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‘White privilege’ essay contest stirs up controversy in Connecticut town

Main Street in Westport. (Google Street View)

January 31, 2017

A Connecticut town’s diversity council announced a contest offering cash for the best student essay on “white privilege” — sparking backlash from people who claimed that it painted the town in a bad light.

The council in Westport introduced this essay topic, with submissions due in late February: “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?”

Residents like 72-year-old Bari Reiner said the question was offensive because Westport has welcomed anybody who could afford to live there.

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

The annual contest was open to high school students in Westport, offering a top prize of $1,000. The diversity council, TEAM Westport, claimed its goal was “to increase awareness, foster understanding and promote understanding in this arena,” Fox 61 reported.

The council’s chairman, 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. “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.”

Still, some parents felt the diversity council, TEAM Westport, was wrong to bring it up.

“I wouldn’t go there,” Janet Samuels told The Associated Press, saying it was the parents’ responsibility to talk about privilege with their kids. She said that even though her children are all grown, that question “would upset me very much.”

Like other New York City suburbs on the Connecticut shoreline, Westport ranks among the country’s wealthiest places. Its median family income tops $150,000, and it is home to the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates. As of the 2010 census, its 26,000 residents were also 93 percent white.

The town voted by more than 2 to 1 for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump. It also has not been immune to episodes of racism. Dozens of students at the public Staples High School were disciplined for circulating racially offensive memes in a private Facebook group uncovered in November.

Some parents welcomed the discussion stirred by this year’s question as a reminder for local teens that not all places are as affluent and homogeneous as Westport.

“I like the idea to get it out there so kids can talk about it and embrace it,” said Bert Dovo, a white father of two kids who are now in college.