I’m standing in the middle of a new but familiar space – a standard-issue community center classroom, spotted with tables and stackable chairs. At the front, a whiteboard holds taped-up pieces of draft paper covered in cheerful instructions in English and Spanish. Tinny music is playing from someone’s smartphone, and the people in the room mill around each other, waiting for the song to stop.
We are performing the ubiquitous activist meeting opening ritual: an Icebreaker Activity.
I am virulently introverted; I dread Icebreaker Activities. This time we’ve been told to amble around like we’re playing musical chairs, with the optimistic encouragement to “move however you feel called in the moment,” as if forty-odd strangers are going to spontaneously be called to break into ecstatic dance. When the music stops, we’ll be given a question to discuss with whoever’s closest to us.
I actually like to dance, but right now all I can muster is a hokey white-person shuffle, smiling wryly to falsely imply I’m being awkward on purpose. The music stops as I shuffle near a black man who’s about a decade older than me. “I guess it’s you and me, huh?” he says. I do a goofy thumbs-up and immediately hate myself a little.
My partner is George, and he’s representing his labor union. I tell him I volunteer with a climate justice group. Up at the whiteboard, our conversation topic has been revealed. It’s a version of that cartoon where a school of little fish is ganging up to eat a big one, with a prompt scrawled below: WHAT DO YOU THINK??!
George and I look at each other. “Well,” he says slowly, “I think it’s a poorly phrased question, for one thing. Want to talk about something else?”
“Definitely,” I say.
It’s the first time anybody’s obliquely admitted to disliking these rituals as much as I do. My exposure to activists tends more to groups of earnest white people who want you to describe your experience of racial guilt during circle introductions.
We decide to just share why we’re there at the training. It’s the beginning session of four days of workshops and actions planned by a local coalition. The organizations involved are diverse but share a common target, a handful of powerful corporations based in our city. George is working to increase minimum pay and benefits for his janitorial union. Others in the room are fighting against slumlords, blatant wage theft, or threats of deportation.
“So,” says George, “what does your group do? Why are you here?”
My mind immediately goes blank. I thought I’d sidestepped the annoyingly abstract question, but even faced with these two straightforward ones, I can’t craft a succinct response. It’s not because there isn’t one – my group is pushing U.S. Bank to divest from fossil fuels, and we’re there because combined pressure on multiple fronts is better than isolated pressure on one front. We’re there because none of the offenses of capitalism happen in a vacuum.
And yet, even that answer, the one that looks so good and direct on paper, doesn’t feel true in the moment. Not as true as, “I’m here to keep my family together;” or, “My landlord wants to sue me over the roaches infesting his building;” or, “My boss changed one word in my job title and cut my pay by $10,000 a year.”
I realize that despite my smartass disdain of Icebreaker Activities, my problem today isn’t that I’m too socially awkward for them. The problem is that I’ve turned them into an echo chamber of moderate left jargon, and in this setting, I’m embarrassed to trot out those usual responses.
I want to say something direct, concrete, and true. But I’m a white person who’s always benefitted materially from capitalism and racism, as much as I might object to that reality. If there’s a true answer to why I want change, it’s not a concrete one, because my concrete relationship to the status quo is mostly positive. My most true answer is abstract, emotional, spiritual.
Of course, everyone at workshops like this has their own messy, gut-level motivations. But that doesn’t make those depths less vulnerable and overwhelming. I don’t know how to dip my toe in without diving headlong below the surface. I don’t have answers that are both true and coherent.
So I’ve learned to fake it. I spout phrases like “systemic inequality” and “dismantling privilege” and “active followership.” It’s ivory tower language, gleaned from years of reading and reinforced by the white-dominated, upper-middle-class spaces I usually work in. This stilted language has mostly served me well, undercut by a casual air and some mild cursing to show I’m not an asshole.
Suddenly, in an intentionally diverse space, I’m caught with my mouth open and my thoughts jammed, feeling very much like an asshole. The filter I’ve relied on to speak more easily has revealed its true nature: it may provide me with quick words, but nothing genuine gets through. It’s not a filter, it’s a wall.
I manage to come up with something to say to George, and he nods politely. We awkwardly break ice for a few more minutes. Then the music starts up again and we amble on.
There’s always an aspect of vulnerability in the act of demanding change, of metaphorically or literally waving your arms around in public saying you think shit’s really broken. No matter what your personal narrative is, what level of danger you face, it’s tempting to hold back, to choose words that protect against full exposure.
When you’re in a position of privilege, that temptation is toxic. It’s so easy to learn how to sound engaged without actually taking a true risk, without saying, contributing, or discovering anything real. And in some spaces, it’s easy to coast along with those protective, pretentious words, thinking you’re doing the work when really you’re just memorizing the lines. Eventually, though, that script won’t be enough.
I don’t yet know how to resolve this struggle for myself, to productively walk the edge between radical honesty and emotional boundaries. Maybe I’m not giving the dreaded Icebreaker Activity enough credit – it may not have cracked any walls, but at least it’s broken my illusions I knew what I was talking about.
Later on during the workshop, I get another chance to talk to George. This time we’re just chatting, and I tell him about my one-woman housekeeping business. Before starting it, I worked for a big franchise and got crap pay with a bonus of general contempt. I could successfully go it alone because unlike many of my coworkers, I had some savings and a well-off social network to tap for clients.
George and I shake our heads over how much bullshit it is that you need money to make money, and that his union has to fight so hard for what I could get with some basic initiative. Even though we’re talking from opposite sides of an unjust divide, I find I’m not struggling for words. I know that when our paths cross at some action or another, we’ll probably talk again.
We’re connecting as people, without any dictated jargon or agenda. Sometimes, those connections feel like the most basic and vital kind of radical act.