Safety pins, symbolism, and why I was like “naw, Son”.

How I’ve come full circle on the issue of safety pins thanks to Facebook.

12 min readNov 14, 2016


When I started running for public office, I lost the ability to craft columns about whatever crossed my mind at any particular moment. The Charleston City Paper had to let me go and, with that, the one platform I had to encourage thought and provoke emotion on a city-wide scale was no longer available to me.

And for the most part, I was fine with that. Writing columns for the CCP was truly a labor of love for me but — to be real — it felt good to NOT be called a “racist” or “divisive” for merely submitting my thoughts as a Black man to the paper’s overwhelmingly White readership.

Lately some things have happened that, had I still be writing for the CCP, I would have certainly discussed. Things like “Slave Babies”, “Gullah beer”, and a theatrical event that celebrates the awesomeness (sarcasm added by me) that was the last Christmas before the Civil War. Click the links to see the excellent coverage of each instance (minus the pre-Civil War Christmas joint, which from what I gathered, is just some lady trying to defend this questionable practice because it’s her job to do so) because giving a recap would not only be redundant but it will take away from what I’m really here to talk about which is the proliferation of safety pins since the election of Donald J. Trump as President of these United States.

“Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself”, Jay Z.

I feel it necessary to give some background before we get into the meat of my emotions. So my homie R. Dot sends a message in our group text this past Saturday about the rise of safety pins as symbols of solidarity. I read the article he sent us then responded by basically saying, “Ok. And?”

In short, I wasn’t with the shits. He said that I have trust issues. I laughed and told him that he was right and continued to watch ESPN.


My acceptance for symbolism in the wake of tragedy hit a high water mark last year when tens of thousands of Charlestonians decided to show unity in the wake of the Mother Emanuel murders by holding hands across the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge. “Viral” doesn’t even begin to describe how far and wide that news traveled. From the outset, it seemed like a beautiful thing but even then I wondered where we would go from there.

In my column entitled “With the Concerts and Unity Walks Behind Us, It’s Time to Address Our Racial Woes”, I openly congratulated my city for not imploding the way Dylann Roof wanted us to and for kicking our specific brand of hospitality up a notch. However, I wondered if people were ready to engage in the real work that it would take for a city with Charleston’s deplorable track record against the historically disenfranchised to actually unify. In that column, I wrote:

Some people are declaring that this coming together of blacks and whites after the Emanuel murders is simply for show, a facade put on by people who mean well but have no long-term intentions. For these critics, the unity bridge walks and singing are cool, but the problem is that we’re still not talking to each other — at least not in any meaningful way.

For a while, it seemed like we were in it for the long haul. And while I do not doubt the sincerity of those that engaged, I did worry if we would slip back into a sense of normalcy that would de-emphasize the fight for justice and would readily welcome the routine of our daily lives. In summary, while many new soldiers joined the fight for equality, the majority of the city went back to their regularly scheduled programs.

I wasn’t even mad about that. Self-preservation is one of the strongest human emotions that exist within us and mortgages don’t get paid off of goodwill. When you think about it, the fight for justice is really a war of attrition where most people get taken out of the battle because of the realities of economics, more-so than a lack of compassion for the issues.

But with that being said, I pretty much had my fill of symbolism for the sake of symbolism. It’s why I hate the pinkification of October. While people mean well with the purchase of their pink [insert item], time and again it’s proven that the majority of their money does NOT go towards actual cancer research. So their “work” is therefor reduced to commercialism.

These knee jerk reactions (purchasing something or updating your Facebook profile picture with an overlay) give people the sense that they are somehow “doing the work” to make change happen and has led to the rise of what some are calling slacktivism. While there is research that suggest that slacktivism CAN have a major impact on causes (see: how #BlackLivesMatters became more than just a hashtag) for the most part, these online battlecries don’t go past our smartphones or pink tee shirts.

Which leads me to this safety pin issue…

“Take That Monkey Shit Off, You Embarrassing Us”, Pimp C.

Safety pins? Seriously?

So anyway, I saw the safety pin thing, immediately poo-pooed the entire concept, and continued to live my life. That is until I came across an article, written by this White guy named Christopher Keelty, entitled “Dear White People, Your Safety Pins Are Embarrassing Us”.

