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Safety pins: Solidarity symbol or emblem of ‘white guilt’?

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The election of Donald Trump came as more than a shock for many opponents of the Republican businessman. After the results were tallied, fear spread that Trump’s more extreme supporters, emboldened by his victory over Hillary Clinton, would intimidate or attack people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims or members of the LGBT community.

The concern was not unfounded. Reports of hate crimes and election-related harassment have surged since last Tuesday. Critics allege that the president-elect has encouraged hateful behavior through his history of vulgar, racially charged and inflammatory remarks — a claim the Trump campaign has denied. Trump has urged people to “stop it.”

In an attempt to show their solidarity, Trump opponents across the country last week started fastening safety pins to their clothes and posting selfies on social media. The gesture was supposed to signify that the wearer was a “safe” ally, ready to stand up for anyone who might be the target of abuse, whether verbal or physical.

But that’s not how some people have seen it. Just days after the impromptu campaign went viral, the decision to don safety pins has come under fire from critics — including several black and Hispanic writers — who lambasted it as a poor excuse for action and a self-indulgent way for white people to distance themselves from Trump voters.

“Let’s call these safety pins what they are: an empty gesture,” Demetria Lucas D’Oyley wrote in The Root. “These pins, not the wearing of them nor the pictures posted of folks wearing them, are not about safe spaces. They’re about not wanting to be perceived as a racist. Like, ‘I might be white, but I’m not like them, over there. I’m enlightened.’”

Writing for Mic, Phillip Henry went farther, calling the trend a “bat signal of white guilt” and an example of “performative wokeness” — put simply, the act of advertising one’s progressive beliefs to appear tolerant.

“They are nothing but badges made for white people to assuage white guilt and declare themselves allies completely autonomously,” he wrote. “It signifies almost nothing at all. It is a self-administered pat on the back for being a decent human being. Privilege at its finest.”

The “safety pin movement” began in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Amid reports of post-Brexit hate crimes, an American living in London posted now-deleted tweets urging people to wear safety pins on their outer garments to show their willingness to protect people being abused. Within days, the hashtag #safetypin was trending on Twitter.

In an anonymous interview with the Guardian, the woman who kicked off the campaign said she wanted people to couple the gesture with action intended to help people who she said were marginalized by the referendum.

“If you put the pin on, to me you are pledging to stand up. It can’t just be an empty gesture,” she said. “You are pledging to make a difference. You could record what’s happening, you could call the police, stop the bus driver.”

The campaign caught on quickly in the United States after Trump won.

Slate writer Michelle Goldberg came out early in support of wearing safety pins, highlighting some alarming incidents of violence against Muslim women and racially charged graffiti in schools around the country.

“We need an outward sign of sympathy, a way for the majority of us who voted against fascism to recognize one another,” she wrote. “I’m suspicious of virtue signaling and hardly ever change my Facebook avatar. But maybe a safety pin is a tiny way to make us feel less like strangers in a newly hostile land.”

Vox’s Alex Abad Santos joined her, saying it could represent “one small way to signal that you’re an ally (regardless of who you voted for) to someone who probably didn’t think they’d be in this vitriolic and volatile situation either.”

When backlash started to hit, others noted that the campaign was not exclusively white and that the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center had both encouraged followers to change their profile pictures to safety pins.

“Of course, everyone needs to do more than wear a pin or post a note of hope,” Heather Dockray wrote for Mashable. “But that doesn’t mean we should shame and attack people who are trying to do something within the first week of a crisis, especially when millions of Americans didn’t even bother to show up at the polls this election, and millions more want a very different kind of ‘something’ for their country.”

But the criticism mounted.

On the site Romper, Crystal Lewis said the dispay took the focus off vulnerable people.

“And I hate to say this,” she said. “But all of this attention being paid to safety pins is a way to make an issue that will predominantly hurt people of color about white people.”

Demetria Lucas D’Oyley of The Root left readers with an admonition:

“Your pin will actually count for something if the next time you see something bad happening to a person of color, you speak up and intervene instead of staring wide-eyed and silent and then writing about it in a status update that’s all about how you were traumatized by witnessing a terrible thing that happened to someone else,” she said. “Actually create a safe space instead of cheaply designating yourself one because you fastened a piece of malleable metal to your sweater.”

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