WESTPORT — A black teenager who wrote about the “unavoidable” racial issues he faces growing up in an affluent, predominantly white Connecticut town has won an essay contest on the topic of white privilege.
Chet Ellis, a 15-year-old sophomore at Staples High School in Westport, described a discussion on getting into college one day during track practice. He wrote that a white friend said he would have no problem because he’s black.
“I was stunned,” he wrote, “and mumbled something instead of firing back, ‘Your parents are third-generation Princeton and your father runs a hedge fund and yet you think my ride is free?'”
The annual essay contest, put on by the town’s diversity council and the Westport Library, aims to prompt discussion of multicultural issues in the shoreline community that is 93 percent white. This year’s topic stirred some controversy by encouraging high schoolers to describe how they have been touched by white privilege, a term used mainly by liberals that refers to unseen advantages conferred to whites, and not racial minorities.
Chet was awarded the $1,000 top prize at a ceremony Monday night.
Living in a place where almost everyone is white, he writes, he wonders how his race affects how he’s treated. He writes about being followed around by a manager inside a store and how it felt when a classmate said a racial slur out loud to describe an offensive sign. And he notes the knowing nods a track teammate receives when he explains a loss by telling others, “I mean I was running against two giant black guys.”
“As a black teen in Westport, race issues in and outside the classroom are unavoidable,” he wrote.
His mother, Amanda Freeman, said the family often discusses current events and racial issues at the dinner table and they encouraged him to enter the contest.
“It’s just about opening the dialogue,” said Freeman, a sociology professor at the University of Hartford. “It’s hard for him being one of the few African-American students, feeling like you have to speak for everybody.”
The family moved to Westport six years ago from New York City, where Chet’s father, Trey Ellis, teaches at Columbia University. Freeman said the family moved for the sake of the school system, and they had some trepidation over Westport’s lack of diversity, but their children have liked living in the town. At times though, Freeman said, her son has been mistaken for one of the out-of-town students brought in through a busing program, which he does not appreciate.
Second place in the contest went to Josiah Tarrant, 16, a white student who describes discovering racial disparities through the eyes of his younger brother, who was adopted from Ethiopia.
The third-place essay was written by Claire Dinshaw, a white student who likened white privilege to a trust fund, a “bonus given to every white American.”
Contest organizers declined to say how many essays were submitted for consideration.