I’ll Still Wear the Pin, Thanks.
The last week has been difficult.
I watched as a country revealed an extreme division that resulted in the election of a president that clearly is supported by one demographic. He has used hate speech, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and ableism to unite a core group of supporters who felt abandoned in the midst of conversations and federal actions to ensure a more just union. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that there were so many who could either justify and ignore that sort of rhetoric or find a safe home in it.
I went into each of my classrooms this week, dreading what might occur. My students are tired, scared, angry and confused. They are just starting their adult life, and suddenly they are facing a government that might further marginalize them. Some will see family members deported. Some will never be able to reconnect with people who had hoped to immigrate. Some will lose faith in being able to find justice for mistreatment by the powers that be. And now they know that there is a large portion of the country that doesn’t care about them, just because of their race, gender, or sexuality.
I don’t teach for the paycheck or prestige. I will not get rich or find fame grading essays. In fact, I’m very nervous about what this election will do to colleges and universities across the country, since one of the largest uniting factors of voters for Trump was their lack of an education. This has practical and social implications, too. It’s not like we’ve been doing a good job as a country of making intellectualism sexy.
I could feel destroyed and despondent about this. I’ve never been very good at staying down, though. I like to find ways to fight back.
So I taught. I engaged students in difficult conversations and made it clear how important communication can be. I reemphasized the value of questioning the things you read and finding trustworthy sources. I asked them to think about why they were in school — to get a job or to gain knowledge to do more.
I started writing. The power of the pen has been essential throughout U.S. history and even if it’s not the sexiest thing, I decided that I would use my mind and my words to try and unite people who feel alone and distanced. This can happen through essays like this or the fiction that I focus on. The point is always empathy and understanding. The point is connection.
Then, last week, I secured 3 safety pins to the shoulder strap of my bag. I had seen a post on my Facebook page about what this symbol was to mean, and I thought, “Hey, I can do that.”
I am not surprised that this effort, too, has already been shit upon.
When I read the article in the Huffington Post, I was a bit agitated. The argument was simple — symbols mean little when there are real problems in the world. This symbol, according to the author, was nothing more than a very privileged, shallow effort to assuage guilt amongst liberal whites wishing to show that they are an ally despite the fact that we, as a demographic, “fucked up.”
Well, if the shoe fits.
I tried. I tried to confront the many racist people that I know. I tried to engage the white people that I know and love in an effort to open their eyes to their blind spots. I tried to make those that I care for and share many ideas in common with see that voting for a third party is probably a really bad idea. I tried to get people that voted with me for Bernie Sanders in the primary see that, while Hillary Clinton is certainly a politician with all the complications that often carries, she’s a damn good one and the best qualified for the job. I marched. I rallied. I taught. I tried. But I guess I still fucked up because I couldn’t seem to burrow through the massive amounts of media misinformation, slander, traditional politics, generations of separatist efforts, community division and the general psychological phenomenon of Othering. But God dammit, I tried.
I am a liberal white male. It’s who I am. I have a choice in part of it and less of a choice in others. I have privilege. I admit it. In fact, beyond school funding and what happens to the ACA (again, we don’t pay teachers very well, so financial security is one privilege I lack), I am not likely to be affected by the social changes we might see over the next few years unless I choose to be.
But here’s the deal. I choose to be. I have for a while now.
Over the last five years, I have lived in Harlem (Manhattan), Bed Stuy, and now Crown Heights (both in Brooklyn). I have recognized that I am part of a continued pattern of gentrification in these neighborhoods, so I try to be a good neighbor. I know the people on my block. I shop and eat almost exclusively at places owned by local business owners.
And I always stop to tape every interaction between the police and the people in my area. I participate in direct action. I donate to charities. I call other men out for cat calling women. I discuss the place of religious ideology in a secular society with people who would rather condemn the people they know to hell. I walk women I know home at night. And the women I don’t know, I give them space so they don’t have to feel worried about someone who looks like me following them home. I advocate the legalization of marijuana even though I don’t smoke it, and I talk to my dealer friends about getting an education because if it is legalized, their economy will collapse. I have tutored. I have provided my professional skills to projects for the underprivileged, and I volunteer. I don’t list this because I want a pat on the back. It becomes necessary to prove my point about responsibility and where the pins come in.
See, I have privileges. It’s not enough for me to simply recognize them. I have to use them to the benefit of those around me. In other words, to pull from Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility and let’s face it — being a 6'5" white man is almost a super power in our culture. So yes, I step up, even if it puts me in a less safe situation.
What I am confused about is that the previously mentioned article pretends as if the safety pin and other efforts for equality are mutually exclusive — as if I’ll feel so good about myself for putting on some tiny bits of metal that I’ll stop teaching Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist in my class. But that’s just terrible logic. There’s no sense in it, and there’s more historical evidence going the other way, especially in times of social upheaval. Symbols matter, too.
There is a long history of the use of symbology being used to show solidarity. The peace sign. The raised fist. The red ribbon. The rainbow flag. The red beret. All of these things mean something, and it is because the people who donned them gave them meaning through action. Yes, protest and donations are great ways of doing something, but the goal in those situations are often long term (I do that, too). Action must also be taken in the moment. I wear the pin because if it is needed, I’m in. I’m there to help. I am safe, and I will work to ensure that those around me are also safe. What’s important to note is that in my case, this changes nothing about how I interact in society. It is simply a visual cue for others who might, at some point, for some reason, require an ally or a helping hand. I do not wear it for me.
The hardship of this moment in U.S. history has left many feeling apathetic or wrestling with an unfocused sense of rage. While both are understandable, I don’t think either are helpful. I also don’t think continued efforts of divisiveness, such as criticizing others for their want to demonstrate support, is incredibly useful.
Yes, the people who voted Trump into office and gave the majority of congress to conservatives were almost exclusively white. But we also saw the lowest voter turnout in 20 years. Just over half of eligible voters showed up. I think maybe discouraging participation and suggesting that the things we do don’t really matter may be part of the problem. Because of the liberal sense of disenfranchisement and lack of effort, extreme power was given to a demagogue by a fraction of this country. I find that unacceptable. I will stand against it in every way that is appropriate and that I am able.
So, chastise me if you want for wearing a pin. Claim it’s self serving. Fine. Whatever. Fuck you. But here’s the truth — I’m still fighting. I will continue to fight. And if anyone needs me to stand by them, I hope they see these pins because I am there. My actions say who I am. My symbol is just advertising.
But please, maybe, possibly, could we try to encourage any sense of unity right now toward the marginalized? Could we not continue to shit on each other to prove who’s the better ally? Because that is some privileged-ass bullshit too. There’s just too much work to do.