Tag Archives: TEAM Westport

TEAM Westport Essay Winners Shine Diverse Lights On Micro-Aggressions

Chet Ellis is a perceptive observer of Westport, and the world.

He’s also a clear, incisive writer.

Two years ago, he won 1st place in TEAM Westport’s annual essay contest. The topic was “white privilege.” As a sophomore at Staples High School, he described being one of 3 African Americans in his US History class — and hearing a white student use the “n” word.

This year — now a Harvard University-bound senior — Chet once again won the $1,000 first prize. Winners were announced at a special ceremony last night.

The topic was “micro-aggressions.” His essay — “The Sound of Silence” — traces his journey in Westport, from “camouflage” in 7th grade to fit in, to an incident on his freshman soccer team that made him examine why he remained silent in the face of micro-aggressions (which actually sound quite macro).

Chet blames himself for not speaking up sooner. If he had, he wonders, who would have stood up with him?

Second place — and $750 — was won by Angela Ji. In “Ripping Off the Bandaid: Microaggressions and How We Address Them,” the Staples senior talks about her experience as a Chinese-American in Westport. She also talks about how we talk — or don’t talk — about these “finger pricks” that really do sting.

Daniel Boccardo won 3rd place (and $500) for “Cactus in a Rainforest.” The Staples senior has spent his life dealing with micro-aggressions based on others’ assumptions that because his parents are Venezuelan, he and his family must fit certain stereotypes.

Olivia Sarno captured honorable mention with her essay, “Deconstructing the Voice in My Head.” Part of the LGBT community, she wrote about the micro-aggressions that come from feeling invisible. There is a “little homophobic voice” in her head — but she realizes it’s not her own.

TEAM Westport is the townwide committee on diversity and inclusion. To read more about them, click here. To read the 4 winning essays, scroll down.

First Place: Chet Ellis

You have two choices being a black person in Westport, Connecticut. You either do your best to be invisible, or you embrace the fact that in every situation you will be the very noticeable splash of color.

By 7thgrade, I decided to hide in plain sight. I covered myself in rags from J. Crew and Vineyard Vines as camouflage, trying to show the people around me that I belonged. My disguise was perfect — or at least I thought it was until one micro-aggression after another reminded me how feeble my disguise really was.

“I’m blacker than you,=” was a revelation white students often stumbled upon after hearing that I had not yet listened to the new Lil Wayne album. While my pigment acted as a tangible disqualifier to their claims, they would continue on to describe me as “the whitest black person they know.” What they were really saying was that I didn’t fit the stereotypes they grew up on. Knowing the underlying sentiment behind their words, I could have confronted them.

Instead, time and time again I stood there, silent.

Anyone who knows me knows I love to argue. I would fervently defend my position on why the snickerdoodles in the cafeteria were better than the sugar cookies, but when asked for my take on affirmative action I would just mumble and change the subject.

Chet Ellis

I thought my silence was saving me, but I eventually came to realize that it only made me more of a magnet for microaggressions. My middle school math class could’ve been confused for a 1950’s comedy club, with everyone vying to tell the most tasteless, insensitive racial joke. I’d say the winner was one of my tablemates who came running into class one day grinning and out of breath. “I got a good one. How long does it take for a black woman to poop?” I held my breath. “Nine months!” he exclaimed, jittery from what he had thought was comedic gold. I simply flashed my teeth in his direction and tugged up on the corners of my mouth to form a plastic smirk. He had offended me to my core, and yet there I was feeling compelled to smile so as not to offend him.

I see now that every microaggression I let side in middle school opened the gates for more aggressive aggressions in high school. On the freshman soccer team, always under the guise of “jokes,” at least monthly something would sting. I remember one game my teammates used to play, “get that minority,” where they would chase and tackle me or the other brown kid. That it was un-politically correct was precisely their point. In their minds they weren’t racists, they were pretending to be racists. But to me, it was so surreal and wildly outdated, I could only imagine passersby thinking we were all performing some sort of grotesque historical reenactment. Of course, at the end of every practice, I’d just smile and say see you tomorrow.

Then, when my team took our photo, a teammate suggested I move to the center. At the time I didn’t get the joke, but apparently, it would be funny if the one black person was in the dead center of the photo. Persuaded by my teammates, I kneeled down and smiled. I hadn’t thought again about the picture until one of my friends came to me, visibly exhausted from laughter, and showed me an edit of the photo on his phone. One of our classmates had photoshopped Klan hoods on every one of my white teammates’ heads and kept me smiling away in the dead center. For a long moment, I forgot that I knew how to breathe. I looked at my friend, who was looking back at me to see if I’d continue to be a good sport. It took me a moment, but once again, I pulled out the old plastic smirk.

But by the time I got home, I knew that I’d had enough. I started researching why it was so hard for me to speak up and discovered a study on the interaction of “token” women in the workplace. In a 1977 research paper entitled “Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life,” author and Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Kanter studied the lone women in otherwise all-male workplaces, but her research also seemed to apply to me. Kanter wrote, “If tokens collude, they make themselves psychological hostages of the majority group. For token women, the price of being one of the boys is a willingness to turn, occasionally, against the girls. The token woman, in other words, is required to sell out her own kind.”

These words rang in my head. “Had I sold out my own race in an effort to fit in?” By not speaking out at the microaggressions early and often, was it my fault that I experienced an escalation of egregious racial incidents? If my teammates had not known that I would stay silent and instead defend myself and my race, perhaps they would never have dared flaunt a “joke” so.

I’ve come to realize that racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas are like weeds that need to be yanked out at their inception. As soon as you see them poke through the ground, it is our responsibility to pull up each and every one from the root. Left unaddressed, these toxic ideas and sentiments blossom into vast fields of hate and bigotry. I don’t blame myself for being racially targeted. However, I do blame myself for not speaking out. If I could have found the strength to stand up back in middle school, who knows who would have stood up with me?

Second Place: Angela Ji

Microaggressions are a bit like finger pricks. While they do not leave as large a mess as a sword wound in the form of Jim Crow laws or Japanese internment would, they are enough to make you wince. Some people are more sensitive to finger pricks than others, but we all bandage ourselves up afterwards, ignoring the sting in our thumb.

