I am wearing a safety pin these days. Supposedly it will tell people who may be frightened or unsure that I am a safe person to come sit next to. I am optimistic enough to wear one; I am cynical enough to believe that this gesture will be compromised. People will be made fun of, ridiculed. It might even be worn to lure innocent people into safety only to bash and threaten them. See? That’s pretty cynical. The symbolism of the safety pin will degrade into yet another casualty of the hate and toxicity that is a daily news story from the outcome of this year’s election.
But I am going to wear it still. I am that odd and rare combination of cynicism and naïveté--it’s a blessing and a curse. However, I have some advice about it. (When don’t I have some advice?) A couple of pieces of advice, in fact. All over the Internet, social media and the news are stories of people being accosted, threatened and ganged up on. Women simply wearing scarves against the cold are having them ripped off and mocked for wearing hijabs. Students are hearing threats, not only from classmates, but from their teachers and even standing in line at the craft store isn’t safe from a maniacal tirade against store clerks just doing their jobs. So here’s the first piece of advice: stand up to hate. But make sure you’re in a safe place to do so. It won’t do anyone any good to go barreling into a situation with the intent to “help” someone only to escalate the tormenter into making it worse. Even more dangerous, the attacker may turn his or her sights on you, thus continuing to escalate the problem. If it’s not safe to intervene, stand and be a witness to the threat. Provide a safe space for the target after the attack is over and help them report their experience. Getting involved doesn’t mean getting yourself hurt, too. Standing witness is being an ally.
My other piece of advice is this: don’t just encourage someone to seek help. Tell them who, what, how, when, and where they can go for support. Give them names, addresses, a phone number. It’s great to wear a safety pin and let people know that you’re a safe person, a haven, an oasis. But when a Black woman is being spat on or a Latino child is being screamed at to “get the fuck out,” the ability to think through a problem is not their foremost function. They’re not looking around for safety pins, they are terrified and looking for the fastest way to flee.
We don’t want them to flee, right? They are our neighbors, our community members, our fellow citizens. They need support, love and information. In the coming days, weeks and months when you are posting or tweeting your shock of the mounting hate and intolerance that is becoming a regular occurrence, go a little further than your Facebook page or Twitter account. Find out where the helpers are and their addresses. Tell your children the name of a person at their school they can actually talk to and get help from. Give your neighbor your cell number. And wear your safety pin, too. For some, it might be just the information they need.
*Many of the examples in this essay came from hate incidents reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center as of Nov. 29, 2016.