On Safety Pins, Symbols, & Solidarity

Image description: About 2 dozen large silvery safety pins scattered across a piece of brown and black patterned fabric with bits of bright green and yellow in the design.

There are a lot of thoughts about the wear-a-safety-pin-in-solidarity campaign going around. There are people who think it’s a great idea, others who say it is a meaningless gesture, some who say it is more feel-good than actual good, and unfortunately also some white Nationalists/neo-Nazis who have pledged to wear it themselves to find easy victims.

My initial inclination was to come out on the side of “it can’t hurt, but be thoughtful so it’s not an empty thing devoid of action” about the pins. I have said

The discussion I have tried to instigate locally is that wearing it is a responsibility. I support doing it, and I’m grateful that people are trying to find a way to do something. But I am reminding them that wearing it cannot be the limit of the work. If you put it out there that you are a safe person to come to, then you also have to take action when someone comes to you — you have to live up to that promise. I also strongly believe that those who are less/not marginalized and wear it need to be proactive in speaking up and addressing things they see/hear happening, not waiting for someone to come to them, because otherwise it comes off as paternalistic. AND I want people — especially white people — to honor & acknowledge that this sort of ‘community service’ builds upon a legacy, primarily the work of the Black Panther Party, from which other groups took their cue, and isn’t just something some white people thought up out of the blue and get to take credit for. At the same time, I think scoffing at the pin is rude and unnecessary. For many people these quiet forms of resistance are very meaningful, and not all of us have the physical or other capacities to march in the streets. I need for people to recognize that resistance and activism MUST take many forms, that all of these are just strategies that have their place, and that offer realistic options for more people to do something rather than be pushed to the side as ‘useless’ because we can’t do certain things.

Further reflection led me to: I can’t honestly say that I personally feel comforted by seeing people with the pins, I still ask “where were you all this time?” because I see people jumping to put on a pin who haven’t been vocal or active before now. Still, I want to believe that it is better late than never, and that more people will be sincere than not.

I believe very much in loud and active support. Your quiet private messages in my in-box seem sweet, but require emotional labor for me to parse through — and then when I don’t see you having these discussions on your social media with the people who need to hear them, it is telling. There are other ways to show solidarity, and I hope people who wear the pin are also:

  • Supporting Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other POC businesses, especially small businesses and independent individuals so we can feed our families
  • Elevating marginalized voices over white, cis, heterosexual, abled people, including your own
  • Donating (money, time, supplies — check with them to find out what they need from you) to important causes like Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the ACLU, your local abortion clinic, local Queer support agency, local disability organizations, etc.
  • Engaging intentionally with marginalized people and being intentionally inclusive in all of the work you do — which means in your social life, in your children’s social lives, in your company, in your other community engagements; and doing so in a non-tokenizing, non-free-labor-demanding way, genuinely welcoming way.

More than that even, I hope people who wear the pin don’t see it as a fashion or fad, something they can put on when they feel like it and take off or hide on days when they don’t feel like dealing with people. That pin can either be a silly little fashion accessory that means nothing, or it can be a promise to do what is right. But it cannot be both, you have to choose.

Also, the more I thought about it I feel the need to point out:

If you are someone who has been critiqued for engaging in racism, ableism, classism, transantagonism/gender-essentialism, Islamophobia or any other -ism of that sort *and you haven’t done the work to fix that, dismantle that tendency in yourself, and make amends to those you harmed*DON’T THROW ON A SAFETY PIN NOW and call yourself an ally. If you aren’t ready to do the work in yourself and in every social, professional, and personal situation you find yourself in, do not think that pin is going to magically make you a good person.

I have already seen evidence of this. White people are very quick to self-apply the label of “ally” but much less quick to address ally-failure when someone from a marginalized group points out that they are doing something harmful. I personally know people who are excited about wearing the pin and making pins available to others, but who I have known to engage in oppressive behavior and not handle being told about it. You’re not safe for me to come to just because you have a pin — you have to actually BE SAFE for marginalized people.

Your pin does marginalized people no good if you are all talk and no action, if you aren’t talking to the people in your life who need to change, if you aren’t really there for people in need, if you are simultaneously working against marginalized people, if you aren’t centering the voices and requests of marginalized people.

A pin is just a pin. For two years now you could have been wearing a Black Lives Matter pin, and I would have been more likely to recognize you as someone I could ask for help. You could have been wearing a rainbow flag pin for forever. But I’ve seen Black Lives Matter and rainbow flag pins and banners on people/places who engaged in all kinds of oppressive behavior. A pin won’t make you a decent person, and a pin won’t tell me that I should trust you. Only real actions can do that.

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ETA: If you stopped reading after the first third of this essay and took away from this that I am pro-safety pin, you would be mistaken. Please understand clearly: I do not find your safety pin comforting or helpful to me. I personally know people who are bigots but wearing pins to support certain marginalizations, while engaging in harm or neglect of other marginalized communities. I do not have time to look for your pin, decide if you care about the particular reason I am being harassed/threatened/whatever, decide if you are safe for me, or decide if you are prepared to actually help me (which means: being skillful at de-escalation, being willing to risk your own well-being to protect me, knowing that calling the police will make things worse and being committed to not doing that.) You must be prepared and proactive, and if you are those things, you don’t really need a safety pin afterall.

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artist/historian/poet/culture critic — http://aaminahshakur.com — Gratuity: CashApp $aaminahshakur or http://paypal.me/shakurarts

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Aaminah Shakur

Aaminah Shakur

artist/historian/poet/culture critic — http://aaminahshakur.com — Gratuity: CashApp $aaminahshakur or http://paypal.me/shakurarts