So, apparently, there is this thing going on where folks are wearing safety pins to demonstrate that they are allies. Word is that this idea originated in Britain post Brexit.
What does it mean to be an ally? I’ve been through my fair share of anti-racist training and I think my accounting of what it means to be an ally is fairly representative of what I learned:
- Allies exist in the moment. You are only an ally when you are actively being an ally. You don’t get to count yourself as an ally because of that one time you told off your cousin for telling a racist joke or even if you routinely engage in justice work but just aren’t doing so right now.
- Begging forgiveness from POC doesn’t count as ally behavior. Isn’t it enough to deal with white racism without also having to minister to the pain of white people who feel bad about racism?
- Allies don’t take the moral high ground or foist the blame for racism on other white people. Every aspect of your life is inseparable from the fact of your racial advantage.
- Allies need to take the fight to their own group. You can attend all the #BLM actions that you want if you remain silent when you are surrounded by white folks asserting that “all lives matter.” You need to work for a change in your own group.
- Ultimately, you don’t get to decide if you are an ally. Maybe, if you work hard, someday someone will say that they value the work you have done for social justice, but probably many more days you will be confronted with all of the ways in which you might have done more. So it goes.
When I learned about this safety pin movement, instantly I didn’t feel right about it and I think that has to do with my understanding of what it means to be an ally. Here are the key problems.
- There is nothing particularly active or effortful about donning a safety pin.
- It feels a bit like the point of the safety pin, seeing as there is nothing active about it, is to signal that we are not the kind of people who would condone racism, heterosexism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc, and nor would we vote for someone who had done so. It may be that such a signal can be a source of comfort to POC but it seems more likely to me that it is a source of comfort to ourselves because it allows us to repair at the individual level the impression that came across loud and clear on 11/9 – the US is a racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and sexist nation.
- And this issue, the bad impression American whites collectively made on 11/9 gets me to my key objection to the safety pin. That safety pin is safe for one person: the person wearing it. If you want the woman in hijab who is being harassed on the subway to know you are an ally, she won’t need to see your safety pin if you stand up and confront the person harassing her. Being willing to take on some of the hostility and stand up against your fellow white people isn’t easy, but that is what is needed.
- But, you say, there are actually really few opportunities to confront racist, sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic behavior, can’t I just don the safety pin so POC know that I would step up if I had the opportunity? To this I have two responses: 1. Look harder because you’re missing lots of opportunities to intervene. 2. Why not take a real stand, one that isn’t quiet and safe but instead takes the fight to your fellow white folks? Go to the places where folks express their bigotry in comfort and safety and challenge them. Turn to your fellow white people and talk about the role of bigotry in American politics and society. At the very least, why don’t you try pinning on these pins?