Inspired by the post-Brexit protest across the pond, Americans wanting to protest the implications of the recent presidential election have begun to wear safety pins. Wearing the safety pin is meant to convey that the wearer is a “safe” person for those who will be experiencing increased persecution under a Trump administration and by the actions of people feeling empowered by Trump’s campaign rhetoric. The intended message to fearful immigrants, Muslims, gay people, people of color, and other marginalized people is that the wearer is your friend: if you are bullied, they help fend off the bully, they will accompany you to the bathroom if your are transgendered and afraid, they will sit by you in support if you are picked on for wearing hijab, or at the very least, that they don’t share or endorse the xenophobic attitude that is sweeping the country.
Of course, pretty much immediately, the symbol of the safety pin became controversial as the different factions of society heard of the protest. Liberal white folks who didn’t want to be mistaken for Trump supporters were glad to have a symbol that they could easily use to communicate their displeasure at the election results. Many of the more marginalized people that the safety pin was intended to comfort rolled their eyes at the naivete involved; how is wearing a safety pin going to do anything to help people facing real danger based in legislation, violence, discrimination, and the command climate fostered by having a Thug in Chief? It seemed so twee, as if the safety pin were meant to comfort the white liberals wearing it more than anybody else, a balm to soothe white guilt and a way to do something without really having to do anything at all.
Responses to the slacktivism criticism varied. Wearers asserted that sporting a safety pin was better than doing nothing. It was never meant to be a cure for institutional racism, merely a show of support. Many people wanted to speak up and help out, but didn’t know how. On one hand, it reeked of privilege; on the other hand, we’re told to use our privilege to help and support others: what gives? People of color who looked side-eyed at those deciding to wear a safety pin instead of taking real action or even wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt were told not to question the motivations of white people, and noted that this was the opposite of the racial solidarity implied by the safety pin.
[TW: Nazis, white supremacists]
Unsurprisingly the hypervisible symbol of solidarity has been co-opted by white nationalists. Be careful. pic.twitter.com/NCI84vDJv1
— Zoé Samudzi (@ztsamudzi) November 12, 2016
Meanwhile, others were at work on safety pin spin. Trump supporters called the wearers “pinheads” and opined that the safety pins would be better used to hold up the diapers that such whiners were sure to need (because wanting to help the persecuted is just like not knowing how to use the potty yet). From another direction there was a call for Trump voters to wear safety pins if they didn’t fit the mold of the stereotypical Trump supporter and wanted to talk about why they voted the way they did. A Tweet that claimed that White Nationalists were taking over the safety pin symbol went viral (see above). Safety pin tattoos became a thing. Expensive designer clothes encrusted with safety pins and pin-shaped jewelry made out of precious metals were offered for sale as fashion statements. If you were hassled for being a new immigrant, for example, would you feel safe turning to someone wearing a diamond and white gold safety pin earring valued at over a thousand dollars?
Wearing the safety pin has also had physical consequences. A young woman sporting the pin in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was slashed in the face by a white male assailant, allegedly because of the symbol. When deciding to publicly state that you are willing to defend the oppressed, it is wise to realize that you are taking upon yourself a certain element of danger. The bullies could decide to take you out as well. Are you prepared to defend yourself and others, physically as well as morally? It’s a serious question. It’s also where virtue signaling meets real-world action. This is the gap between slacktivism and real change, and not everyone is ready and able to bridge that abyss. If you wear the safety pin without taking seriously the associated responsibility to uphold the meaning behind the message in the event of actual danger (and with a realistic expectation of winning a fight), isn’t it fair to admit that the backlash is at least a little bit justified?
So many viewpoints, so much heat, all over a little piece of bent metal. While the intentions and the criticism are valid on all sides, it’s also symbolic of how divided we are as a society and how impossible it is to really communicate with each other. If we can’t unite behind a simple symbol, nor can we promise real change and defense for the disenfranchised, it’s no wonder that dishonorable elements are taking advantage of our weaknesses, and better-organized authoritarians will be calling the shots in Washington for the foreseeable future. We must do better than this; the blame is pinned right on our chest.