Why a 'white privilege' essay contest has upset a Connecticut town

In Westport, Conn., the town’s diversity council invited students to write essays detailing the impact of white privilege on their lives – a topic which some residents find offensive.

Michael Melia/AP
A woman walks near shops in downtown Westport, Conn. A town-sponsored essay contest on the topic of white privilege has stirred controversy in the affluent, overwhelmingly white town on Connecticut's shoreline.

An essay contest sponsored by the town of Westport, Conn., is causing controversy among its residents and has sparked heated online debate on the subject of race across the country.

The essay topic is "white privilege," a sociological concept that has been increasingly introduced into mainstream political debate in recent years. The term refers to social, economic, and other sorts of advantages conferred automatically to white people over minorities in many Western countries. 

Westport is a small, wealthy suburb of New York City, with a median family income topping $150,000. And according to the 2010 census, 93 percent of its 26,000 residents are white.

The essay contest, sponsored by Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism (TEAM) Westport and the Westport library is directed at young people from grades 9-12 in order to promote understanding about recent "historic social shifts relating to race and identity" in the United States.

"In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term 'white privilege,' " reads the essay prompt on the TEAM Westport website. "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?"

According to the website, the concept of white privilege "surfaced as a topic during the recent presidential election," likely in reference to the racially-charged rhetoric employed by then-candidate Donald Trump during his campaign.

Bari Reiner, a resident of Westport, told the Associated Press that the question explored in the essay was offensive because the town is open to anyone who can afford to live in it, regardless of race.

"It's an open town," Mr. Reiner said. "There are no barricades here. Nobody says if you're black or whatever, you can't move here."

The question of race has always been a sensitive one throughout the history of the United States, but debate over once-obscure concepts like "white privilege" has become increasingly common in recent years. Last October, a high school teacher in Norman, Okla., came under fire for asserting that "all white people are racist, period," as a result of social factors that were part of their upbringing. While many found the remark offensive, many black parents criticized the backlash as indicative of the poor way American schools deal with issues of race. As The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time:

One sticking point for these parents and for some on university campuses across the country is history.

"If you only go to public schools, and that’s the only place you’re educated, then you learn that your history began with slavery and it pretty much ended with MLK [Martin Luther King Jr.]," Cheryl Fields-Smith, a professor of education at the University of Georgia, told the Monitor.

For the residents of Westport, however, reactions of parents were mixed.

"[The essay question] would upset me very much," Janet Samuels, who is white, told the AP. "I wouldn't go there."

Ms. Samuels said that her children were grown, but that it was the responsibility of the parents, not an essay question, to teach children about privilege.

"There's a lot more controversy around it than many of us expected," said Bailey, a retired IBM vice president, who is African-American. "Just the fact it says 'white' and 'privilege,' for some people that's all they need to see, and all of a sudden we're race-baiting or trying to get people to feel guilty. That's not at all what it's about."

While TEAM Westport cites the racial tensions related to the presidential election as a motivating factor for this year's essay topic, the town is noted for a thriving liberal population, with more than twice as many residents voting for Hillary Clinton compared to those who voted for Donald Trump last November. However, dozens of high school students, around the age targeted for the essay contest, were disciplined that same month for circulating racially offensive memes in a private Facebook group.

Bert Dovo, a white father of two from Westport, expressed his support for the essay contest.

"I like the idea to get it out there so kids can talk about it and embrace it," he said. 

This article contains material from the Associated Press.

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