Now That It’s Official: Back to that Whole Safety Pin Thing
Four days after the election I went for a run on the trail near my house. As I approached each person on the trail I wondered “Is this person gloating and gleeful? Are they relishing an outcome that has me and so many folks beloved to me feeling violated and terrified?” I felt raw, afraid and angry. Self-protective. I wanted to know.
Partway through my run an older white, heterosexual woman saw me coming. This is someone I’ve had occasional small talk with over the years, not someone I know. When she saw me about 25 feet away she stopped dead in her tracks and stretched out both of her arms, palms open, in a gesture of “stop.” I slowed. As I got closer she said to me these words: “I am so sorry. I am so, so, so sorry.”
I burst into tears.
This woman didn’t try to hug me. In fact, she immediately said “oh no, are you okay?” My tears made her afraid she’d done something wrong by speaking.
But for me she’d done something exactly right. In the act of speaking she had indicated her dissent. She named her refusal to give consent. And she stated her dissent aloud in relationship to some recognition she had that my family and I were harmed and impacted in a particular way by what our country had just done.
That was exactly what I needed that morning from an all-but-stranger on the running trail.
So, let me be clear. This woman did not, then, become my insta-friend. I certainly did not presume she was now a “safe” haven for me. Nor did I conclude she understands what people of color, queer people, Muslim people, undocumented people or anyone else reeling from 18-months of hatred dominating the air waves—now formally endorsed and solidified in our governmental structures as result of the election—are going through.
I didn’t pour out my heart to her. She didn’t ask me to. I don’t know if she was active in anti-racist, pro-queer, inclusive organizing before or if she’ll get active in organizing for resistance now.
But I know this.
On that day my tears were grief tears and they were invited into expression because that woman’s recognition opened a moment of public space for my grief. And that was a humanizing act.
Whoever else that woman may be and whatever else she may (or may not) do, for a moment, that woman made my run a more humane experience.
And it was precisely the kind of small, but necessary, act we are going to need a lot of in order to sustain our activist, resistant spirits in what is going to be a long, hard journey against this regime. We are going to need many gestures, including tiny ones, to humanize the environments we’re in as we continue to go about our “business-as-usual,” “day-to-day” lives; when we’re not in spaces that are obviously activist, organizing spaces, focused on anti-oppression, resistance work—when we’re just being at work, attending school, taking a run.
Here’s the other thing I know.
My devastated, fearful heart needed that recognition to be visible (in this case the visibility was made through an aloud verbalization). Prior to our encounter, I had felt consumed by the suffocating silence of seeming consent that pervaded that trail. The silence felt more unbearable with each person that came into view as I wondered “Who do they think is going to get hurt? Do they care?”
That silence was interrupted because she found a way to indicate dissent.
Since November 8th, in any moment in which people who are white, straight, male, Christian, etc. (and I am some of these things) are physically present, but in which the election is not the topic of discussion and we don’t know each other, the suffocating silence of collective consent is the presumptive state of things.
And I can’t live like that. I want to know. And so I want to see dissent every which where and when I can. I want to see who is dissenting as often as a I can. I need to see it.
I find myself especially needing this now that the Electors have made this shit official.
I think we all need to see it.
We need to see dissent in every possible corner of our day-to-day lives and for as many days as this violent regime stalks our collective consciousness.
So in the spirit of what I experienced that day on the running trail, I want to go back to that whole safety pin thing.
I do this rather reluctantly. Because the debate that raged over safety pins last month was full of lots of good and important analysis, mixed in with a ton of grief/outrage and some actual real meanness, combined with a whole lot of “litmus test” pressure to take a stark “either/or” or “we/they” stance on whether or not people should be wearing safety pins as a sign of being an “ally.” But, I do this because I think we actually missed an opportunity in the way that whole debate fell out.
So here’s what I know about safety pins:
-Wearing safety pins is too little too late. (Ugh. Yes.)
-Anti-racism by white folks takes active commitment to long, hard work—lots of it and over a sustained period of time. It means tons of self-education; repeated risk-taking action to stand up for and against things for which you rarely get patted on the back. Putting on a safety pin, in contrast, is really easy and doesn’t accomplish any of that work. (Yes.)
-Safety pins may seem the “cool” thing to do in some contexts and thus feed the false idea that any of us gets to say, hey “I’m not one of those white/male/straight/Christian people, let me show you I’m one of the good ones.” (Yes.)
-Putting on a safety pin is not going to stop the Trump regime. And if folks think that’s all we need to do to stop it, we’re in even deeper trouble than I’m already clear we are in. (Yes.)
Yes. All of these things are true.
But the whole safety pin thing got fought over the wrong idea. It got fought over whether or not wearing a safety pin meant someone is an “ally.”
Let me be clear again. The day after the election, it was obvious on Drake University’s campus who students of color, queer students, Muslim students, and immigrant students already knew to be safe for them among the faculty and staff.
Students flocked to a tiny number of people on our campus who had already, for long months and years, been actively doing the work to create for such students the experience of being seen, heard and offered solidarity; the experience of haven. Safety pins would not have changed one iota who it was these students sought out anymore than pins would have (or can) magically turn any of the folks wearing them into “allies.”
A safety pin can’t make that transformation. We should’ve never bothered arguing over whether or not they can.
But, a safety pin can do something.
Here’s what a safety pin can do:
-A safety pin can be a public, recognizable symbol among strangers (or folks who have only before engaged in small talk on a running trail), not of ally-ship, but of dissent. It does with a visible symbol what that woman on the trail did with her audible words.
