The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Go ahead, wear a safety pin. But don’t expect people of color to care.

I don't mind the pins. I mind people getting bent out of shape merely for being questioned about them.

(flickr user <a href="">Dano</a> /creative commons 2.0)
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On Nov. 9, I woke up hopelessly weighted down on my mattress; the alarm clock rendered useless; the snooze button, not so much. It was no easy task to come up from under the covers knowing that the night before, the country elected as our 45th president none other than several-times bankrupt business mogul and sentient Cheeto puff, Donald J. Trump.

A large segment of this county’s population (many women, Muslims, Hispanics, Latinos, the LGBT community) is made up of citizens who felt the same weight. We are simply afraid of a Trump presidency and — possibly even more so — afraid of his following. His campaign and subsequent election managed to not only offend people of every nonwhite and non-straight demographic in America, but also make many of them feel even more unsafe here than they already did.

Each group has its own fears. We black people feel unsafe because we know when he says he’ll heal the poor, suffering black community by restoring law and order, he means exactly what that has always meant: more police presence and more prisons. For me, the mere utterance of his desire to resurrect stop and frisk laws triggers memories of being profiled, stopped and harassed for driving, walking or simply being while black.

This fear has resulted in protests around the country. These protests, of course, aren’t about blocking Trump’s presidency — that would be dumb — but rather to let it be known that the bigotry he’s empowering will be met with less tolerance than a swift wind has for his hair piece.

And then there are the safety pins.

For any of you still scratching your head or other assorted body parts thinking, “What the hell is this whole ‘safety pin’ thing about?” I suppose the simplest way to describe it is: mostly white people donning pins on their clothing to identify themselves as being definitively against Trump and the toxic culture of uber-conservatism that comes with him, and thus dubbing themselves an “ally” to people of any and all demographics that have been deemed vulnerable.

The safety pin movement has been both praised and shouted down, mostly by people from those vulnerable demographics who are at best skeptical and at worst think it’s nothing more than white savior complex shenanigans, a hollow gesture sure to be unaccompanied by action. For black people, it’s akin to police officers handing us ice cream when we asked them to stop murdering us.

I’m indifferent to the safety pins themselves, both unimpressed and unbothered by them — doubtful that white people wearing pins are doing much more than simply accessorizing as social justice warriors, and cautiously optimistic that a few folks aren’t just wearing the pin as a symbol but as part of a plan of action. It comes down to the individual, and if people want to wear pins, fine. But now the responses have started to irk me.

Trump tweeted to condemn "professional protesters, incited by the media." (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Spencer Platt/The Washington Post)

As I scroll through my social media news feed and read through the conversations about the pins, I’m seeing a lot of the same defensiveness and white-splaining to people of color and other marginalized groups that I’ve become accustomed to in the realm of sociopolitical discourse. This mostly boils down to “Well, my POC/LGBTQ friend/spouse/family member appreciates it, so . . .”

I’m not sure how many times people need to be told that the feelings and experiences of their black friend doesn’t invalidate the feelings and experiences of millions of others before they get it. That particular brand of white nonsense has gotten beyond old.

White people (and POC, too, for that matter) need to know that they can wear their pins all they want, but they don’t get to demand trust and appreciation. It behooves them to stop trying to tell marginalized people, whom they claim are “safe” with them, how to feel about it. I understand people who see a safety pin and appreciate it and find it comforting. I also understand those who find it to be patronizing and, once again, centering white folk in an issue that generally doesn’t belong to them. (And yes, they are centering themselves in the issue. They’re literally expecting people to take notice of a small pin clipped to their coat, so yes, yes, they are.)

Even the most well-meaning white people, wearing their pins with pride, can get indignant and down right nasty the second you dare question their motives and/or commitment, as writer Ijeoma Oluo experienced. After questioning the pins, she was bombarded with emails and social media replies from so-called allies:

Then, I was called racist. A few times. I was called an a——. I was called an idiot. I was told I had no brain. Multiple people vomited all their “social justice credentials” on my page and demanded that I acknowledge that they were good white people. Some accused me of censoring them with my critique. Others accused me of shaming them. One white woman demanded an apology and then told me that she deserved respect because her ancestors fought for the North in the civil war.

Many of us are not asking for or seeking allyship because we don’t trust it, and allyship is not a conditional thing. It’s not a toy you get to dangle in front of a child to be given or taken away depending on how said child behaves. Marginalized people are not your children.

The fact is, you’re either a dedicated ally, or you’re not one at all. Either way, you don’t get a gold star, and the more I hear and read the aforementioned sentiments, the more those pins start to look like self-gifted gold stars — and nothing about that makes me feel “safe.”

The biggest complaint I’m hearing from progressives, and in defense of the pins, is that “petty little squabbles” like these are why we lose so damn often, accompanied by calls to “focus on bigger problems.” While there may be a grain of truth to that — after all, electing Trump caused more frustrated finger-pointing among us than a busted touch screen — it’s worth pointing out that progressivism, by nature, requires a hell of a lot more critical thought than conservatism. Social conservatism is all about preserving familiar culture and “traditional values” by casting out the undesirables and accepting social norms as they are. Not much to think about there. True social progressivism, on the other hand, means challenging and analyzing social norms at every turn and, often, casting out the pseudo activism of those who just wanna be down.

While this may be disconcerting to some, I’d look at it as an opportunity for white liberals to prove that their allyship doesn’t begin and end with a safety pin by actually doing the work of dismantling white supremacy, toxic patriarchy and every other oppressive system we have in place. Then you can wear your pins proud, and know that doing it in the face of rolling eyes, turned up noses and relentless mocking is part of what it is to be marginalized and almost entirely what it is to be an activist.