As A Committed White Ally, I’m Not Wearing A Safety Pin

I’m not wearing a decorative safety pin.

While I do reserve the right to wear them to assist in clothing repair, there isn’t and won’t be one on my Facebook picture or my Twitter header or affixed to my lapel.

The safety pin comes to us in the wake of the Brexit referendum in June as hate crimes against immigrants surged in the UK. As reported at The Guardian:

“Allison, who preferred not to give her last name, wanted to do something to show solidarity with immigrants living in the UK. As an American living in London, she had been unable to vote in the referendum, but was concerned about the increase in reports of abuse.”
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The intent behind the symbol is, of course, a positive one. That said, there are some profound issues with this viral display — which is why I’m here to collect the pins being proudly displayed by my “well-meaning” white brothers and sisters.

I’m going to ask you to consider what you are actually communicating with your “safety” pins; this will require hearing some uncomfortable truths and being willing to look your privilege in the face. Asking that of white folks gets incredibly exhausting incredibly quickly for people of color, as it does for many, many marginalized people; we need to be more willing to do it for and to each other. It cannot always be on the oppressed to teach those who benefit from their oppression what is harmful and what is helpful.

And calling out those who presume to be allies is often met with the most combative responses, as recently described by Ijeoma Oluo.

A thin piece of metal cannot make me a safe space. I cannot don a symbol and magically transform into someone who can be trusted by those whose marginalized identities differ from mine. I would never presume that anyone would or should inherently trust me — that is not my assessment to make. A safety pin cannot erase the ways my whiteness has benefited me or the remnants of a racist heritage I will have to work for the rest of my life to identify and exorcise.

Were I to pin myself, I would be asking people of color — were they to even spot the small, metallic sign — to automatically confer upon me a trusted ally status. Do I hope that my friends and colleagues basically see me that way most of the time? Yes. Of course. I would hope that after years of being open to correction and learning how to follow their lead that I have become all I could ask for: a white ally they can trust as much as they can ever trust someone who does not share their lived experience.

But literally labeling myself a “safe space” would be outrageously presumptuous. No amount of anti-racist work or listening could give me a true understanding of what it’s like to fear that I could be shot on sight or incarcerated before being deported simply for walking down the street in the skin I was born with or for praying in my house of worship. If I live to be 100, I could not begin to understand the weight of centuries of oppression — the kind bubbled up through the cracks with such force that we have elected a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

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The subhead from the Vox article on the booming safety pin craze is the perfect microcosm of why so many rolled their eyes when the Brexit-inspired symbol crossed the pond: “It starts with a safety pin.” As if a safety pin is even a start. As if generations of civil rights workers who bled and died in the streets weren’t the actual start. As if those who risked their lives to lead or hide runaway slaves weren’t the actual start. As if the protests in Ferguson weren’t the actual start.

How many of you wearing a safety pin today own Black Lives Matter shirts or hats? Or a pin designed by a Black artist? How many of you have affixed a symbol that cannot be misread — like these handmade pins from WindyCreations? (She does custom work, for those who want to express solidarity with more than one group!)

How many of you have even shared an article about protests or campaigns for Black lives or immigrant lives or transgender lives on your Facebook page? How many of you face the anxiety of pushing back on the words spoken by your relatives at Thanksgiving or by your high school friends in the comments on your wall? Or do you avoid the topics that could cause you five minutes of conflict, taking the easy way out while those who cannot avoid such conflict in their daily lives are left to hope the next stranger who approaches them is wearing a safety pin?

To be clear, not every marginalized person is pushing back on safety pins. In a culture that erases lived experiences and paints over our history with a glaze of patriotism and undue praise for those who built our white supremacist patriarchy, it’s understandable why a sign that people are doing anything might be welcome. A safety pin paired with vocal and/or visible support makes sense, and my criticism is not of those who are adding this symbol to their other actions. But after years of organizing and activism I have trouble trusting that those with safety pin profile pictures are doing more than assuaging their guilt and making themselves feel better for not having spoken up or worked in their communities to prevent the forthcoming devastation.

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My friend Sarah Kay, a UK-based human rights lawyer, and I reached our limit on the new wave of safety pins at roughly the same moment on Saturday. She knows I focus on several domestic social justice issues and don’t always get the intricate details of goings on beyond our borders, so she agreed to give me the international intersectional feminist assist on how the trend started in Europe.

“In the immediate aftermath of the referendum on a possible exit from the EU on June 23, there was a wave of racially motivated violence in England — even in a pocket of large diversity and pro-EU sentiment such as London,” Kay told me.

