Like many people over the past week, and months, I’ve had some cause to reflect on what it is I do, and why. A lot of that circles around an issue that’s been troubling me for a while, how do you simultaneously acknowledge a personal and historical failure to act and credibly and coherently move to change that. How can I know when to challenge and when to shut up and listen – because its not always immediately obvious. There is perhaps a greater risk of challenging when it is in appropriate than the converse, but if the charge is to be a vocal and consistent ally then its a risk to be aware of. And this comes to a head with the question of safety pins.
For anyone who doesn’t know the story the idea of wearing a safety pin arose following the Brexit referendum in the UK as a way of signalling support for immigrants and opposition to racism. The idea was that it represented a commitment to the safety of people around us. It’s a simple and clever form of gesture politics. And it came in for a lot of criticism because it can be just that, merely a gesture. But I have been wearing a safety pin on and off since the referendum. I haven’t seen that many others. I haven’t had an occasion where the commitment it represents has been tested. But what it has done is provoke a whole bunch of conversations in the predominantly white, middle class, professional communities I’m a part of in the UK. That is one thing in its favour. A small thing, but a thing.
The idea of wearing one has suddenly resurfaced in the wake of the U.S. election. In the confusion and dismay people like me will reach for something, anything, to do. It’s a gesture, and again there has been a lot of criticism. What does it mean? Is it a nice gold ally star to assuage our guilt? Isn’t it a bit late? What message does it send to those people who’ve been dealing with abuse and discrimination for years, or rather centuries? That now we’re onside? After everything’s gone to shit and maybe just maybe it finally has consequences for us comfortable, middle class, white, professionals?
Already, also we can hear stories of people wearing a safety pin standing by while people are abused or frightened, and worse, stories of it being used to trick people into dangerous or abusive situations. The lack of courage I can relate to, would I really step in to a situation? It’s nice in theory but I’m not a brave person. In a very real sense the pin is a symbol of all the failures of my class that have led us to this point. The criticism, and yes the derision and anger that it has provoked as a symbol is just one part of what we need to hear. It is not a gold star from teacher, it is the reverse.
At the same time, as a gesture, a symbol it works in provoking the conversations we need to have. In our nice comfortable settings people ask questions, and perhaps we have the opportunity to amplify and transmit some of that criticism and anger, to make those of us who need to be a bit less comfortable. It is also a personal reminder. For those of us for whom this is new, who have not been there in the past, and are privileged enough to not be dealing with discrimination and abuse on a day to day basis, it is easy to forget. Indeed it is the easiest coping strategy. Having a reminder there to keep doing better is helpful. A reminder of the commitment to step up when necessary.
So this is where I’m at right now. My current plan is to continue wearing a safety pin. I am going to keep thinking about how to apply this guide’s approach to dealing with abusive situations and try to have a plan when such a thing happens. I will continue to use the pin to start conversations and raise issues and I believe it has a real value for that in the places I go and with the people I meet. And I will keep listening to and reading the criticism and anger. And seek to reflect on it and to transmit and amplify it. At the core of that criticism is the charge to get on and do the damn work, not expect a pat on the back. So that pin isn’t a merit badge, it has to be a commitment or its worse than nothing at all. At the moment at least I feel like as a symbol of that it has some value.
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