Professor and author Derald Wing Sue describes microaggressions as everyday slights that target your identity’ as a member of a marginalized group. As a Chinese-American girl who has lived in Fairfield County for her entire life, I am no stranger to them. My first introduction to microaggressions was in elementary school, where a classmate pulled the corners of his eyes back and asked me how I could possibly see if my eyes were so small. I met microaggressions again in middle school when a friend asked me about the Japanese language because “Japanese, Chinese — they’re basically the same thing.” I still get finger pricks from time to time. When someone seems shocked at how American my name is. When someone claims that my gender is the reason I get into STEM programs. When a stranger this past February grabbed my arm, asked me where I’m from, and refused to let go unless I say that I’m from China because “Westport” did not cut it.

I remember these moments clearly, how my emotions — confusion, frustration, disbelief, anger —spilled out as a shaky “…thanks?” “…cool?” I remember how I was at a loss for words, how I smiled awkwardly and just nodded. And while I cannot speak for all marginalized voices, I know that many have experience doing the exact same thing. We feel the pressure to keep quiet and move on to avoid conflict, often internalizing any feelings of invisibility that arise.

There is disagreement among researchers over the physical and psychological toll of constant exposure to microaggressions, but it is hard to deny that daily reminders of your outsider status have lasting effects. Researchers describe them as diminished self-esteem and impaired performance, to name a few. I think of them as the times I wished my hair, eyes, and skin were a different color so that nobody would question my nationality, the times I refused to bring lunch to school after someone laughed at my dumplings in kindergarten, the times I wanted absolutely nothing to do with my heritage.

Angela Ji

But I’d like to talk about the way we talk about microaggressions. Too often, we do not know how to address them, so we refuse to acknowledge their presence, which sends a message that one’s experiences are invalid and creates an even greater gap between groups; this hinders positive discussion of topics like racial issues, gender inequalities, and religious discrimination. Our approach to those on the receiving end of microaggressions should not be “get over it” but rather “what can we do?” Simultaneously, it is futile to condemn someone for inadvertently delivering a microaggression. Nobody will ever accurately gauge the sensitivities of others or make the perfect remark, and every single one of us reading this essay, whether we want to admit it or not, has delivered microaggressions at some point.

Because, microaggressions are a complicated topic; at the barest level, they are intangible expressions arising from societal constructs that straddle the line between offense and ignorance, and they will always exist. The question should not ask how we should eliminate them from our speech, which is both impractical and impossible — how do you control words, thoughts, expressions without turning into an Orwellian dystopia? — but rather how we can react to them and lessen their impact on individuals. We need to be willing to have open discussions; for this multifaceted issue, the responsibility does not depend on one person. All of us, as recipients, initiators, and witnesses must be willing to understand the circumstances surrounding these comments, explain our perspectives, and adapt our speech.

Take the “Where are you from?” incident from February. I described the man as “racist,” but perhaps “misinformed” would have been a more apt description. He grew up when the population of Asians in America was less than 1 percent. And, if he was from the New York area as he said, many of the Asians he came into contact with would have been immigrants rather than the second generation. Perhaps, under friendlier circumstances, I could have explained to him that his question was flawed rather than cut him off completely, or told him why his insistence on a response containing an Asian country did not sit well with me.

And while we should not denounce people before discussing, that does not mean he is not responsible for his words; he, like many others who have also asked me this question, could have corrected himself with, “Where are your ancestors from?” upon realizing that I was not giving the desired answer. Without fully understanding the experiences of others, we need to realize that we are bound to ask wrong questions. It is important that we are willing to adjust our speech and learn through talking to others.

Fostering an open discourse is not just limited to individuals, however. It is crucial that administrators and teachers promote direct exposure in our education to encourage cultural awareness and tolerance in our students so that they are prepared for informed conversations in the future, especially in a school district that is 90% white. We can follow California’s footsteps and advocate for policies that incorporate LGBTQ-inclusive history textbooks into our curriculum. Or we can encourage teachers to hold classwide discussions about racism earlier on in our education — my first one was this past November in AP English Literature, many years too late.

We are far from being a spotless society, and it is going to take a multitude of ideas and trials to lessen the long-lasting impacts of inequality. We’ve ripped off the Bandaid. Now, let’s ease the throbbing in our fingers.

Third Place: Daniel Boccardo

“Where are you from?” For me, that question is complicated. My parents were born and raised in Venezuela; I was born in New York. When asked, I naturally respond with, “‘I’m from New York.” To which the person asking the question looks at my brown face and asks, “But, where are you really from?” I then respond, “Venezuela. ” This usually elicits a strong reation from family members who actually did live in Venezuela. They claim I’m not truly Venezuelan and call me what they think I am, a gringo. So if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure where I’m from.

I’ve lived my whole life not really caring where I’m from, figuring I’m me and who cares where I was born? But today I realize my heritage matters more to society than I thought; we live in an “us vs. them” world. Clearly, I get asked where I’m from so the questioner can figure out whether I’m part of their “us” or their “them.” This is particularly divisive when the leader of the free world publicly espouses that “us” and “them” need to be separated by a wall because “them” are raping and murdering “us.”

The challenges associated with being the child of Venezuelan parents living in NY began early. I attended public school while being raised by parents who knew little English. My mother taught Inc the only language she knew at the time, Spanish. Not knowing English led to many difficulties in school. Teachers didn’t know what to do with me because I was so quiet and didn’t read or speak like the other kids. This led co my parents being called in frequently to meetings which they couldn’t really understand because they only knew a little English. In one of these meetings, my kindergarten teacher asked about my parents’ heritage. When learning that they were Venezuelan and spoke Spanish, she proceeded to ask what dialect they spoke. This suggested that my own teacher knew nothing about Spanish or how to communicate with me, as Spanish doesn’t have dialects. Spanish is Spanish, it doesn’t matter where you go.

From there, I was sent to every special ed, reading and ESOL class imaginable. I was evaluated by various professionals; somehow, my public school diagnosed me as having ADHD with mild autism. They obviously got their “diagnosis” wrong because I had neither of those things; I just didn’t speak English. Not knowing English was treated like a disease needing to be cured. I was beaten over the head with English and forced to redo kindergarten.

