism with respect to the teachers as well?

    I applaud Ms. Powers for speaking up, but I feel that her broad-brush description of the Staples environment as being filled with racism was unfair as she did not provide details other than the comments made about her hair, the assumption that she is from Bridgeport, and the assumption that she must have been adopted because her father is Caucasian. Is it because a large number of students made these assumptions about her that Ms. Powers describes Staples as “filled with racism”?

    • As someone who is writing about her own experience as a bi-racial person growing up in this town, her perspective is already valid – without having to prove it to anyone. (Also, I’m curious how many examples would have been required for you to feel this was “fair”? How many comments or other incidences does it take to equal real racism? Unfortunately, the need to prove one’s experience has been used historically to deny the existence of many kinds of oppression. From my perspective, what she cited and discussed was plenty.) Also, given the tone of her piece, making a laundry list of grievances would have been off the mark. Rather than accusatory, it seemed much more nuanced than a girl trying to make accusations against her town. She was speaking of intentional and unintentional racism and everyone’s role in it, including her own. I agree with Peter – rather than be defensive, we should take this as an opportunity to reflect.

      • Racism exists in Westport and all over our country at the individual level. The difference here is that Ms. Powers described a school of nearly 1,900 children as “filled with racism.” Her father commented in this post how he recently discussed with his daughter: “Some people hate you just because of your color.”

        Did Ms. Powers encounter students at Staples who hated her because of her skin color? If so, did she discuss her experiences with Staples administration, and what was the response? What would she suggest the Staples administration could do to reduce or eradicate the racism she encountered at Staples?

  15. Peter von Euler

    I’m grateful to have known Kelly in the early stage of her Westport experience, when she was adjusting as well as asserting her individuality. I’m also proud to see what a thoughtful person she’s become. I think she’s right to be pointing out what it’s like to feel like you’re among the fringes in any community. This doesn’t seem to be damning Westport, just describing the experience and challenging us to talk about race…and other topics.

  16. Amazing Kelly. Amazing family, extended and otherwise. With love, admiration, respect and awe — from totally biased would-be-other mom

  17. What an inspiring and mature point of view for such a young person.