Questioning Safety Pin Solidarity Revealed Why I Can’t Trust White People

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FEATURE

November 13, 2016

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Most of my writing career has been dedicated to actionable change; real things we can do right now to impact our oppressive systems. So after taking a day or so to cry and drink and hug my grieving kids after the election of Donald Trump, I got to work on coming up with ideas of what people can do to help make sure that we never ever do this again. I took a little bit of hope in the thought that maybe now more people were paying attention to the racist, sexist, Islamophobic, ableist society that we live in. Maybe we could mobilize this grief, anger, and fear into action.

But what I got were safety pins. Suddenly everywhere I looked, (mostly) white people were talking about safety pins. What a great idea! Something we can all do! I couldn’t tell people on social media apart anymore as their pictures were all replaced with pins. All that energy that I had hoped would go toward real-life action in support of marginalized populations who have been fighting this system alone for far too long was diverted to a symbol that most people wouldn’t even notice.

So I questioned this. I questioned why the most popular act of solidarity would be silent, why marginalized people would have to look for it. I questioned why, in times like this, people weren’t shouting. I questioned why so many people who would never wear a Black Lives Matter shirt are jumping to put on a safety pin. And to those questions, I received hundreds of replies.

Within hours, hundreds of white people had flooded my Facebook page and Twitter feed in defense of their safety pins. I was told that I was part of the problem. I was told that I was being divisive. I was told that my skepticism was making people sad. None of the commenters seemed to be aware that telling a black woman that she was wrong to question white people is kind of the opposite of racial solidarity in a country where the majority of white voters just elected Trump.

Then, I was called racist. A few times. I was called an asshole. 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.

Then, a white woman emailed a radio show that I frequently appear on, demanding that they cancel my appearances. I know this, because she then wrote a post bragging that she had done this. This woman was trying to take away a source of my income. All because I questioned her safety pins.

My friend Syreeta also questioned the effectiveness of the pins and a white woman demanded that she prove she’s actually a citizen who could vote.

All of these people, the hundreds of people who spent yesterday talking over, insulting, and dismissing a black woman for asking why a tiny, silent, symbolic gesture would be the weapon of choice against violent oppression—they are all wearing safety pins. All while wishing that this black woman would just shut up and be grateful that they’re doing even that.

So no, I won’t trust anyone just because they are wearing a safety pin. No, it won’t give me any comfort. I will trust actions, nothing more, nothing less. I wear my blackness every single day, and people don’t have to look for it to target me. Don’t make me look for your symbol of support. Show it every day in your words and deeds. Yes, it’s nice to tell marginalized populations that you won’t hurt them, but it’s even nicer to make sure that sexist White Supremacists know that they are not safe attacking me. Because we are being attacked right now, in public, in broad daylight. A small symbol that so many white people have been eager to point out is “work friendly” is not enough. How about you make a few privileged people uncomfortable at work? Because people of color, trans people, undocumented people, disabled people—we’re uncomfortable every day. Hell, we’re more than uncomfortable, we’re dying.

I’m not saying you can’t wear a safety pin. I don’t have the power to say you can’t wear anything. You can wear what you want. And the sight of a pin could well bring a smile to someone in a time of need. But it’s not enough. Not even close. Don’t expect that pin to earn you trust. Don’t expect thanks for the solidarity you should have always been showing. Don’t expect your pin to provide comfort in lieu of action. And don’t expect it to bring actual change. We have real work that has to be done and I suggest we get started.

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  • Ijeoma Oluo

    Ijeoma is the Editor-At-Large of The Establishment. A Seattle-based Writer, Speaker, and Internet Yeller, her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Stranger, New York Magazine, Huffington Post, and more. She was named one of the Most Influential People in Seattle by Seattle Magazine. She's also a columnist at The Seattle Globalist.

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