Daniel Boccardo

As a high achieving senior in high school, I’m one year older than most of my classmates and I obviously don’t face the same obstacles I faced as a young boy. But there are some things that I have to contend with which others don’t. Being asked questions like, “Do you people celebrate Thanksgiving?” when I’ve lived in the United States my whole life really affects me. It’s not a sharp pain, but a reminder of how I don’t seem to belong. There’s a disconnect between me, my community and the broader society. It sometimes feels as though I’m a cactus grown in a rainforest where cactus don’t belong.

I fut this most deeply just recently when I was in the throes of applying to college. I was handed an article by my guidance counselor about how to fill out the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student [Financial] Aid) documents when your parents are illegal aliens. A person in a position of influence and authority in my high school just assumed my parents were illegal immigrants, criminals. The new Al Qaeda to many Americans. I’m not illegal, and neither are my parents, and today, we speak Spanish and English equally well.

Unfortunately, I am not alone in my struggles. There are countless Hispanics with parents who were born and raised in different countries who sometimes feel as though they are the enemy and have no place in America. These feelings stem from microaggressions perpetrated by people who didn’t necessarily have terrible intentions. I believe that most people have their heart in the right place and their messages come from a place of misunderstanding rather than intentional hate.

In our town, there are many things we can do to combat this misunderstanding, starting with parenting. Children aren’t born with a particular view of other people and have no sense of what makes us different. Learning tolerance, empathy and love for all people is crucial. Parents also need to instill a sense of community, reminding children that no matter their skin color or looks, we are all just people who want to make the best of ourselves and our community.

Educators can also help by teaching children to look for similarities and rather than differences. Tear down walls, rather than try to bully Mexico into paying for one. Look at people as not black, white or brown but instead as part of “us.” They need to be particularly attentive to my first generation brothers and sisters and my ESOL cousins. For they are as much a part of “us” as Westporters are to each other.

The words of government officials in office may not change, but the voices of our new generation can. Young and progressive voices like that of State Senator Will Haskell need to demonstrate that there is a place in America for everybody. Their words, actions and policies, messages of inclusion, fairness and empathy could be seen and heard through all the news media of today. This will, over time, help to build a stronger sense of belonging in Westport where we can look beyond skin color, accents and clothing and merely see each other as fellow Westporters — members of a community that hopefully can be an example of what America is at its best.

Honorable Mention: Olivia Sarno

We live in a society that trains us to be heterosexual in every way possible — from advertisements and billboards, to movies and children’s books. Each person is given an invisible manual at birth that says “this is who you are allowed to be.” The rules in this manual do not lie only in the immense heteronormativity woven into our world, but in the micro-aggressions surrounding us on a daily basis.

Internalized homophobia has always been a voice in my head, warning me that a compliment to a female friend might make me look predatory or that I should dress in the most feminine clothing possible. However, it took me until I was past opening up about my sexuality to recognize not only that these voices in my head existed, but how wrong they were and where they stemmed from.

After coming out to friends and family, they had almost all been extremely supportive, even if it took time to adjust. All of my crippling fears, fears that every LGBT person has before coming out– that my friends would leave me, that I would have to sit alone at lunch, or that  my family wouldn’t love me — turned out to be irrational. So what did I have to be ashamed of?

I saw all of this support laid out in front of me, reassuring me that my future would be okay, yet still felt my insides chum every time I uttered the words, “I’m gay,” or “I like girls,” as if someone was watching me disobey this all-telling manual. That’s the thing about shame — it isn’t a switch you can flip after you realize everyone is actually on your side. Instead, it accumulates over time, and like hatred, it is ingrained and acquired. The problem is, when I try pinpointing a singular moment where all of this shame started, I can’t; for it was not the result of one horrific event, but rather a build-up of the micro-aggressions I’d heard throughout my entire life.

Olivia Sarno

Maybe it’s the subtlety of micro-aggressions that make them so impactful – like the hopeful, “do you think you’ll ever like men?” questions I’ve received from friends, genuinely thinking they were being helpful. Then again, not all micro-aggressions are so subtle; and the worst that I’ve heard come from the time before I came out, where I could hide behind the safety of the fact that straightness was the default assumption of me. For example, I know the girl from my bunk at camp would never have said she would commit suicide if she “woke up to one day be a lesbian,” had she known that I was gay. I know a friend in eighth grade would not have accused a “tomboy” of creepily watching her change for gym, if she knew this either. I know my health teacher in middle school wouldn’t have brushed off the “how do lesbians have sex?” question as inappropriate had she considered how that would make LGBT students feel. But since these moments are fragments of a broad, collective issue, these people did not understand the significance behind their words; and I understand this.

There are times when I, too, have said harmful, unintentional words, glued to the pedestal of my own white privilege — but these are times I can only vaguely remember. This is the very problem with micro-aggressions — they are not universally detrimental, only harming the marginalized groups they target, while the person delivering the micro-aggression will probably forget what they said at all. Most often, micro-aggressions are inadvertent, and although their impact cannot be erased with a simple “I’m sorry,” we need to learn to be conscious of our actions and unafraid to apologize, even if that doesn’t solve the entire issue.

However, it is also undeniable that aside from curiosity or a casual slip of the tongue, there are occasions where micro-aggressions are intentionally hateful, not driven by ignorance, but by judgment or prejudice. For example, I know the boys I heard calling each other “fag” in the hallway know better; I know my straight classmate who jests she is a “dyke” because she wears sports logowear knows better, and I know the girl who said she would kill herself if she were gay knew better. The issue here is not an innocent lapse in judgment that we are all guilty of at some point or another, but the fact that we are not educated on LGBT issues in school, at home, or by media.

In elementary school we studied Keith Haring, but didn’t learn about his pieces protesting AIDS. In middle school we spent months covering protests and movements, but never once touched on the Stonewall Rebellion. In Spanish class, when we read works by Federico Garcia Lorca we don’t talk about his queerness during a time of fascism. A rich, beautiful history is lying between the lines of our own textbooks, our own papers, yet homosexuality is never embraced or even represented. Perhaps our curriculum is micro-aggressive in itself, full of minute notions and nuances telling us to silence the parts of ourselves society finds taboo.

