A Safety Pin Primer For White People
Ok, so it’s been a long week for anyone who is deeply rattled by the fact that America just elected its first xenophobic, racist, fascist, pro-sexual assault president. Don’t make me fact check that. I’m not 100% sure it’s the first time; it’s the first time in my lifetime. And I’ve not slept more than five hours a night in the last week. I’ve marched in protests, raged and wept with students whose lives will be deeply impacted by Trump’s policies, raged and wept with coworkers and friends who have already been subjected to hate bias attacks. I even attended a yoga class where virtually everyone was crying the whole time (that was a shocker). It’s been a lot.
But somehow, by Saturday night, instead of crawling into bed after coming home from another protest, I was up in the thick of a debate in a parenting group I moderate about whether or not wearing a safety pin was an appropriate show of solidarity with marginalized groups.
For those of you blissfully unaware of this trend, the idea is that if you wear a safety pin, then anyone who belongs to a vulnerable group — a person of color, an immigrant, a Muslim, an LGBTQ person, a woman, and so on, could come to you for help if they were being targeted or felt unsafe in public. They would know you were an ally and willing to help. They would know you were safe. It was something that started in the UK after Brexit, as an act of solidarity with immigrants and refugees. After hate bias incidents and crimes started happening here after the election, it popped up on social media as an act of solidarity we could do.
And, almost instantly, activists of color, in particular, were not impressed. Ijeoma Oluo, a writer, speaker, and “Internet yeller” posted on Facebook,
You could quietly voice your support of POC, Muslims & LGBTQ folk with a safety pin, OR YOU COULD YELL IT AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS.
The response this set off in my group was instant. “Both” someone commented, “Or you could do both.” And we were off. Some members of color and white folks were very clear that wearing safety pins was a silly way for (mostly) white people to feel like they are doing something for justice while not really doing anything. Other (mostly) white folks were very passionate that we should allow people to take action where they feel they can, and that along with other concrete steps, wearing a safety pin was one way for people to show solidarity. A couple gay folks jumped in to say they loved it, some members of color weighed in pro-pin, white folks said their Muslim and black friends had endorsed it. People of color complained of tone policing, some whites liked their comments. Members threatened to leave the group.
The dumpster fire-level of a debate happening in my group about safety pins was a raging wildfire in the comments to Ijeoma Oluo’s post, except, there, white people were threatening her, telling her she was racist and worse. One white woman even wrote to one of her employers asking them to fire her. Yes, that happened.
But I am not here to re-live all that. I am here to speak to my white friends. (Side note: I shouldn’t have to do this, because Oluo already has, more beautifully than I ever could. You should go read that now. I can wait… But because white privilege, some of you will read my essay and actually get it. Yes, that sucks. Yes, it is still true.)
So, white friends, my white brethren… Please know that I love you, so, so much. But we have really messed up. I am pissed as hell at those of you who voted for Trump. If you are donning a safety pin to fuck with people, cut that shit out right now. You’ve done enough damage, m’kay? But I am not here to talk to you, I will deal with you elsewhere
For those of you progressive and liberal white folks who saw this safety pin thing and rushed to your junk drawer and put one on every jacket in the house and changed your profile pic to a safety pin, take a breather for a minute. We are REALLY trying not mess things up even more, right? You can still wear your pin if you really want to.
But let me tell what you have to stop doing.
If a person of color or a queer person or a Muslim tells you — even if they are not telling you directly to your face, if it’s just say, a Facebook post that a friend of a friend shared in a racial justice group you just joined after the election because now you know you have do SOMETHING — if said person of color says they think your safety pin is a hollow symbol of your solidarity, and they still don’t trust you, DON’T TELL THEM THEY ARE WRONG. Don’t comment on the post that they are wrong. Just don’t. Don’t tell them they are shaming you. Don’t remind them you are on their side. Don’t ask them why they are discouraging your effort to stand up for them. Don’t tell them your black/gay/Muslim/refugee friend gave you your safety pin. And for God fucking sake don’t threaten their livelihood. Look, I know that sometimes it can be confusing to be told, “you’re doing it wrong,” when you showed up with good intentions. Heck, it might even piss you off. But don’t hit that reply button.
White people who have just heard a critique of your symbol of solidarity: This is your script for actually being in solidarity with people of color, queer and trans folks, Muslims, immigrants, and other marginalized people: “I hear you. I will do everything in my power to show up for you in the ways you need me to.”
Then, wear your safety pin, or take your safety pin off. If you wear one, some people will appreciate it, some people will not. What matters most though, is that you, as a white person are not telling marginalized folks how they should be accepting their solidarity or your activism from white people. Marginalized folks have been on the receiving end of fake or hollow allyship behaviors for basically all of eternity, so just accept that there are some who are not going to be excited about your safety pins. It’s not personal. If you have burning questions, confusion that must be worked out, anger that needs quelling, turn to communities of white anti-racists — they are literally all over Facebook and the internet (start with Showing Up for Racial Justice). Post a question in a forum, and work it all out in a place where people of color who have been repeatedly harmed by, and are are tired of these conversations, won’t be subjected to our growth out of bias and into anti-racism.
And, show up for racial and social justice work amidst confusion about your activism, anyway. Do the hard work of solidarity, like standing up to hate when you see it and organizing in your town to help undocumented immigrants as shit starts to hit the fan. Not because it’s easy, like clipping on a safety pin, but because it might just help snatch America from the jaws of hell.
I would really love to stop talking about fucking safety pins and direct our precious little time and brilliant minds on building the resistance in other ways. The working title of this piece was “The safety pin debate makes me want to stab my eyes out with a safety pin.” I hate it that much. But, I am not the decider of these things. Despite being irritated that I even have to finish this paragraph, I really can see that this debate holds meaning and rich layers to explore around race, privilege, solidarity and symbols, not just now, but throughout history. I know my thoughts on the subject won’t settle the matter.
But y’all are gonna have to proceed on this one without me. The only thing I ask is that the next time some people of color question a trend in white solidarity, at least publicly, just remember our script: “I hear you. I will do everything in my power to show up for you in the ways you need me to.”
Side notes: I am not a medium-proficient writer, forgive any formatting or platform faux pas (did I even spell that right?). I just needed a platform to get this out there fast before I got my kid from preschool. Do not ask me about joining my parenting group. It is not open to non-local members. Love you, mean it. To the resistance!