In his first-prize winning poem, Royce Mann says of white and male privilege, "It's time to take that ladder and turn it into a bridge."

By Lindsay Kimble
Updated July 15, 2016 04:10 PM
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Credit: Source: HLN

An Atlanta high schooler’s thought-provoking slam poem about privilege in America has gone viral – and he tells PEOPLE that he’s happy it’s sparking debate across the Internet.

The piece, performed by 14-year-old Royce Mann at a school competition in May, racked up over 650,000 views after his mother, Sheri Mann Stewart, uploaded it to YouTube.

In the emotional poem, which Mann performed surrounded by his Paideia School classmates, he admitted, candidly, “To be honest, being privileged is awesome. I’m not saying that you and me on different rungs of the ladder is how I want it to stay.”

Royce, a rising 9th grader, goes on to apologize to minority groups and women for being born on the “first rung” of a proverbial ladder, lamenting that “to be honest, I’m scared of what it would be like if I wasn’t on the top rung, if the tables were turned and I didn’t have my white boy privilege safety blankie to protect me.”

The teenager contends that it’s “embarrassing that we still live in a world in which we judge another person’s character by of the size of their paycheck, the color of their skin, or the type of chromosomes they have.”

He concluded, “It’s time to take that ladder and turn it into a bridge.”

Royce’s words come amid high tensions in the United States after the recent deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and five Dallas police officers.

Speaking to PEOPLE, Royce says that while he has long been aware of white and male privilege, he only recently realized how it relates to his own life through his “Race, Class and Privilege” class at school.

“We read a lot of articles about privilege, about white privilege, male privilege and other types of privilege,” Royce says, “and that made me a lot more aware of the privileges that I have and other people don’t have, just because of the color of their skin or gender and other uncontrollable attributes that have nothing to do with someone’s personality or their character.”

Royce says he spent a lot of time working on his poem, comparing drafts with his teacher and applying her notes and critiques. While Royce says many of his classmates also shared “wonderful poems” about racism and bias, he’s glad the sudden attention has given him the opportunity to share what he thinks is an important message.

“I want people to realize that change really starts in our education system with the youth, with people my age,” Royce says of his intended takeaway message, “and there are a lot of people my age out there who are thinking the same way I am. People just need to realize that they need to listen to the youth. We have a lot of important things to say too.

“And also, I want people to realize that all they have to do is do their part to try to create change.”

The teen explains that he doesn’t intend to be a leader of any movement, just someone who stands up for what he believes in. “I’m trying, in my everyday life, just when I see some form of discrimination, to point it out, to speak up. And other people can do that too.”

Royce admits, however, that his Internet fame is a broader example of exactly the issue he’s addressing: “I think it’s ironic that I’ve gone viral because there are lots of people out there who are doing a lot more than me to fight for equality and because of their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, they aren’t really getting the same attention that I am… And so, this is just an example of how white privilege and male privilege really exists.”

He admitted that the response to his first-prize winning poem has been mixed, as there are definitely some people who deny that they have privilege over minority groups.

“I made this poem for the people who disagree with me. I didn’t make it just to have a bunch of people be like, ‘Oh, really great. Great job.’ That’s pointless,” Royce said. “That doesn’t create change. I made it for the people who disagree with me but are interested in starting a dialogue.”

The poem continues to attract attention, with stars like Tracee Ellis Ross and Taraji P. Henson touting it on Twitter.

As for any negative comments on the YouTube video, Royce said he understands that some will disagree, but he would hope to have a productive conversation.

“What I don’t like is when people comment just insulting me on YouTube and not talking at all about my views and my beliefs,” Royce tells PEOPLE. “If they say ‘I disagree with you, here’s why,’ then I would love to have a conversation with them.”