Education is one of the few institutions that has the power expose children to diverse perspectives. We can’t let school be another rule maker in the manual of who we are allowed to be.

Today at 16 I am proud of who I am, but there are times I still feel ashamed. I have come to realize that this little homophobic voice in my head is not my own– but the echo of countless times I have heard my identity be associated with something dirty, strange or abnormal. As a society, we need to fight back against microaggressions, whether this means confronting friends about the language they use, being aware of our own language, or making sure all stories are told. Until we learn to stop forcing certain identities into shadows and embrace our differences, even if we are uncomfortable talking about them, the world is not going to change.

TEAM Westport Teen Essay Contest Targets Micro-Aggressions

You might not see it in Westport. But the US is fast moving toward becoming a “minority majority” nation. The Census Bureau says that Americans identifying as “white” only will be in the minority by 2042. Since 2014, most students in this country are part of the formerly minority “of color.”

Meanwhile, the number of racial, religious, ethnic and gender identity bias incidents is increasing.

That’s the background for this year’s TEAM Westport Teen Essay Contest. The town’s diversity committee — in conjunction with the Westport Library — asks students to explore the concept of micro-aggressions towards marginalized groups.

This prompt says:

As defined by Derald Wing Sue,micro-aggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults — whether intentional or unintentional — that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their membership in marginalized groups.” 

 For example, an African American is told, “When I look at you, I don’t see color.” An Asian-American — born and raised in this country – is told, “You speak very good English.” A person of color accepted at an Ivy League school is told, “You must be grateful for affirmative action.” 

In 1000 words or fewer, describe your experiences witnessing, delivering, and/or receiving micro-aggressions focused on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and describe the likely impact that such statements have upon the recipients. Consider steps that you believe organizations, schools, and/or individuals could take to greatly reduce or eliminate such behavior. In particular, what can students do to address incidents of micro-aggressions when they occur — whether as initiator, recipient or witness?

The contest is open to students in grades 9 through 12 who attend Staples High or another school in Westport, or reside in Westport and attend school elsewhere.

 

Applications and more information about the contest are available here. Essays are due February 28. Winners will be announced at the Saugatuck Church on April 3. Subject to the volume and caliber of entries received, and the discretion of the judges, up to 3 prizes will be awarded: $1,000 (first place), $750 (second) and $500 (third).

Individuals or organizations who would like to help sponsor the contest can contribute via the website, or by emailing info@teamwestport.org.

Take A Knee? Staples Students Take A Stand.

TEAM Westport’s annual essay contest deals with heavy issues. In past years, the town’s multi-cultural commission has asked teenagers to weigh in on topics like white privilege and the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

This year’s subject blended race, sports and society.

The prompt referenced professional athletes who have “taken a knee” during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to bring attention to — and protest — ongoing bias and discriminatory practices in American society in general, and by law enforcement officers in particular.

In 1,000 words or fewer, Westport students were asked to describe their understanding of what it means to be a patriot, and what forms of protest against discriminatory laws, customs, or patterns of behavior you would consider legitimate.

The winners were announced last night, at the Westport Library. Their answers show that patriotism is a complex subject. It can be defined in many ways.

But it’s also a subject that our teenagers think deeply about. And they express themselves strongly, clearly and passionately about it.

Essay contest winner Henry Carter with (from left) Westport Library director Bill Harmer, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

Staples High School senior Henry Carter won 1st place — and a $1,000 prize — for  his sophisticated, even-handed analysis of both sides of the “take a knee” controversy.

Then he went a step further. Though he believes that athletes who took a knee acted patriotically, he thinks that’s the wrong question to ask. He wants to know why the focus is on those athletes’ actions, and not on the issues they are protesting like “racial inequality and police brutality.”

Second place (and $750) winner Melanie Lust — a Staples junior — gave several diverse examples of what she envisions patriotism to be. That’s why, she says, she stands every morning for the Pledge of Allegiance.

But, she adds, she cannot be a hypocrite. Any patriot knows that “the only truly unpatriotic act is one that hinders the freedoms and rights of others.” Anyone who tries to stifle athletes’ freedom of expression is acting unpatriotically. So, she says, the protesters are the true patriots.

TEAM Westport essay finalsits (from left) Rachel suggs, Sophie Driscoll, Henry Carter and Melanie Lust.

Staples junior Sophie Driscoll (3rd place, $500) also called the “take a knee” athletes patriotic. She draws parallels between the current movement and others in American history, like the Revolutionary War, women’s suffrage and civil rights.

Staples freshman Rachel Suggs took the first-ever honorable mention. Her essay weaves her ancestry — on her father’s side, she’s a direct descendant of an earl who helped finance the Mayflower; her mother immigrated to the US from South Africa to escape the oppression of apartheid — with her arguments about the true meaning of patriotism.

There are many ways to be a patriot — and many ways to craft a cogent essay about this important subject. You can read 4 of the best below.


1st Place: The Ill-Considered Nature of Our Discussion of Patriotism
Henry Carter (Staples High School senior)

Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem in August of 2016 understandably effectuated impassioned responses around the nation and reinvigorated the debate around racial inequality and police brutality in the United States. Though harsh invectives from right-wing pundits and politicians and praise from their left-wing counterparts reflected the deep cultural divisions emerging in the months before the presidential election, Kaepernick’s actions seemed at the time to be a possible turning point in race relations, compounded by momentum from the climax of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015.

The national discourse that followed, however, was disappointing. What I, like many others, had perceived as a crucible for change fell into a recognizable pattern of political maneuvering which went frustratingly unnoticed and unchallenged by prominent activists against racial inequality and police brutality. The agenda set by GOP leaders maintained that these athletes would be judged solely by their fealty to American institutions that had oppressed them for hundreds of years, a dangerously misguided standard that not only denied their experiences as black people in the United States but distracted from the issues they were protesting in the first place. This faulty premise was implicitly accepted by proponents of the

#takeaknee movement in their misplaced efforts to authenticate the “patriotism” of protesting athletes, facilitating a discussion that has been ultimately counterproductive and oblivious to the reality of African Americans in today’s society.

