The winner of Westport, CT’s controversial student writing contest calling for entries about white privilege is 15-year-old Chet Ellis, a sophomore at Staples High School, for his essay, “The Colors of Privilege.”
The essay was written as part of an annual contest held by the town’s diversity council and was, according to the Westport News, inspired by the 2016 election. The prompt was simple:
In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term ‘white privilege. To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life—whatever your racial or ethnic identity—and in our society more broadly?
The essay topic immediately drew national attention when it was announced in January, thrusting the community of just under 30,000 people into our Donald Trump-addled conversation about race in the nü-resistance America. (White nationalist groups, naturally, condemned the contest.)
As Ellis points out in his $1,000-winning essay, Westport is “92.6% white and just 1.2% black,” putting him in the terrible (albeit necessary) position to recount the kind of casual racism people of color face every day, like when he witnessed a white classmate saying the N-word during a class discussion about “racial equality”:
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.
“[L]iving in this place where almost everyone is white makes me question, when I’m in Walgreens and the manager follows me around the store,” Ellis asks toward the close of his essay, “would this happen if I looked different?”
Two white students, Josiah Tarrant and Claire Dinshaw, won second and third place (that’s $750 and $500), respectively, for their essays on white privilege, which can you read here if you scroll down. Both essays, uh, perhaps, er, maybe, highlight the need for continuing this important discussion. From the Westport News:
Josiah Tarrant, a white 16-year-old, told the story of his family bringing home his adopted, younger brother from Ethiopia. Tarrant acknowledged the white privilege he has experienced in his life and challenges those who maintain that white privilege is a “liberal tactic that creates white guilt” to think further.
“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,” wrote Tarrant, a junior at Staples.
Tarrant’s essay “White Privilege and Me” earned him second place, while third place went to Claire Dinshaw, an 18-year-old Staples senior who is white.
Her piece “The Privilege of Ignorance,” explored disparities non-white students in Westport face.
“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,” the 18-year-old wrote.
Congrats to Chet. $1,000 well earned.