When TEAM Westport announced this year’s essay contest topic — the personal impact of white privilege — a national uproar ensued.
The winning responses — announced tonight at the Westport Library — prove the point.
Honest, powerful, insightful, sensitive and clear, the top 3 essays — as judged by a panel of writers — tackle the hot topic exactly as it should be: head on.
And, noted TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey, this year’s winners had the option to be anonymous — perhaps to avoid backlash like that which engulfed the announcement of the 4th annual contest’s prompt.
All 3 chose to stand up tonight, read their essays, and use their names.
Out of a record number of entries, Chet Ellis won the $1,000 1st prize. The Staples High School sophomore describes the rare experience of being one of 3 African Americans in his US History class — and hearing a white student use the “n” word.
It took his breath away.
He writes about casual conversations with fellow track team members laced with stereotypes about black runners, and the assumptions he hears that it’s easier for African American students to get into college than white ones. He regrets not firing back: “Your parents are 3rd-generation Princeton and your father runs a hedge fund, and yet you think my ride is free?”
Chet says he never thought much about white privilege until he moved to Westport. Now, he realizes, “In our town it’s impossible to have 3 black students in every class. But maybe we should all imagine that they are there just the same, and that they will speak up.”
Josiah Tarrant, a Staples junior, took 2nd place. and a $750 prize. Though his younger brother is adopted from Ethiopia, Josiah grew up “surrounded by teachers, coaches, principals and doctors, all of whom looked like me.” The fact that he never even thought about that, Josiah says, epitomizes white privilege.
But as he heard about Trayvon Martin and read Ta-Nehisi Coates, he realized silence about race is not acceptable. Then, seeing the reaction to the TEAM Westport essay contest, he knew he had to take a stand.
“So this teenager who still has much to learn sat down to write,” Josiah says.
He writes that he wants his younger brother to walk down Main Street as freely as he himself does, and be held by his teachers to the same high standards as white students.
Until Josiah has those assurances, he says, he will use his “advantaged status” to speak up. White privilege, he concludes, is “not a black issue, but an everyone issue.”
Staples senior Claire Dinshaw’s 3rd-place essay, which won her $500, notes that in elementary school, race was never discussed.
Partly because of this “prolonged, privileged innocence,” she writes, most Westport students — including her — believe that their own hard work is the sole reason for their success.
Wealth has much to do with it, she says. So does being white.
Even as she concludes her essay, Claire writes, “I know I have failed to describe the ways white privilege has impacted my life. I know there are sources of privilege I have failed to recognize. The truth is I still do not fully understand the extent of my privilege, and that is something I have to work tirelessly to rectify.
“After all, being ignorant of my privilege is a privilege itself.”
(To read all 3 essays in their entirety, click here.)