Many people who opposed Donald Trump began wearing safety pins to signal their solidarity, their status as allies, and their continuing opposition to the president-elect. The idea drew from post-Brexit days when some British wore safety pins to show their solidarity with immigrants. Two writers of Rogue One, the Star Wars film to be released on Dec. 16, have even changed their Twitter avatars to feature a rebel emblem from the film with a safety pin superimposed on it.
But, as soon as the safety pins came out, so too did the criticism:
“It’s a lazy way of being an ally designed more to assuage one’s guilt over your own privilege than to help others.”
Others said, “‘Real’ allies should do X, Y, or Z instead.”
This argument is so common on the left. Don’t sign that online petition, it’s slacktivism. Don’t vote for Hillary in the election if you voted for Bernie in the primaries. Don’t do the good, only someone else’s vision of perfect.
The criticism drove many safety pins back into their drawers. From the perspective of someone who has spent her career studying social movements, this is a huge loss. One of the most basic and consistent findings on which almost all other social movements research rests is this: most people don’t protest or collectively resist even if they want change.
Most of my field is designed to understand that special moment, and its consequences, when people move, individually and collectively, from doing nothing to doing something. So I was heartened to see people trying to be public about their status as an ally.
Make no mistake, the impacts of even small acts are quite real. Action tends to beget action. When people do something, they get practice and tend to become more willing and better at doing those things again and doing other things. Their interest in politics rises, which also drives the likelihood that they are on a new path of continued engagement.
The safety pin also says something to Trump supporters. As a white lesbian, I have an obligation to speak back to white Americans who supported Trump to tell them that I don’t agree, I am not with you, and you should not mistake my skin color for support.
And, if you listen to stories on Facebook, for instance, of Muslim women being able to wait for or ride a bus or train with less fear because of a safety-pinned ally, being a publicly visible ally matters.
Whether you are a Muslim worried about required registration, an African-American facing the swell of very public racist talk and behavior, a Latino fearing the impacts of mass deportations on your community, a Native American wondering what will happen to your sacred lands, a member of the LGBTQ community contemplating the closet, or a woman wondering how America can move past such an entrenched rape culture and such impenetrable glass ceilings, we all need allies right now.
I know the power of seeing a safe space – many LGTBQ students know the Safe Space signs that have diffused across college doors, beckoning to those who need respite and community. I have long wished for a secret sign I could flash to young LGBTQ people to let them know, “I see you,” “I am proud of you,” and “there is so much you can become” while we pass on the street. I don’t want you to take off your safety pin and be invisible as my ally.
To be sure, safety pins alone won’t undo what the Trump campaign has already rote and what his presidency may bring. We can work for change together in lots of ways, but the one way we can’t make change is by pushing people who want to be our allies out.
When a controversy arises, a friend of mine likes to ask, “What are you trying to create here?” He wants to know: what is the bigger picture goal of each party? Sometimes people realize that they are arguing a point that doesn’t fit with their larger goals, but they got locked into a smaller counter-productive argument nonetheless.
Do you want to drive people out of action through a purity test, as a colleague of mine labeled it, that separates the “righteous” change-makers from the rest of us?
I am for an asset-based understanding of change. Start with where people are at now and try to make change with that. Over time, some people will do many more things, but only some, and we have to figure out how to take advantage of all who take steps to make change, not just the “perfect” change-makers among us. A safety pin is unlikely to stop someone from engaging in other activism, but it may start them.