Tonight, TEAM Westport announced the winners of their 4th annual essay contest. Local students in grades 9-12 were asked to reflect on what white privilege means to them.
Here are the top 3 essays:
The Colors of Privilege – First place, Chet Ellis (Staples High School sophomore)
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 never did 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 as indicative 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.
I see my fifth grade envy mirrored in my classmates’ jealousy of how fast I can run or how high I can jump. I know my classmates know about the deep social issues African Americans have had to face and are still facing today, but in our peaceful bedroom community that struggle is not present on a day-to-day basis. 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. They don’t see that despite making up 12% of the population, we are 35% of jail inmates and 24% of people shot by the police.
Honestly, I never really thought much about white privilege until I moved to Westport. From a young age, I was taught that not everything is meant to be fair and to deal with it. 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? Now I see the need to speak out, to address white privilege when it happens, so that people know that it’s real despite their best intentions, like the girl in my class pointing out that despicable sign at the football game. We need to make sure there is an open discourse that includes a more diverse history and a sensitivity to each other. In our town it’s impossible to have three black students in every class, but maybe we should all imagine that they are there just the same, and that they will speak out.
White Privilege and Me — Josiah Tarrant (Staples High School junior)
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.
Assure me that other parents will not call him out for being “aggressive” when their sons are being just as intense on the soccer field, that his teachers will hold him to the same high standards to which they have held me and push him to reach his fullest academic potential.
Assure me that when Westport parents tell my mom that “he’ll have no problem getting into college,” my brother will know that these schools want him for his brilliance and talent and not his skin color. Assure me that these same adults will educate themselves on how challenging it is for most students of color to get into prestigious universities without strong public schools, alumni legacies, and financial resources for tutoring and college visits. Assure me that when police pull him over (statistically they will), the extra training my parents instill in him will keep him safe. Assure me that I will not have to watch my brother, or someone else’s brother who looks like mine, be the next tragic TV news story.
Until you can assure me of all of that, I will continue to educate myself and use my advantaged status to speak up. So, you ask how does white privilege affect me? How doesn’t it? My abundant white privilege motivates me to use it for good, but I also must do this so that my brother knows that wherever life takes him, I have his back. I vow to be right there alongside him as we together show the Westport community that white privilege is not a black issue, but an everyone issue.
The Privilege of Ignorance — Claire Dinshaw (Staples High School senior)
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.
In elementary school, I had no concept of race, and I certainly did not see myself as benefitting from any type of white privilege. Westport schools did not involve elementary schoolers in discussions of race, and adults had evidently decided that the history of American racism was not my problem. After all, why explain racism and white privilege to the little white girls and boys?
Partially as a result of this prolonged, privileged innocence, most Westport students, including myself, initially fail to see the ways white privilege has contributed to our success. We study for a test and receive an A; we apply to summer programs and gain admittance to one; we find a job and save money. To us, hard work is the cause of every success. What we fail to question is why the outcome of our hard work is always success. There is never a time when we study hours for a test only to have a hard time getting a ride to school the next morning, prepare for an interview only to get turned away because of prejudice, or work desperately hard only to consistently be the victim of racial profiling by law enforcement.
Many in Westport will ascribe this privilege of predictable success to wealth, not race. However, while it is true that all Westport residents enjoy the privilege of living in a safe community with highly rated public schools, non-white Westport residents still face barriers. 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; whereas I have been taught by countless white teachers, non-white Westport residents are forced to contend with the fact that, although research published in 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 in quite a while.
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.
Furthermore, the wealth privilege argument fails to consider the role that white privilege plays in someone’s ability to move to Westport. The societal impact of white privilege means white Americans are more likely to hold college degrees due to education inequality, less likely to go to jail for drug offenses due to a prejudice criminal justice system (even though white men, according to hospital records documented in 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.
To be clear, I am not blaming anyone for failing to recognize white privilege. It is a complex concept to grasp, especially in Westport, a town that is over 90 percent white. Growing up here, students like me rarely see the contrast between the way they are treated and the way non-white Americans are treated.
In fact, even as I conclude this essay, 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.
TEAM Westport finalists (from left) Josiah Tarrant, Claire Dinshaw and Chet Ellis, before reading their TEAM Westport essays.