Henry Carter

Since Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee, social media has been flooded with images such as the one retweeted by President Trump in January: a widow grieving at a military graveyard, with the caption “THIS IS WHY WE STAND.” This image and the hundreds of others like it disseminated around the internet capture the focal point of outrage from conservative leaders: the belief that the athletes who chose to kneel during the national anthem demonstrated serious disrespect for veterans and those currently serving in the military.

Though this sentiment is understandable, its logic is flawed. The military is, in the symbolic sense, inextricable from the country it fights for. In this way, any protest against a nation’s symbol, such as the Star-Spangled Banner, can be misconstrued as expressing disdain for those who sacrifice themselves for the safety of civilians. GOP leaders have taken advantage of this fact to center the national dialogue around the disrespect of veterans and invoke outrage from earnest Americans who deeply care about members of the military. This has allowed politicians to not only divert attention from the reasons for protest, but advance their own careers by equating their condemnation of protests to support for the military.

The liberal counter to this conservative judgement of protesting athletes has been a naive attempt to prove the patriotism of athletes. While this may seem like a worthy goal in the ongoing debate over taking a knee, it accepts the flawed premise that black athletes must demonstrate patriotism towards a nation that has denied them civil rights and liberties since its inception, misaligning proponents of taking a knee with the original intentions of these athletes and further distracting from the true issues at hand. The athletes who take a knee are not protesting institutions that exist within the United States; they are protesting fundamentally American institutions.

The unfortunate truth is that our country was built off the backs of slaves, and this legacy has continued throughout American history. Prosperity in the United States has always been dependant upon the disenfranchisement of black people. Thus, while it may be well-intentioned, by trying to authenticate the patriotism of black athletes, proponents of the protests endorse the mistaken belief that these athletes should be judged by such a standard. As the systematic decimation of black families and communities has been an integral part of the formation and destiny of the United States, it makes little sense to define black athletes by their “vigorous support for [their] country” (as patriotism is defined by the dictionary). Not to mention, those on the left who have argued for the patriotism of protesters have also exacerbated the diversion of attention by GOP leaders from the issues being protested, further stagnating progressive dialogue on these issues.

Though I do believe the athletes who have taken a knee acted patriotically, I also believe that’s the wrong question to ask. From slavery to convict leasing to Jim Crow to housing segregation to mass incarceration, the marginalization of African Americans has been interwoven into the fabric of our nation, and it is unfair and ignorant to measure their actions by their “vigorous support” for the United States. Unfortunately, our discourse now hinges on this point and it has critically shifted the conscience of the American public away from the pressing issues being protested, such as racial inequality and police brutality.

There is a reason our founding fathers did not make free speech protected by the first amendment conditional on the fact of it being patriotic. To do so would not only hinder progress in the U.S. but create an autocratic regime in which free speech would cease to exist at all. Why then, is the focus of journalistic endeavors on both the right and the left to debate the extent to which taking a knee during the national anthem is patriotic?

What began as a promising opportunity to address racial inequality in our nation has devolved into public reckoning on the character of protesters, the result of clever political maneuvering on the right and ignorance on the left. Hopefully, moving into the future, we will consider prioritize the validity of speech over its loyalty to current institutions and paradigms, such that we will be able to create a society in which everyone is ensured life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


2nd Place: The Patriotism of Protest
Melanie Lust (Staples High School junior)

When I look at the American flag, I see a set of principles.

I see perhaps the most complex and unique history in the world. I see a small group of refugees, relentlessly persecuted by their own government, taking the ultimate risk and fleeing to an unknown land, somehow birthing a three-hundred year empire.

I see struggle. I see the first colonies during their first winter on the brink of collapse. I see eventual omnipresent British control. I see a bloody conflict for freedom, and only in its most pure and uncompromised form.

I see a rich and beautiful culture, native to the North American territory, slaughtered until it dwindled nearly out of existence.

But there is also triumph — the survival and sustainability of Jamestown, expansion into thirteen colonies, increasing establishment of more and more self-governing institutions to combat British oppression, and Washington’s climactic victory at Yorktown that won us the Revolutionary War.

I see togetherness and strength in the interminable battle for equality and stories of those who have never known peace. I see a nation slowly learning that acceptance should not only be mandated by law, but exalted morally and universally.

I see the bold red of hardship and valour, the plain white of candor, and an ever-changing constellation sewn into the deep blue field of vigilance and justice.

Melanie Lust

And what I see, more than anything, is a set of values designed to counter tyranny. Our American identity took centuries to develop, and it came first from immigrants, then from those bound by the crude chains of British oppression, then from the Founding Fathers who strove to create a society in which tyranny can never prevail again.

America is unique because its identity was not born from borders or geography or ethnic circumstance. There is no American ethnicity. To be an American, one needs only to believe in one principle: absolute liberty and justice for all.

This is what the American flag means to me, and this is why, each morning, I stand and recite the pledge. I have a profound respect for our history and values, and this is what makes me a patriot.

But any person who refers to themselves as a patriot — especially any person who passionately admires the Constitution, as I do — knows that the only truly unpatriotic act is one that hinders the freedoms and rights of others.

The right to protest and free speech is clearly detailed in the Constitution’s first amendment. The football players who choose to act on these basic rights are honoring the Constitution in the most explicit manner possible. By virtue of living in a country such as ours, a nation designed since its birth to contradict all facets of fascism, the mere act of speaking freely and protesting, no matter what the context, is patriotic.

The natural exceptions for acceptable forms of protest are any that prohibit other citizens from their ability to exercise their rights. But kneeling on a field does harm to no one; nor does burning an American flag, nor does sitting down during the pledge of allegiance, nor does wearing a black band on your arm to resist American involvement in Vietnam. Looting stores and rioting in the streets is one thing; generating discussion around controversy is another.

The cause of the protest has little to do with the protest’s legitimacy. As long as no harm is done and the freedom of others is not infringed upon, the protest is legitimate. The simple brilliance of kneeling during the national anthem is that it does nothing except draw much-needed attention to the prevalent issue of racial discrimination, and it raises awareness for a broad spectrum of racial problems in our society.

