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White Privilege In A Liberal Town

A teen essay contest has roiled a part of Clinton Country

Westport, Connecticut, has an official diversity committee, run by volunteers. It is called TEAM, an acronym for Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism. The name feels oddly corporate, but that is no judgment on its mission of "achieving and celebrating a more welcoming, multicultural community" through local events and activities like the recent Martin Luther King Day celebration at the county playhouse. TEAM is doing all of this in a town an hour's drive from Manhattan with 26,000 residents, 93 percent of whom were white at last count. The median household income is triple the national average. Diversity and multiculturalism are tall orders in such a place, but TEAM is trying.

For the last four years, the committee has run an annual essay contest for local high school students focusing on themes ranging from race, to gender, to religion, to sexual identity. This year was no different, and offered the following prompt:

White privilege surfaced as a topic during the recent presidential election. 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 contest was announced in January, and the essays are due later this month. Opinions, however, are available now.

"This is nothing more than race baiting," one commenter wrote on TEAM Westport's Facebook page, underneath a link to the contest sign-up page. "I'm a white male and when I read about the contest I thought Al Sharpton was running your group." Another white male suggested that any talk of race was inherently bigoted, then offered a warning to those who might be swayed to entertain the essay question because of white guilt. "Buying in to racist propaganda because you feel sorry for what has happened in the past means you are spreading racist propaganda yourself," he wrote. One resident told the Associated Press that the town welcomed people of any race, as if the essay prompt implied otherwise. The New York Times reported last week that some upset locals "chafed at the idea that race was a factor in their success."

Saying that it's somehow racist to ask students in a nearly all-white town to expound on white privilege is a pretty loaded accusation — especially since the chairman of TEAM, retired IBM executive Harold Bailey, is black. Bailey noted that there have been plenty of positive responses from locals about the contest, which is also apparent from TEAM's Facebook threads. But the defensiveness of several respondents, Bailey said, misses the point. "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," he told the AP. "That's not at all what it's about."

White feelings, once again, have taken center stage in a discussion about race. This is an all-too-common problem, but here it's even more curious than usual. The objections raised in Westport reveal a combination of white fragility and a lack of intellectual curiosity about how racism actually works, and people whining about an essay question are missing an opportunity to chip away at the very racism that they claim to hate. It isn't unreasonable to speculate that few of the adults in Westport, most of whom are Democrats, believe that they are in any way racist or even prejudiced. It's no longer just about the words we use. It hasn't been for a long time. The conversation about race in America has moved far past mere questions about whether a white person has ever called someone a "nigger."

This outcry is especially ironic given that Westport residents voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a 2-to-1 margin, meaning it's likely that these bellyachers chose a candidate who openly called for white accountability in the struggle against racial injustice. "We need to recognize our privilege and practice humility," Clinton told me during theGrio's Facebook chat last February, "rather than assume our experiences are everyone's experiences." These would-be cultural critics fail that test, either unable or refusing to acknowledge how their whiteness might have opened pathways for them to attain or maintain their standard of living, and to live surrounded primarily by other white people.

From housing segregation to education disparities to whether or not your color means you'll get that bank loan, there are many aspects of life in the United States where white privilege proves helpful. Conservatives may counter that affirmative action has granted people like me "black privilege," but such programs are only measures taken to level a playing field that was built with inherent disadvantages for people who are not white, heterosexual men of means. White people cannot continue believing that racism is not their problem to solve. And it won't be addressed solely with a vote for a Democrat, participation in a march, or a donation to the NAACP. Inequality thrives when populations sit silent, or count themselves satisfied with gestures. If those same people refuse to recognize how the system that has helped them also disadvantages their fellow citizens, it's all for show.

The irony about the furor in Westport is that the essay topic demands introspection. It gives teenagers the chance to wrestle with fundamental questions about race before their own narrow version of reality calcifies in their minds and becomes the only way they understand America. And for what it's worth, the students in Westport seem to grasp why this is important. "It’s important to learn about that and figure out how the nation as a whole works, because the whole nation isn’t going to be 93 percent white," Staples High senior Claire Dinshaw told the Times. Another student, Fritz Schemel, played down the drama, saying that white privilege "isn't that much of a taboo subject."

TEAM Westport, responding to the controversy, sought to clear things up on Sunday with a new post on its Facebook page. It is blunt and purposefully obvious. "Our challenge does not a. Make any statement one way or the other re: existence; b. Imply a right answer; c. Imply or signal anything about the Town of Westport other than an openness to exploring the topic," the statement reads. After clearing up some other rules of the contest, the post concludes with "Bottom Lines."

a. The essay topic is intended to allow Westport 9-12th grade students to write about what the challenge means to them.

b. It is not and should not be about what

i. Older people think

ii. People outside Westport think

iii. The Press thinks

iv. Political groups think

c. The only voices that matter are those of the Westport student essayists

That final point, especially, is a good one. The students should have had first say in this. It is good, for all of us, that they'll have the last.