Micro-aggressions “You have two choices being a black person in Westport”: Ellis wins Diversity Essay Contest, again

April 4, 2019

WESTPORT — Staples High School senior Chet Ellis won town’s teen diversity essay contest again, this time for his piece on the racism he faces as a black student in Westport.

“One of our classmates had photoshopped Klan hoods on every one of my white teammates’ heads and kept me smiling away in the dead center,” Ellis wrote in his essay, recounting a memory from his soccer team yearbook photo, which a teammate defamed.

The case of the photoshopped Klan hoods was one of several racists incidents Ellis detailed in his essay, “The Sounds of Silence,” which won first prize in the sixth annual TEAM Westport Teen Diversity Essay Contest.

TEAM, an acronym for “Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturism is the town’s official committee focused on making Westport an increasingly welcoming, multicultural community with regard to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and sexual identity.

Ellis and the other student winners read their essays aloud at the contest’s awards ceremony held at the Saugatuck Congregational Church on April 3.

“You have two choices being a black person in Westport, Connecticut,” Ellis said, writing that when faced with racist remarks in town he could either speak out or acquiesce and wishes he more often embraced the former option.

“I’ve come to realize that racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas are like weeds that need to be yanked out at their inception,” Ellis, who also won the 2017 essay contest, wrote in his submission this year, which won him $1,000.

The topic that prompted Ellis and the other student essays was micro-aggressions. TEAM Chair Harold Bailey described micro-aggsresions using Derald Wing Sue’s definition as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults — whether intentional or unintentional — that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their membership in marginalized groups.”

Staples senior Angela Ji won second place, and $750 for her essay, “Ripping Off the Bandaid: Micro-aggresssions and How We Address Them,” about the constant “finger pricks” she receives from micro-aggressions.

“My first introduction to micro-aggressions was in elementary school, where a classmate pulled the corners of his eyes back and asked me how I could possibly see if my eyes were so small,” Ji wrote. Westport schools should foster an open discourse about racism early on in a child’s education, Ji wrote, noting she didn’t have her first class-wide discussion on the topic until high school.

Fellow Staples senior Daniel Boccardo won third place and $500 in prize money for his essay “Cactus in a Rain Forest” about the social constructs of “us” and “them” at the foundation of micro-aggressions against marginalized groups, and particularly immigrants.

Olivia Sarno, a Staples junior, received the final recognition, an honorable mention, for her essay on the micro-aggressions LGBTQ peoples face entitled, “Deconstructing the Voice Inside My Head.”

“I a humbled and honored to have read these honest, probing, thoughtful essays. I’m also saddened, because you are telling us the same thing that I experienced, that my daughters who grew up in Westport experienced, that my grandchildren are now experiencing” TEAM Westport member and the contest’s Chief Judge Dr. Judith Hamer said in introducing the winning essays.

Microaggresions have a long-history in town, Bailey said, adding, “I don’t want you to think though that Westport is some isolated environment where this is going on and not in others. This is common. This is what you find in just about every high school in the country. The difference here is we are making the community aware of what’s going on and I think it’s incumbent upon us to do something to address it.”

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1