I believe strongly in public symbols of dissent.
Symbols can stay in view in spaces and places in which the election is not the immediate topic of focus. Their visibility and the meaning people associate with them can thus disrupt the collective, silence that descends on us as we move through our day-to-day lives doing the mundane work of simply functioning in this terrifying new reality.
We need this kind of symbolism for a lot of reasons.
First, it creates a brief moments of interruption of “normalcy.” This interruption can help us—for a moment—to touch and name grief and outrage the way the interruption I experienced on the trail did.
As the weeks pass and the election results become more and more “normalized,” the need to keep getting up out of bed and functioning inevitably means some part of us starts to get used to living with the not-normal; some parts of us will go numb.
And if we lose access our feelings and emotions, if we collectively go numb, we are doomed. Our grief and rage is critical for sustaining our refusal to comply with this regime.
So, we need visible, recognizable symbols and utterances to become collective rituals and reminders—more than ever before—that enact tiny (and large) public interruptions; that work against the numbing allure of normalcy and collective acceptance.
A safety pin can do that.
Second, symbolism also creates shared acknowledgements among ourselves in public spaces. It’s the potential of eye contact recognition between me and the checker at the grocery store that we share the understanding (however limited or however much we may not nor may never know about each other) that what is happening is inhumane. When it’s acknowledged among folks who recognize it as symbolizing that truth that something is deeply awry and that the wearer stands in dissent from this “new normal” something humanizing happens.
A safety pin can do that.
-On the flip side of this second point, there’s something else a safety pin can do. This something else has to do with the fact that safety pins have a heck of a lot more to do with (and to accomplish among) white, heterosexual, male, Christian people than they do with (or among) Black, Latinx, queer, female, Muslim people.
We all know that white, heterosexual, male, Christian people travel in all sorts of spaces in their home, family and work lives in which “locker room” talk happens, people of color don’t have access, racial jokes and homophobia run amok, etc., etc. A bunch of white, heterosexual, male, Christian people wearing safety pins will not make Black people, Latinx people, queer people, women of many difference races and orientations, Muslim people or other any other people safe. (Just like it won’t make those people allies to these other peoples. Remember? We’ve taken that whole idea of safety pins turning someone into an ally off the table.)
But white, heterosexual, male, Christian people wearing safety pins—especially if they/we do so all those mundane and normal spaces where all that hatred-stuff runs amok—might make those same white, heterosexual, male, Christian slightly less safe. They/we will be less able to fly under the radar.
If those same folks would take the risk of wearing a safety pin as a daily ritual in all those spaces in which those most targeted by this regime aren’t even present? Well . . . we’re going to find them/ourselves in lots of conversations they/we don’t necessarily always finds themselves/ourselves in. That matters.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not overpromising here. Nor am I naïve. Conversation is certainly not enough to fight this regime. But if a safety pin, in this particular political moment, signals that one is disloyal and dissenting from the presumption of consent that is now the “until proven otherwise” norm, then it matters that such folks find ways to signal this disloyalty and dissent; especially in the presence of other white, male, heterosexual, Christian people.
Let me be clear one more time, in order to say one more thing.
As much as we need public symbols of dissent for lots of different reasons, even a very effective symbol (which I don’t yet know that a safety pin is or can become) is only a symbol.
A safety pin cannot actually accomplish the work we must be about. It’s a symbol of the fight we must wage against this regime it is not the actual fight itself.
A safety pin does not an “ally” make.
About none of this, must we be confused.
Only concrete actions and stances can make a pin become more than a symbol, accomplish the necessary work, wage the fight and transform bystanders into trying-to-be-allied folks.
And on this front there’s (yet another) brilliant move by Black women worth knowing about.
There are many among us for whom organizing and political activism is a totally new, unknown and—frankly—overwhelming notion. Yet many of us are finding ourselves clear we need to act and yearning to participate meaningful in action.
So this group of activist Black women has created a resource for those among us who are finding ourselves in this unknown place or safety pin inclined (or who have folks in who are here). I urge you to check out The Safety Pin Box.
The safety pin box is a subscription. Invest in it and the activists who created it will send you monthly “tasks.” These tasks are concrete actions you can take to engage in the work actual resistance. They will show you what to do and how to do it.
It’s rather brilliant.
Better yet? Not only do you get support to learn to do the very kinds of things required to even think about using a word like “ally,” but you financially support Black women activists who are themselves deeply engaged in the work of liberation.
An added bonus? Sustained commitments to action in serious ways is way more likely to make the whole safety pin thing come to really work as a symbol. Action makes the pin a better symbol of dissent and the more dissent we have the more the pin isn’t mere symbol but signifies engagement in resistant.
I urge you to check it out.
That day on the trail I wanted to know. And, as fleeting and limited as it was, the act of someone making her dissent known mattered to me tremendously.
Nearly two months later I still want to know.
Now that the electors have made this all official I am craving, constantly looking for touchstones. Signs of dissent. Eye-to-eye contact in a shared recognition. Humanizing interruptions of suffocating silence.
I don’t know if safety pins can do that or not. And I certainly know they are not enough or only. But I’ve decided I’m putting one on inauguration day. And, that I’m going to keep it on—while I do lots of other work too—for as many days as it takes to not feel like I’m suffocating on the running trail or needing to wonder which others out there may feel like they are suffocating too.