It could have been click bait but that title was so good I had to see what this man was talking about — especially because it was a White guy and, at minimum, I wanted to see what other White people would think about it. After reading the article I decided to share it to my Facebook wall.

Then all hell broke loose…

Mind you, the majority of the people telling me how important these safety pins were White. In their opinion these pins showed down trodden and frustrated American minorities that they were one of “the good guys”. That they would be an ally in the rise of hatred and bigotry that Trump’s Presidential victory has seemingly unleashed.

To me, these pins were nothing but a way for White people who didn’t vote for Trump to let Blacks/Muslims/LGBTQs know “Hey, I didn’t vote for Trump”. It was an avenue for White people to avoid getting lumped into a monolith complied of other White people who were being considered “hate-mongers that overlooked sexual assault and racist rhetoric”, or at minimum, “White people that wanted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” (whatever that means).

If I can be honest, that’s the aspect of the safety pins pissed me off the most.

“You Wasn’t With Me Shooting In the Gym”, Drake.

Part of what sucks about being a minority in this country is getting lumped into negative monoliths (aka stereotypes) ALL. THE. DAMN. TIME. For the first time, White people were getting a taste of that castor oil and immediately decided that they wanted noooooo parts of that.

I thought “That’s what this whole ‘ally’ thing is really about” and that’s why I dismissed its very existence.

See, to be a Muslim in America means that every time some ISIS nutjob decides to behead someone, put a young girl into sexual slavery, or blow up a building in the name of Allah, YOU have to carry that burden as well. You get called a terrorist and are told to take off your hijab because it makes others feel uncomfortable. You and your religion are now inherently evil because an extreme minority of Islamics use it to justify war and murder.

To be LGBTQ in America means that you don’t get the same rights as other Americans because “ADAM AND EVE, NOT ADAM AND STEVE”. It means that where you decide to piss becomes fodder for televised national debates. It means that States (see: North Carolina) can pass laws that make it perfectly legal for businesses to deny you services. It means that people will think that you’re trying to “make their kids gay” or that you’re some kind of pedophile or sexual deviant.

To be Black means in American means that you are more likely to be killed by the police. It means that you’ll face higher rates of housing or job discrimination because of your name. It means that most of America will believe that you’re lazy and looking for handouts. It also means that if you don’t like being accused of any of those things, you can “go back to Africa”. Which…is just…all kinds of stupid.

And those were just a few of the negative generalizations that I could think of off the top of my head.

My point is we’ve BEEN living within the walls of these monoliths. We’ve had to learn to cope with the fact that while there may be no factual evidence that we’ve done any of the negative things that get associated with our kind, that won’t stop people from treating us like we have.

Where was our safety pin?

Where was my symbol to show White America that I’m one of the “good Blacks” or that my friend Taji is one of the “good Muslims” or that Micah is one of the “good gays”? We never got one. Our calm demeanor in the face of prejudice, our ability to cooperate with the police, our college degrees; I guess those were supposed to be our safety pins — our way to show you that we mean no harm.

Call it jealousy. Call it envy. But that’s why I wasn’t with the safety pin movement. We’ve been dealing with this stuff forever and a week into their brush with monoliths, White people had already discovered a way out. Part of me was like damn, “if I knew that all I had to do was wear a safety pin to avoid all this crap, I would have done it years ago”. The fact is, the people in this county that have been getting dumped on never got the reprieve of such inventiveness. We had to eat shit and like it.

Even Dave Chappelle said it in his opening monologue for Saturday Night Live last week, if he could quit being Black — he’d get out the game. I laughed but I understood 100% what he meant. Outside of hip-hop culture, Greek step-shows, and soul food, sometimes it really sucks being Black in America.

I’m sure my Muslim and LGBTQ people feel the same way.

Also, how friggin’ lazy is a safety pin?! Not only it is a bootleg version of the BREXIT protest (and that Marcus Troy was trying to make safety pins a fashion statement since 2013), it’s the least foolproof way of proving your allegiance of all time. What would prevent a bunch of Trump supporters or random dudes up to no-good to slap on a pin, make you lower your guard, and catch you slipping? The answer is NOTHING. Nice people don’t own a monopoly on safety pins.


