February 1, 2017
Connecticut residents squirm over white privilege essay contest
by Ryan Harrington
The affluent coastal town of Westport, Connecticut is hosting an essay contest on the subject of white privilege for local high school students. Presented by TEAM Westport (the town’s diversity council) and the Westport Library, the contest offers $1,000, $750, and $500, respectively, for the gold-, silver-, and bronze-winning responses to the following prompt:
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?
This seems like fecund intellectual territory and an invitation to worthy investigation of our current historical moment — where actual white supremacists, actual unqualified white supremacists, hold some of the highest political offices in the land. It’s at least no time for us to be shy about the fact that white privilege operates on many levels of American life.
But some people in the 92.6% White town are feeling a bit shy. According to an Associated Press report on the contest:
The chairman of the diversity council, Harold Bailey Jr., said that in addition to the chatter in town, people as far away as Singapore have weighed in online.
“There’s a lot more controversy around it than many of us expected,” said Bailey, a retired IBM vice president who is black. “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.”
Other locals objected on the grounds that privilege was a topic best left for parents to discuss with their children within the privacy of their own home.
It, of course, should bother us that some of the negative response to the essay contest stems from a suspicion of the very concept of white privilege, a suspicion most often held by our society’s most comfortable people, themselves beneficiaries a fair amount of white privilege. Let’s hope some thoughtful essay submissions can go a long way toward reversing that trend.
But we should find it equally irksome that this negative response seems to conflate the idea of being told what to think with the idea of being asked what one thinks. Far from telling people to feel guilty about white privilege, the contest asks how respondents feel about the idea — it literally pays you to respond subjectively. That dangerous conflation, I think, is the engine behind all sorts of disastrous political behavior, from banning books from school curricula, to lazy media consumption habits, to conservative defenses of the status quo in general.
I understand that Westport’s older residents—indeed, people across the country—are shy around difficult topics like white privilege. But let them be the last generation to feel that way. These students will be voting in four years — we’ll need them to be able to talk about difficult realities, and we’ll need them to be able to do it in an age where the president openly speaks of white privilege as a divine right.
The contest closes on February, 27 2017.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.