Wildman, “On Learning and Relearning about White Privilege”

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Stephanie Wildman (Santa Clara) has posted to the NYU Press blog a post “On Learning and Relearning About White Privilege.” Here is an excerpt:

Later in the 70s, a Black student in my Sex Discrimination and the Law seminar came to speak to me about the racism in the class, my racism and the other students’ racism, as well as the systemic racism in the law school. The discussion was pretty intense. At the heart of her criticism, the student expressed disappointment that I didn’t address racial justice issues more in the classroom, in response to either the curriculum or other students’ comments. I was lucky at the time to have some Black friends who were willing to talk to me about what had happened, about the student’s grievance, and about what to do next, especially since we had only one class left in the semester.

I cried for several days. It took me a long time to realize that the student had done me a favor. She felt safe enough and cared enough about me and about the class to talk to me. I tried to face my racism bravely. And I was lucky to have help—from friends and from a diversity consultant who was on retainer that semester by the school.

I had been skeptical about her, the diversity consultant. She was a white woman, and I thought “typical, the school wants to talk about race and they hire someone white.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Frances Kendall understood that it was imperative for the students of color in the class to have a safe space to talk. She urged we meet in two separate groups: a group for the students of color (led by my friend and colleague Professor Trina Grillo) and the white students with me (led by Francie). In the white group, Francie led a conversation about the ABCs of white privilege. Yes, you may have been disadvantaged in other ways, even suffered greatly. Yet having white privilege conveys a particular, distinct societal benefit. Then these groups met together. We obviously did not solve all the world’s racial justice issues, but it was a step forward, at least for me. That experience set me on a lifelong learning curve, writing about race and white privilege, back when if you googled “privilege” the answers you got were: “privilege against self-incrimination,” “priest-penitent privilege,” or “doctor-patient privilege.”

White privilege is evasive. I mentioned those glimmers in my past because I wouldn’t remember, if my friends had not written about them. And they wrote about them because it was less usual for someone white to notice and speak out about racial injustice. Even though I have studied white privilege and thought a lot about it, I still forget. Which is part of the privilege. I have half-joked how I had to go through the process of writing the book Privilege Revealed (with contributions by Margalynne Armstrong, Adrienne Davis, and Trina Grillo) to remember what I knew.

That’s how the privilege works. It remakes itself into “just the normal way things are,” instead of the advantages, “the invisible knapsack” as named by Peggy McIntosh[3], that accrue to white skin. Particularly at this moment of double pandemics, COVID-19, the new one, and America’s history of racism and racial injustice, the pandemic we’ve had since the nation’s founding, I realize how much I still have to learn and remember–and act.

The full post is available here.

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