Here’s why I’m not wearing a safety pin:

Sergeants in the military don’t wear stripes because they really want to be sergeants. Or because they swear they’ll act like sergeants when it comes down to it. Nor do they do it because they feel guilt by association for looking like the people who don’t have stripes.

Soldiers earn their stripes through their own actions. And if they ever did anything to violate the privileges that come with those stripes, the people they serve will tear them right off the sleeves, with everyone watching.

The big problem to me with the safety pin is the idea that people who are actively experiencing oppression should just look for people with a pin and go, oh, just what I need, there goes a good (usually) white person. Just about anyone who doesn’t present as straight, white and male has earned through lived experience the perception that the people who do look that way, or more that way than they do, is potentially, at that moment, an oppressor.

As nearly anyone who’s taken implicit bias training knows, even in the comfort of an office or a classroom, we’ll see someone who’s not like us and think the worst of them.

If we don’t let others shed their skin when we look at them, why should we expect them to let us shed ours?

As white people, there is nothing we can do to distance ourselves from our role as a race in what just happened. For what is continuing to happen. For what has been happening for a long time. There’s no quick fix for that. We don’t get to deputize ourselves as the White Helper People and then just expect an invitation to the cookout. It’s a gesture that proves more hollow every time someone reaches out and is then let down.

How would you feel if a person you allowed to be verbally and/or physically abused came over and ripped the pin off your lapel? If your response is anything but shame (e.g., anger, defensiveness, recrimination), you’re not prepared to stand up for others. The only reason to assume this role is service to others. It must be purely selfless: not about your feelings, not about your family, not about the color of your skin. Either way, the pin is a worthless gesture. It demands recognition that has not demonstrably been earned.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be there for people when they need you. Read up on techniques for being an ally in all situations, including ones that involve real or potential violence. But you don’t need to wear anything to be a good person, at least for a moment. People who are in extremis as a result of an attack by a bigot will not be looking for a safety pin when they need one. If you’re wearing one and fail or refuse to help, you’ll compound their suffering.

So, what to do? The work. The work. The work. It is right action, not forgiveness, that will make things better. Own the fact that, if you’re white, people like you have historically been the ones who put others in the situation where their safety is at risk, and it doesn’t matter to anyone that your heart is in the right place if the rest of your body, the rest of your safety, isn’t there as well.

If you want to say something, say you’re sorry. Say Black Lives Matter. Something. Don’t rely on symbolism to take the place of saying, in words, that things aren’t okay. And keep saying all of that until things are okay. Especially in the places where those things aren’t as safe to say.

Try the Thanksgiving table.

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