“Muslims, Blacks, or even any foreigner reported incidents of verbal and physical abuse. It quickly embodied the rapid shift in political attitude in England: emboldened racism, empowered violence, return to obsolete imperialism. It manifested itself through speeches by the government claiming they would ‘make a list’ of foreign workers in the UK, supposedly banning EU academics from providing advice to the Foreign Office, etc etc.”

It’s not hard to see the parallels and why a fad born out of that conflict would seem appropriate to use here. Just two days after the election, Trump doubled down on being open to requiring Muslims in the U.S. to register in a database. Would he really? “[I] would certainly implement that — absolutely.” The BBC is reporting a spike in hate crimes, one USA Today is deeming “worse than post-9/11.”

Kay told me that while things have died down slightly, six months later racists and bigots remain emboldened in the UK.

“Just a few weeks ago, over 8,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Calais were on the verge of being evacuated from their makeshift homes, and an accord was reached — with immense difficulty — between UK and French authorities to resettle unaccompanied minors to the UK. The press coverage was nauseating . . . Schools sent letters to parents asking to register their child’s ethnicity.”

I asked her with a sigh what safety pins were supposed to do to help.

“As a result [of the uptick in violence], grassroots positions, ideas, slogans popped up, as they so often do in the era of social media,” she said. “That’s how the safety pin symbol arrived: Anyone who would not assault an immigrant, scream at refugees, kick homeless people, or harass Muslim women could wear a safety pin on their lapel.”

I didn’t bother to hide my sarcasm when I inquired as to whether the safety pin wearers were moved to do more. Kay’s response was measured, her lawyer side reminding me that there’s no accurate way to see how many of those were moved to get involved for the first time and just decorated their lapels as a first step.

“A lot of people are scared,” she told me.
“A lot of people have no prior experience of engaging in grassroots community work or activism and usually just ask questions about what they can do. They feel that doing this is a meaningful way of expressing themselves. I am not sure whether this is entirely a display of political complacency, that we are lulled into thinking this is enough, or if there is a failure on our part — us being the activists — to share and educate about how reaction and resistance work. It’s probably various ratios of both.”

Kay isn’t calling out the activists en masse; she’s simply holding herself and us accountable, not just putting the onus on those who are being forced for the first time to confront the rampant racism in their culture. Like many of my friends and colleagues, she has considered what else needs to be done. We failed to prevent Brexit, failed to prevent Trump. What do we do now?

“Many talk about small acts of kindness, which can indeed turn someone’s day around. But they’re not enough; there has to be a commitment,” Kay said. “Something on your lapel is not necessarily going to be immediately noticed by bystanders, and it will definitely not going to do anything about your cabbie kicking you out of the car, or someone smashing your head into a subway pole. That hasn’t ceased. I think this is a defining moment for a lot of people . . . It has to be more than petitions, more than statuses.”

She and I both have relatively little patience for the bare minimum. While I abhor what I call “role shaming” in activism — shaming people for not being in the streets or “only” participating online and/or not also donating to causes — because it erases the real costs for those with disabilities, limited resources, etc., I share her intolerance of those who would congratulate themselves for being part of a movement just because they now wear a pin. And while she is generous in her empathy for those who are newly afraid in both of our countries, her words are unflinching.

“People should be afraid. It’s a perfectly legitimate feeling to have, to be anxious, to have difficulty to verbalize what this means,” Kay said. “[B]ut let’s be real: People of color, transfolk, LGBTQI folk, and undocumented immigrants in the US are not new to this climate. They have been experiencing a gradual, but quick, degradation of their sense of safety — which was never much in the first place. We’re talking racial profiling, police violence, systematic surveillance, mass incarceration, discrimination in education, employment and housing, etc. This is not something that they are suddenly waking up to.”

For some, the shock may take a minute to wear off and all they can do at this moment is cling to a safety pin. Kay and I are both reasonably considerate of the panic that comes when you realize something awful about your culture — about your very friends and neighbors. But we aren’t here to coddle them for long.

“There must be a grieving, mourning period, [but] it can’t last until the inauguration,” she said. “There will be no grace period for those who do not want to live under a Trump regime, which means reaction must start now. Our reflexes must extend to others. The question is, can we afford to train others to survive on something more than cheap symbolism?”

For those who want to move beyond cheap symbolism, I have some ally-in-training advice. I remember how hard it was not knowing where to start. I encourage you to become an active listener. Watch independent media and read things that make you uncomfortable. While you learn the words to publicly push back on your racist friends and neighbors, sharing a link or a clip in the comments of their inaccurate and/or bigoted posts are a great way to voice your displeasure.

You can join groups and donate, of course! To become part of the work that dismantles White Supremacy, however, there’s no substitute for re-learning our history and listening to as many lived experiences as you can. You’ll find that those efforts will make you a safer space than a pin ever can.

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Lead image: Anders Bornholm