For those who don’t know, right after the election, someone proposed wearing safety pins to indicate that we are allies to anyone being attacked in the post-election upsurge of hate crimes, and while many embraced it, many also criticized it as superficial, and debate over this tactic continues to rage. There are several things that this very heated argument ignores. Many People of Color rightly critique the possibility that white liberals will wear a pin as a form of self-soothing, feeling brave for taking a largely symbolic action, without actually doing the necessary work of building ally muscle. But it seems many assume that these are the only people who would consider wearing a safety pin as a statement of intent, that anyone wearing one is doing nothing else. It’s an assumption based in fury and frustration, and utterly understandable but inaccurate. Seasoned and dedicated allies also have reasons to wear them.
I have been a lifelong radical for whom expressions of solidarity are as natural as breath. I am old enough to remember the window signs we put up when Angela Davis was in hiding that said “Sister, you are welcome in this house.” Of course, she wasn’t going to knock on our door just because of a sign, and we didn’t expect her to. We were speaking to each other and to the state, affirming our commitments, and making a public statement of alliance. It was one small part of the organizing work we were doing in support of Black Liberation, and it mattered. Symbolic actions have power to inspire, to build connection, to express an idea that moves people forward.
Secondly, four highly targeted people in my life have told me that seeing the pins on people’s clothing makes them feel safer and lifts their spirits, and that’s enough of a reason for me.
But I think the most important point being missed is that in times like these, we need each of us to take a step forward from wherever we are. People are scared, angry, and feeling urgent, wanting our allies to have already arrived where we need them to be, and ready to be scathing towards those who are not. I am not suggesting that anyone be less angry. Rage is appropriate. But no matter how impatient they make us, directing our rage at potential allies who are taking their first baby steps is the wrong target.
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