White privilege essay contest inspires Smerconish to look at his past

Essay contest on white privilege stirs controversy_00004304
Essay contest on white privilege stirs controversy_00004304

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    Essay contest on white privilege stirs controversy

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Essay contest on white privilege stirs controversy 05:39

Story highlights

  • The contest asked Connecticut high schoolers to describe 'white privilege'
  • Smerconish asks a former African-American classmate for his thoughts

(CNN)After an essay contest for Connecticut high schoolers on 'white privilege" sparked controversy, CNN's Michael Smerconish decided to look back at his own school days and call the only African-American child in his elementary school class.

Smerconish began his trip down memory lane after the diversity committee in the predominantly white upper-class Connecticut town of Westport posed the following question as part of its annual essay contest for grades 9 through 12:
"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?"
Some Westport residents called local officials and complained on social media about the question, gaining national media coverage.
"It's not surprising," Smerconish noted, that "some adults in Westport -- which, by the way, voted 2-to-1 for Hillary Clinton -- bristled at the fact race was in order due to their success."
As for his own thoughts on the essay's question, he said it had gotten him "thinking."

Was there white privilege?

At his elementary school in the Pennsylvania suburbs, "there was only one African-American student," Smerconish recalled, pulling up a photograph of his first-grade class and pointing out his classmate, Darryl Chatman.
"We were close friends," Smerconish noted, "but we've drifted apart."
Now, the CNN host said, he wanted to know what Chatman thought about white privilege. So he called him and asked.
Smerconish read out Chatman's response on his show, "Smerconish," which airs Saturdays on CNN.
"I would say there was a white privilege, and, yes, I was aware." Chatman told Smerconish.
"Everything that happened in the lives of everyone else is because of opportunities being more available. But it didn't bother me or stop me from what I wanted to do. It was part of something I had to live through. My parents taught me well. "
"They did indeed," remarked Smerconish.
"If we'd had this essay contest when we were kids, Darryl probably would have won," he added.

Sparking conversations

Later in the show, Harold Bailey, the chairman of Team Westport, the town's official diversity committee, told Smerconish that "there was no right answer" to the essay.
"We're looking for a well-written essay, period -- for or against," Bailey said.
In fact, he added, he would welcome some "contrarian views" on a subject that, he insisted, was timely.
"We've had conversations for the last two years on race, " remarked Bailey .
"What do we tell our children about race? What's it like to be black, for instance, in our area? In every one of our conversations the issue of white privilege has been front and center as one of the major issues," he said.