When I was coming up, safety pins were all the rage to wear through the ears or all over jackets, like real punk rockers. Safety pins are remarkably difficult to get through an ear, by the way. Even an already pierced one.
I’m sure most of us have heard about the safty pin campaign, in which a person can identify him- or herself as safe by wearing it in a conspicuous place. This has been ridiculed on one side and embraced on another, with serious criticisms and concerns throughout the pithy middle. The immediate concerns from margianlized persons make sense: it is not enough; wearing a pin to mark yourself as safe doesn’t actually make you safe; this is once again dominant culture determining how oppressed persons should react or act in situations that indicate violence or abuse. I am not linking essays here because there are too many good pieces out there that I don’t want to rank them; they are available for anyone who has mastered the Google.
I get these concerns and critiques. My words are not meant as a refutation in any way, but rather as a contextualization for why, despite the requests of several friends who do not think the campaign is worthy of energy, I am continuing to move forward.
First, the safety pin allowed me to talk to the kids in church about what it means to be an ally. This is not a hip accessory that we can wear to make ourselves look cool and enlightened. It is an external symbol of internal work. What does it mean to be an ally? What kind of privilege do each of us have? What sort of situations might arise? How do we know that we won’t be putting other people in danger? How do we respond when we are outnumbered? Of course, I did not provide answers. I have 3-5 minutes and ages ranging from 5-17 years old. But I left the kids with this: what do we need to do so that we are wearing the pins on the inside? So that our actions will show others that we are safe?
Second, when I see other white persons with the pin I will strike up a conversation. I will seek to find out if they are doing any work in the community; ask what the pin means to them; pose questions about how things are where they live; and cogitate on any other issues as they arise that will help us to network. White persons are often told that we need to have conversations with one another in our own spaces, and this is one way to have that happen; I understand this is not the original intent of the safety pin, but it is one that can be added on. I too am concerned about people who will just put the pin on and then not think about what elese they need or could be doing. The safety pin can be a great starting point for these difficult conversations, and can provide an opportunity to introduce poeple to groups or organizations that will help them in their process of getting woke, as the kids say.
Third, it is a good way for me as a pastor to discuss fears and concerns that don’t cut across generations. In a multigenerational church, it can sometimes be difficult to communicate the needs and concerns of persons separated by two generations. Something as simple as the safety pin allows a concrete way to initiate talks that can bridge the divide.
The answer is not to shame on either side. People who object to the safety pins need to be heard and not have their objections swept away; that defeats the whole point of the pin in the first place. How can we offer ourselves as safe if we don’t listen to the persons to whom we are trying to communicate our safeness? On the other side, though, don’t dismiss the small steps that can help persons travel further down the road of awareness. The pin itself is meaningless unless we attach meaning and action. Let’s give the symbol a chance to define itself through the advocacy work that people like myself and others are doing in this new, terrifying reality many of us are seeing. I get that for many, nothing has changed except more people are talking about reality now, but that does not mitigate the fact that for some people the unabashed hatred is new and overwhelming. I know it can be inconvenient to accept the need for white people to process when there are such pressing needs across the board to make changes for people who have been struggling for lifetimes, but in a tough world it is important to have soft spaces. Supremacy culture is a bitch to undo. It is important to know that you can’t do everything and because you never stop encountering your own prejudice while also dealing with that of those all around us, sometimes you have to give yourself permission to be overwhelmed and confused.
This is the fact: in order for us to achieve justice, we need to accept that two people may be crying over the same incident for two very different reasons. Both need to be able to express their emotions, to go on their journies, so that they can play their part. The safety pin is a way to facilitate such a journey, at least from my perspective. If it doesn’t work for you, fine. And if you need to express a critique, please do: these are important to hear. But please, for the sake of community and expanding the movement, let’s make room for sojourners on all points of the path.