by Tina Ollenburg (WNBA-Network)
NOTE: This interview originally appeared in the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Bookwoman February 2021 issue. Republished here with permission. wnba-books.org
Twenty-five years ago, NYU Press first published Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America by Stephanie Wildman (WNBA-SF). With contributions from Margalynne Armstrong, Adrienne Davis, and Trina Grillo, the book explores the systems of privilege that maintain an unfair status quo in this country, as well as the ways these systems remain unaddressed and ignored.
NYU Press recently re-released Privilege Revealed with new content as part of their Classics series. I interviewed Wildman and fellow contributor Armstrong about the book and what it was like to revisit this content 25 years later.
TO: In terms of a broad national awareness, white privilege still feels like a fairly new term in 2021, yet you originally released Privilege Revealed 25 years ago. What led you to this topic and the work of this book back in the 1990s?
SW & MA: In the 1990s, legal academics focused on legally prohibited forms of discrimination as the systemic evil to address. Yet the group of us working together felt that behaviors that would not be labeled as discriminatory under the law were still unfair and upheld the attitudes that perpetuated inequality.
We met and wrote together to try to identify that process at the same time that scholars in the arts and sciences like Peggy McIntosh used the term privilege to describe this phenomenon. Also, during this period, the rise of Critical Race Theory in the legal academy and the work of scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality and Angela Harris on essentialism in feminist thought helped us crystallize our thinking.
TO: Can you talk about how the book came together, as well as the collaboration among the book’s co-contributors?
SW & MA: Initially, Trina Grillo, Adrienne Davis, and Stephanie met regularly to hash out our ideas, some of which we published in essay form. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, the series editors for Critical America approached Stephanie about writing a book proposal about this work on privilege. They suggested that Margalynne Armstrong’s work on housing would be essential to the volume. Stephanie and Margalynne later became colleagues at Santa Clara Law and began writing together regularly about whiteness and the legal academy. Some of that work informs the new material in the re-release of this book.
Collaboration across racial lines remains the exception in exploring racial dynamics. The trust that enabled this collaboration allowed a deeper examination of these issues.
TO: As Privilege Revealed is re-released, in what ways do you feel like perspectives have changed since its initial publication? In what ways do things feel the same? The book has a new preface and foreword. What was the experience like to revisit this content from 25 years ago?
SW & MA: White privilege remains elusive. One aspect of the privilege is the holder’s ability to forget that they hold it. Yet today more people recognize the term as having significance. In the 1990s if you googled “privilege,” you got answers about evidentiary privileges, like the “privilege against self-incrimination” and “priest-penitent privilege.” Now you do get white privilege. And the phrase was even a punch line on Stephen Colbert’s late night talk show recently. That’s several million viewers.
The new material does suggest a path forward with the phrase Margalynne coined – “color insight” as a counter to colorblindness. Rendering racial dynamics invisible or pretending they don’t exist will not take the country forward, and some people are beginning to realize that. Revisiting the material was sobering, because it remains so relevant.
TO: The events of the past year have been an especially stark revelation of privilege in this country, placing our society’s inequities into sharp focus. What do you think is needed for us to sustain this awareness of privilege and systemic racism in an effort to move forward?
SW & MA: Building on the last answer that alluded to “color insight,” we think it does provide a way forward to counter colorblindness. Colorblindness values not-seeing-color and stops the possibility of dialogue about race before it can begin. In stopping the discussion, the mantra of colorblindness cuts off any dialogue about power or racial privilege, taking the subject of race off the table. Colorblindness undermines inclusivity and maintains existing white privilege. As one of our students said, “Colorblindness is the new racism.”
The answer lies in “color insight” – understanding the context of any conversation about race, examining systems of privilege; naming race and the norm of whiteness while unmasking the myth of perspectivelessness; and combating stereotyping by looking at each individual.
TO: How did you first become involved in the WNBA? What do you feel is most valuable about your membership in the organization?
SW: I have been lucky to have an amazing teacher and mentor in my path from law professor to children’s book author – Maxine Rose Schur. She is the person who first suggested I join WNBA, and I have found the network and newsletter to be helpful sources as I transition onto my children’s book writing path. My debut picture book, Brave in the Water, will come out April 27, 2021.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEES:
Stephanie M. Wildman (WNBA-SF), author of the forthcoming Brave in the Water, became a Professor Emerita after serving as the John A. and Elizabeth H. Sutro Chair at Santa Clara Law. She directed the school’s Center for Social Justice and Public Service. In 2007, the Society of American Law Teachers, the largest national organization of law school faculty honored her with their Great Teacher Award. Her most recent books include: Race and Races: Cases and Resources for a Diverse America 3d (with Richard Delgado, Angela A. Harris, Juan F. Perea, and Jean Stefancic) (2015), Social Justice: Professionals, Communities, and Law (with Martha R. Mahoney and John O. Calmore) (2013), and Women and the Law: Stories (with Elizabeth Schneider) (2011). Her book, Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America, (with contributions by Margalynne Armstrong, Adrienne D. Davis, & Trina Grillo) won the 1997 Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Meyers Center for Human Rights and will be reissued by NYU Press as part of its Classics series. She has authored dozens of law review articles and journalistic pieces. She is a grandmother, mother, spouse, friend, good listener, and she is able to sit “criss-cross apple sauce” thanks to her yoga practice.
Margalynne Armstrong is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. She teaches Race and Law, Critical Race Theory, Constitutional Law, Property, and other courses. Her scholarship examines housing discrimination, race and criminal law, and teaching about race and privilege. Professor Armstrong serves or has served as a board member for several national and local environmental, reproductive rights and social justice organizations. She has received the Public Interest Award from the California Association of Black Lawyers and the Matthew O. Tobriner Public Service Award from the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco.