The White Liberal Chamber

We, Sarah and Emily, are two white women living in the Pacific Northwest, both in cities that are proudly liberal and predominantly white. Our cities are teeming with self-identifying progressives, and we are among them.

I, Sarah, recently attended an event for educators. After a presentation, participants were asked to discuss the topic and many people contributed. Towards the end of the conversation, a woman of color offered her perspective. She was interrupted by the white male facilitator who quickly summarized her thinking and moved on. I felt uncomfortable with his interruption and tried to make sense of it, wondering if it was my place to say something, or if it even really happened. Soon after, I debriefed with a friend who independently expressed the same sentiment about that interaction. Minutes later, the facilitator visited my table and I had the opportunity to confront him...I didn't.

We believe Sarah's silence, in the face of racism, continues to give power to the systems that maintain the status quo. But, let's be honest about the status quo. In our cities, it is not even close to benefiting everyone. This inequity shows up as disproportionate poverty, gentrification, police brutality, lack of access to equitable health care and education, and the school to prison pipeline, to name a few of the devastating effects of systemic racism in our so-called-liberal towns.

No white person really wants to talk about how we participate in maintaining the status quo. Our silence keeps racism in place.

We call this space of silence and inactivity among white progressives the White Liberal Chamber(WLC). The WLC is a space where well meaning, empathic white people get stuck. While they may feel something is wrong -- shame, guilt, and fear can be paralyzing.

The WLC exists because people are afraid of failure. No one wants to look bad by saying the wrong thing, or experience discomfort. We, the authors, are tenants of the WLC ourselves, so we're doing some serious self-study on this.

Have you, white person, ever been caught in a scenario where a family member, friend, or colleague makes a racist comment and you sit silently, in collusion? Maybe you pointed fingers and thought to yourself "How wrong! That was racist! Shame on them!" and yet, did nothing to interrupt that behavior. Your silence is the White Liberal Chamber. Let us be very explicit: It is the problem.

You are not always a bystander in the WLC. Often, we are the perpetrators, politely engaging in racist behaviors. So, exiting the Chamber is not always as clear cut as speaking up.

I, Emily, have a personal story that touches on this. I was in a graduate level class and the professor assigned us a paper to write, but I left the class confused. I didn't understand the assignment. I texted a classmate, a woman of color, asking for clarification. She texted back with a helpful synopsis of the homework. I wrote back something to the extent of: "you are so intelligent. thanks for deciphering that for me." She responded something to the extent of: "that felt like a microaggression, and it hurt." Even as I'm constantly working to identify and disrupt my own racist behavior, I still find myself a perpetrator and it's super frustrating.

Understanding our role in WLC is the first step to exiting. If we can't recognize our own behavior and silence as racism, then we will be stuck in the White Liberal Chamber, while people of color continue to be systematically oppressed.

My (Emily's) classmate gave me the gift of honest and courageous feedback. She shared her experience and I listened. I focused on the impact of my comment, rather than the intention. I conceded to microaggressing. We connected. And for that small interaction, I am supremely grateful. I felt I exited in that brief moment.

Here are some other suggestions for exiting the White Liberal Chamber. By no means is this a comprehensive list:

  • Reflect on how you have colluded in the past so you can be prepared to act
  • Speak up
  • Choose the path of (more) resistance
  • Experience discomfort
  • Invite friends of color to hold you accountable (knowing if they accept, this would be a service of great generosity on their behalf )
  • Be vulnerable and humble (it's okay that you don't know what to say or do, just say or do something)
  • Listen deeply to people of color
  • Be embarrassed (it's going to be messy, and that is okay)
  • Talk to other Whites about the WLC
  • Welcome uncertainty
  • Choose curiosity (these moments can be learning treasure troves!)
  • Take responsibility

Commit now to leaving the White Liberal Chamber and staying out. Good intentions are not enough. This is going to be uncomfortable, so choose discomfort, as people of color don't have the choice. They are uncomfortable most of the time.