“I Ain’t Mad Atcha”, Tupac.

Let me say that while I stand by my original reasons for not being an early adopter of this safety pin movement, the dialogue that was held on my Facebook post did get me to look at this situation from a different point of view.

First, I can’t stop slacktivism nor is it my job to do so. And to be honest, I’ve participated in some form of slacktivism at some point in my life so I should really be more chill about the whole subject.

And yes, minorities of all types haven’t had the luxury of symbolism to prove that we aren’t here for the tomfoolery. That sucks but what’s done is done.

However, what I missed in my eye rolling is that this election has opened the eyes of many a White person. These safety pins are being worn by those that now see America through a lens that has been ever present to minorities. They finally see the America that leads athletes to kneel during the National Anthem. They see the hypocritical America that says one thing but does another. They realize that we weren’t crazy: America is hella racist and they want to help.

I will take them up on that offer. I mean think about it: slavery, while fucking disgusting, was not abolished by Black people alone. Same for Jim Crow. In our battle equality it will require help from all sides and all people.

Gay people need straight people.

Muslims need Christians.

The old need the young.

Black people need White people.

Biggie fans need Tupac fans. So forth and so on.

A while ago I posted on Facebook that I’m no longer going to be silent in the face of inequality. My exact words were:

I’m not going to be polite when discussing economic disparities anymore. I’m not going to be civil when discussing discrimination. I’m not concerning myself with your fragility when it comes to racial issues. I will not go quietly into the night. I will not shrink myself for your comfort and I will encourage others to do the same. I will test the limits of your rhetoric on the subjects of unity, inclusion, understanding, and freedom of speech.

I’m still on that tip. And trust, in a month I’ll be releasing some products via Charleston Sticks Together that will likely cause an uproar in my attempts to lampoon the romanticized views of the South and discuss the undercover racism that is an all to familiar part of South Carolina’s history. But in order for it to take an effective tone, I’ll need support from as many people as possible.

That means, I need to make it my business to show support for those that want to help but have no clue where to direct their energy. I now see these safety pins as for a cry for help as much as it is a announcement to be of assistance.

Kat Morgan, y’all (via TedxCharleston)

Step one in that regard is getting y’all familiar with people like Kat Morgan. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking on a panel discussion about race and inclusion with Kat and found her to be as genuine as she was entertaining. Most recently, she was a featured speaker at TEDxCharleston where she spoke about (drumroll please) being an ally for racial justice!

Kat shows companies how to create purposeful positive change within their organizations and teaches White people what to do when they want to be of assistance to minorities but don’t know how to do it through her work with the SURJ organization.

I get it, this Trump stuff is scary business. White people want to use these pins to announce their willingness to be an ally and to feel safe in these uncertain times. They should be allowed that opportunity.

In the same light, American minorities have the right to be angry or feel betrayed or however else they want to feel. If they don’t “get” the pin concept or don’t want to accept it, they should be allowed that opportunity as well.

As for me, I owe it to those that have reached out expressing their desire to be an ally, to facilitate that transaction. At the end of the day, it’s going to take all hands on deck to make the changes we want to see and 2018 will be here before you know it. “Let’s get, get, get it!” [R.I.P. Shawty Lo]

KJ Kearney is a native of North Charleston who recently ran for a House of Representative seat in South Carolina, scooped up 45% of the vote — and still lost. No worries, this community relations consultant is a public speaker (BOOK HIM), has designed a hat for a minor league baseball team, was a 2016 national AAN award nominated columnist for his work in the local alt-newspaper, and wrote a children’s book about sneakers (it hasn’t been published yet).

Although his professional friends have advised him to start a LinkedIn profile, he hasn’t. But he IS on Instagram (FOLLOW HIM). Lastly, he will be selling lapel pins that attempt to lampoon the romanticized views of the old South through the Charleston Sticks Together brand starting next month — hopefully.




These are the thoughts of KJ Kearney, founder of the Charleston Sticks Together brand.