Racism is an issue that affects almost every person living in our country, but is rarely talked about, and even more rarely addressed in a manner conducive to change. While I personally believe that the national anthem and flag are not representative of our modern society or racism, individuals should still have the right to manipulate the occasion of their reverence for protest.

And so, no matter how much protest of the flag conflicts with my personal values, I am in no place to criticize the football players who take a knee on national television to bring attention to the cause they believe in most. No matter how much I disagree with these protesters’ interpretation of our nation’s ideals, I would be a hypocrite to disregard their basic right to thought and expression.

The primary guiding principle of our democracy, and thus the guiding principle of American history, is exertion of individual freedom that does not inhibit the individual freedoms of others. Just as protesters have the right to silently and effectively engage a global audience about modern discrimination and racism, critics from coaches to the President are allowed to voice opinions about the topic at hand and their means of protest. However, restrictive, non-verbal criticism — such as a mandate from the federal government prohibiting football players from kneeling — is unconstitutional.

Censoring opinions that have no physical, palpable impact on anyone is a step towards fascism. The Founding Fathers explicitly designed our nation to contradict all political instruments that would advance authoritarianism. The fact that protesters are able to express their opinions without censorship is an exact result of this design, and it perfectly encapsulates the beauty of a democratic society.

The struggle, the separation, the ceaseless and bloody wars for freedom, the oppression and liberation, all led up to the nation we know now. In fact, protest against any cause at all should be viewed as a blessing , not disrespect for the nature of our country. A protester is a perfect model of the Constitution’s vision; he/she is openly speaking his or her mind, in effect contradicting fascism; he/she is following in the steps of the protesters that created our country to begin with; he/she is a true patriot.


3rd Place: Patriots Exercise and Defend Essential Freedoms
Sophie Driscoll (Staples High School junior)

True patriots demonstrate love for their country by exercising and protecting its core principles, even in the face of personal risks. Thus, the participants of the “take a knee” movement are patriots.

The “take a knee” movement was launched in 2016 by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in response to numerous fatal shootings of African Americans by police officers. According to data collected by The Guardian, 266 black Americans were killed by police in 2016, with black males aged 15-34 nine times more likely to be killed by police than any other demographic. Initially, Kaepernick sat during the national anthem before an NFL game. When questioned by reporters, he explained that he was sitting to protest racial discrimination by police officers.

After former Green Beret and Seahawks player Nate Boyer told Kaepernick that it would be more respectful to those in the military to kneel rather than sit during the anthem, Kaepernick began to “”take a knee”,” i.e. kneel silently, during the national anthem. Since then, other athletes in the NFL and elsewhere have similarly taken a knee in protest of racial inequality. By leading this movement, Kaepernick has used his platform as a professional athlete to speak for the voiceless.

The “take a knee” movement should be categorized with the American Revolution, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement and other iconic protest movements as the quintessence of American patriotism. Like the “take a knee” movement, most of the protest movements that fostered important social change in this country were criticized in their day but are now thought of as a reflection of our most important values.

For example, a 1966 Gallup poll indicates that at that time nearly two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable view of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, today, he is a revered civil rights hero honored with a national holiday. Similarly, although some people criticize Kaepernick’s protests against racial discrimination, it is likely that he will be more widely respected as a patriot in the future. Both the civil rights movement and the “take a knee” movement have exercised freedom of expression for the purpose of casting light on problems of racial discrimination that have plagued our nation throughout its history.

Sophie Driscoll

Critics of the “take a knee” movement contend that it is unpatriotic because it disrespects the military. This is based on the erroneous idea that the flag is inextricably linked with the military and a refusal to stand for the anthem is essentially a criticism of the military.

This argument misses the mark. The flag and the national anthem are not symbols of the military exclusively. Moreover, the brave men and women who have fought and died for this country have done so in order to preserve our values and freedoms. It would undermine those values and freedoms to muzzle Americans who peacefully express their opinions, especially about a matter as important as racial discrimination.

Kaepernick has, in fact, demonstrated his respect for the military through his choice of gesture. Kneeling silently is a solemn act. It is not rude; it is not violent; it does not express any disregard for the military; and it does not inhibit anyone else from expressing their patriotism in whatever manner they choose, including by standing and singing the national anthem.

Furthermore, in sports, taking a knee has historically been regarded as a respectful gesture. Players “take a knee” when another player is hurt. In this context, taking a knee is an acknowledgment of vulnerability and unity. It conveys the message that the injury is serious and worthy of concern. Correspondingly, when players “take a knee” during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination and the alarming disparities in police shootings of African Americans, they are respectfully demonstrating shared humanity in a moment of legitimate crisis.

Conversely, behavior that undermines or contradicts the principles that a country holds dear is unpatriotic. The comments about the “take a knee” movement made by the President of the United States are an example. In September, he publicly referred to any NFL player who takes a knee as a “son of a b****” and indicated that such players should be fired. In contrast, just a month earlier, the president characterized the white supremacists who violently marched in Charlottesville, shouting white supremacist and anti-Semitic slogans, as “very fine people.”

Comments such as these are deeply troubling, and they intentionally divide Americans. They also reflect disregard for freedom of expression, a principle so essential to our society that it is reflected in the Bill of Rights. This issue resonates with me because I am involved with Inklings, the Staples High School student newspaper. As a young journalist, it has been especially alarming to see the leader of our country attempting to suppress free expression. Obviously, our nation’s principles demand that everyone is permitted to express their opinions. But for a president to crudely criticize athletes who engage in respectful, dignified protest concerning an issue of great importance is contrary to this country’s fundamental values and therefore unpatriotic.

Ultimately, it should be acknowledged that neither kneeling before the flag nor standing before it is always an indication of patriotism. What qualifies someone as a patriot are the values behind the actions he or she takes. Kaepernick’s values are clear; he has fought for equality both on and off the field. Kaepernick donated one million dollars, as well as all of the proceeds of his jersey sales from the 2016 season, to organizations working in underserved communities. He also founded the Know Your Rights Camp, which teaches youth about self-empowerment and interacting with law enforcement. Kaepernick is an inspiration to me personally, and it is clear that his values align with those of our founding fathers. In my eyes, he has proven himself to be a true patriot.


Honorable Mention: They Don’t Have to Stand For It: Patriotism and Legitimate Protesting in America
Rachel Suggs (Staples High School freshman)

As a nation, we are in the midst of a painful and angst ridden debate about the “correct” interpretation of patriotism. However, I believe that patriotism cannot be fully defined by words alone, as it is an unstoppable and infectious force that ripples through the hearts of a people. It is depicted through feelings such as hope during the Olympics, or determination when called  to arms during times of threat. Patriotic beliefs are influenced by our personal ancestry, race, life experiences, and family values. Just as every American has their own  understanding  of patriotis, they also have their own emotional response to the meaning of the flag and how it should be honored.

Indeed, my patriotic values — shaped by my familial roots — are a mosaic of the American ethos. On my paternal side, my American lineage dates back  to the 1600’s.  I am a direct descendant of the Second Earl of Warwick who financed  the Mayflower  that brought  the first pilgrims to America. Moreover, a Suggs male has fought in every American war, from the Revolutionary War, up to and including Vietnam where my grandfather won a bronze star for his service. In contrast, on my maternal side, I am a first generation American. In high school, my mother immigrated here from South Africa in order to escape the oppressions of apartheid.

I define patriotism as the manner in which one lives their life, in ways granted by and in order to contribute to their country. I therefore believe that it is one’s patriotic duty to protest injustices of any kind. I have walked this walk: I proudly marched at the Women’s March on Washington, I held up my “disarm hate” sign outside a Trump campaign rally at Sacred Heart University, and last month I stood in solidarity at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Memorial and wept. Despite my anger at the reasons for needing to protest in the first place, I felt uplifted while joining my voice with others to change the consciousness of our country. I therefore salute the “take a knee” protest movement initiated by several NFL players, because their purpose was to increase awareness of ongoing racial discrimination and police killings of black men.

Rachel Suggs

When President Trump and others disagree with me, calling the players unpatriotic, I understand their perspective. They believe that the flag represents the hard work and ultimate sacrifices that men and women in arms have made for our freedom, with each star and stripe symbolizing a fallen soldier who died to ensure that American families sleep safely in their beds at night. With this interpretation, kneeling for the waving flag refuses to honor and spits on the legacy of our fallen heroes.

Yet, it is because of my military bloodline that I am drawn to exactly what American soldiers have been fighting to protect. My grandfather and his forefathers fought to defend the

U.S. Constitution, which states  in the First Amendment, “Congress shall  make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”

I am confident that if my grandfather were alive today, he would not feel disrespected.

Rather, he would applaud the football players, precisely because they were peacefully  protesting  on national television without fear of government prosecution. It would be as if they were showing my Grandfather that his service and sacrifices were worth it.

Likewise, due to my knowledge of my mother’s history, I am grateful to live in a country that protects the right to protest and I do not take it for granted. My mother still struggles with the psychological consequences of witnessing unspeakable acts of violence and police brutality committed against the black community during apartheid. It pains me to know that despite her horror and outrage, she was afraid to publicly speak out for fear of imprisonment. She grew up without the same constitutional rights that Americans enjoy.

Thus, I view the “taking a knee” movement as something that the NFL players are not only free to do, but are called on to do. Many of them have been personally impacted by the corrosive effects of racial discrimination, and it was through protests by those who came before them that the road for their own career success was paved. So, by carrying the torch forward, they are honoring their own legacy; they are using their fame to draw attention to those whose voices may not be protected.

Nevertheless, while the player ‘s form of protest is honorable, if someone were to bum, sit on, vandalize, or denounce the flag in any other way, I would feel deeply offended on behalf of my military family. However, instead of expressing hate towards America or a group of people, the NFL players are showing the desire for their beloved country to progress into a more mature, evolved, and inclusive version of itself. This is in contrast to the protests in Charlottesville which were fueled by messages of exclusion and superiority, and whose symbols evoked fear in many minority groups. They had self interest, not the country’s best interest at heart. To me, this discrepancy is the difference between patriotism and disrespect: hope versus fear.

For as long as the American flag is waving, the correct treatment of it will remain at the heart of controversy, as is the beauty and fragility of our democracy. Viewing this divisive debate through the lens of a descendant of a funder of the Mayflower, and as a first generation immigrant, I affirm that kneeling for the flag is a form of legitimate protest.

As for me, I hope that the country I love, that my family has helped to protect and build, as well as start a free life in, will continue to provide me and future generations with the inspiration to protest injustices. In the sense that kneeling for the flag is an act that the flag ‘s message protects, kneeling for the flag is defending the flag.

TEAM Westport Essay Contest Deadline Extended

TEAM Westport’s essay contest is one of the most intriguing events of the year.

This year’s prompt is particularly interesting and challenging:

Recently, several professional athletes have “taken a knee” during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to bring attention to — and to protest — ongoing bias and discriminatory practices in American society in general, and by law enforcement officers in particular.

In reaction, some people have called these athletes “unpatriotic.”  In 1,000 words or fewer, describe your understanding of what it means to be a patriot, what kinds of behavior you think would be unpatriotic, and what forms of protest against discriminatory laws, customs, or patterns of behavior you would consider legitimate.

Organizers want as many students as possible to participate. Because of bad weather and other events at Staples High School, TEAM Westport has extended the deadline for submissions. It’s now 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, March 13.

The contest — co-sponsored with the Westport Library — is open to students in grades 9 through 12 who attend Staples High School or another school in Westport, or who live in Westport and attend school elsewhere.

Applications are available here. The deadline is March 13. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the library on April 2. Based on the volume and caliber of entries received, judges may award up to 3 prizes. First prize is $1,000; 2nd prize is $750, 3rd is $500.

Take A Knee? TEAM Westport Asks Teens Their Take

Last year, TEAM Westport‘s annual teen diversity essay contest tackled a hot topic: white privilege. Submissions were insightful and strong. Reaction was strong too, though not nearly as intelligent. A national controversy ensued.

TEAM Westport was not cowed. The town’s multicultural committee has just announced this year’s 5th annual contest. The topic is once again in the news.

And the idea once again is to make local teenagers — and everyone else reading their essays — think.

The prompt says:

Recently, several professional athletes have “taken a knee” during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to bring attention to — and to protest — ongoing bias and discriminatory practices in American society in general, and by law enforcement officers in particular.

In reaction, some people have called these athletes “unpatriotic.”  In 1,000 words or fewer, describe your understanding of what it means to be a patriot, what kinds of behavior you think would be unpatriotic, and what forms of protest against discriminatory laws, customs, or patterns of behavior you would consider legitimate.

This is not your typical essay contest.

But — as the nation continues to be grapple with issues relating to race, ethnicity, religion and identity, along with questions about what America is and what it stands for — it is exactly the kind of essay contest we need.

The contest — co-sponsored with the Westport Library — is open to students in grades 9 through 12 who attend Staples High School or another school in Westport, or who live in Westport and attend school elsewhere.

Applications are available here. The deadline is February 27. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the library on April 2. Based on the volume and caliber of entries received, judges may award up to 3 prizes. First prize is $1,000; 2nd prize is $750, 3rd is $500.

(Individuals or organizations who would like to help sponsor the contest can click here or email info@teamwestport.org. Contributions are deductible to the extent permitted by law.)

Marpe: “Ethnic Ugliness Has No Place In Westport”

1st Selectman Jim Marpe issued this statement, in response to yesterday’s distribution of hate flyers in Westport:

Once again, Westport residents have found flyers with disturbing messages in their driveways, in this case with neo-Nazi and white supremacist content.

This latest incident comes almost 2 years to the day after disturbing flyers appeared in other parts of our town. I am concerned and angry that once again statements like this have found their way to Westport homes. As I said 2 years ago, this kind of ethnic ugliness has no place anywhere, and certainly not in Westport.

I have always been proud to speak of Westport as an open and welcoming community, and I continue to believe that the vast majority of Westporters practice that belief through tolerance, inclusion and everyday civil behavior. Unfortunately, the last few years and months have reminded us that our nation still needs to deal with some serious societal and behavioral issues, and we are again reminded that Westport is not necessarily immune.

One of the flyers that was tossed in Westport driveways yesterday.

Westport must not tolerate the threatening, bullying and hateful messages that are at the heart of these flyers. We must reinforce our commitment to civil discourse and to the tolerance for residents of all backgrounds. Regardless of the reasons behind these intolerant statements, we must create a political and social climate that rejects these kinds of statements out of hand and allows all opinions to be heard in an open and non-threatening manner.

Our police department is working with other area police departments to attempt to identify the source of these latest disturbing and inflammatory messages. The town is also working with the Connecticut region Anti-Defamation League to identify possible sources but also to seek ways to appropriately combat this type of threatening activity.

I will also ask TEAM Westport to again work with the Interfaith Clergy and other appropriate Town agencies and civic groups to lead our community’s response to these outrageous statements and, as importantly, how to deal with the behaviors and beliefs that underpin them.

Police Chief Foti Koskinas added:

Not only do we want to keep our community safe, but we strive to also give peace of mind.  When you combine the content of the flyer and the nature in which this was done, we recognize the concern and alarm it may cause.  We are working diligently to determine who is responsible, and look further into the motive.

 

Read TEAM Westport Winning Essays Here

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.

Chet Ellis

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.

Josiah Tarrant

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.

Claire Dinshaw

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.

TEAM Westport “White Privilege” Essay Winners Announced

When TEAM Westport announced this year’s essay contest topic — the personal impact of white privilege — a national uproar ensued.

Spurred by sensationalism and misunderstanding, news outlets wondered why a vastly white community would address the subject.

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.

TEAM Westport finalists (from left) Josiah Tarrant, Claire Dinshaw and Chet Ellis, before tonight’s announcement of the winners.

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.

Chet Ellis

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.

Josiah Tarrant

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.

Claire Dinshaw

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.)

TEAM Westport Essay Contest Adds Anonymity Option

TEAM Westport’s 4th annual essay contest — on the topic of white privilege — has grabbed international attention. Coverage on CNN, in the New York Times, The Guardian and on alt-right websites caused some high school students (and their parents) to wonder what might happen if they go public with their writing.

Realizing the importance of expressing one’s views — but also the reality of privacy — organizers are offering the option of anonymity.

When the 3 winning essays are announced on April 3 at the Westport Library,  students who chose private acknowledgement of their accomplishment will have their essays read by contest judges. Those who chose public acknowledgement can read their essays themselves. All winning essays will be published — without names, for those who wish to remain anonymous.

The 85 essays that make up the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay -- and published under the pseudonym "Publius."

The 85 essays that make up the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — and published under the pseudonym “Publius.”

“The national and international coverage surrounding this year’s TEAM Westport teen diversity essay contest has provoked verbal and written harassment of some committee members, and Town of Westport employees and personnel,” sponsors said in a press release.

“The majority of this type of correspondence appears to have originated from out of town and, generally, from out of state. There is concern, however, that this increased coverage may have made potential contestants reticent to submit an essay for fear of similar harassment. Because the well-being of young people in the community is a priority, the essay sponsors have determined that the option of anonymity is appropriate.”

The deadline for submission is Monday (February 27). The contest is open to all students in grades 9 through 12 who attend Staples High School or another school in Westport, or who reside in Westport and attend school elsewhere. Click here for the application.

TEAM-Westport-logo2

CNN Covers “White Privilege” Controversy — And Adds A Prize

The Great White Privilege Essay Contest Debate reached CNN this morning.

A few minutes ago, Michael Smerconish interviewed TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey on his TV show. The segment was long, detailed, fair and balanced.

And — before it ended — the host invited the eventual essay winner to come on the show.

(That should spur entrants from Westport high school students! Interested? Click here for details. To view the segment on the CNN website, click here.)

michael-smerconish-cnn

(Hat tips: Lyn Hogan. Barbara Wanamaker and Lisa Metz)