A Few Thoughts on Safety Pins (and Registries) or, Untwist Your White Person Knickers

(If ever there was an occurrence calling for a blog category called “Effed-Up Shit,” it is the 2016 Election season and fallout.)

Also, I know we’re tailing off on the safety pin thing, but the conversation about what it means to be an ally to marginalized people is far from over. The same kinds of performance vs. substance issues are coming up again in the context of a proposed national registry for Muslims (“We will all register!”) so although I was going to discard this post, here it is.

(Also also, I AM NOT THE BOSS OF YOU. If you want to wear a safety pin, wear a safety pin. If you appreciate the safety pin thing, yay.)

*  *  *  *  *

A lot of white folks are wearing safety pins on our shirts and jackets, a gesture taken from a movement that started in the UK after the Brexit vote:

In a big city like London, or even in someplace smaller like a grocery store, or a coffee shop, we’re all just strangers to one another. It can be difficult for all of us to either reach out for help or offer help. A symbol as simple as a safety pin can be an important first step in showing solidarity and support for people who are scared and upset at this time.

Many of us are wearing (and Instagramming, and avatar-ing) our safety pins. Many marginalized people have started saying, “FYI, we don’t really find the pins useful or helpful.” And many of the be-pinned white folks have responded to that feedback by listening to the marginalized voices and examining our motivations and actions getting really mad.

(If you were unaware that not everyone is grateful for your safety pin, you might read the Twitter feeds of Ijeoma Oluo or Zoé Samuzdi or Roxane Gay, all of whom you should be reading anyway.)

(If you would like to hear it from a white person, you can read this, and then go sit in a corner and think about why you needed to hear it from a white person. Then think about why you’re still reading my post instead of the people I just linked you to. Marginalized voices are telling you what they think about something. Listen to them. If it makes you angry, stop and think about why. Do so privately, instead of in pissy Facebook comments.)

For my be-pinned white friends and family members who might find their Ally Panties in a bunch over this, I offer these Fellow White Person thoughts:

Note: from this point on, you can pretty much swap “marginalized voices” with “marginalized voices, especially Muslims” and “wearing a safety pin” with “offering to sign up for a registry in solidarity.” And you should also be following Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura.

Consider that marginalized voices have been crying out for help this whole time, and have heard a lot of lip service without seeing a lot of material improvement in the attitudes, behaviors, and policies that harm them. Consider that many of us have long done nothing ever but contribute to the lip service, and what seems like a crisis point to us — feeling betrayed by your country, being scared, fearing violence — is life as usual for many folks.

Consider that perhaps responding to this by wearing a small, oblique symbol, the donning of which takes no effort at all on our part, is cold comfort at best.

Can you wear a safety pin AND engage in other, proactive ways? Sure! Yes! Please! But let’s also be honest with ourselves: the majority of us never really make it past the “symbolic gesture” stage, so we can’t be all that surprised to hear that the folks we’re claiming to support are not holding their breath waiting for us to act. They don’t believe us because our good intentions do not change their lived experiences. Which is, like so many other things, on us white folks. You can’t pack a gunshot wound with safety-pin selfies, y’know?

(On a purely practical level, it’s also unlikely that someone in the middle of an uncomfortable or threatening interaction with a bigot will spot your little pin, and you’re not going to be targeted by or allowed to sign up for a Muslim registry. If you see someone who needs help, just act.)

TL;DR: to many folks, the pin (or your announcement that you’ll sign up for a registry targeting Muslims) is just a performance. Which means: nothing actually happens, but we get to feel good about ourselves for having done something despite not having done anything at all. And the reaction to hearing this should be, “Okay, how can I really be useful?” and not “UGH ungrateful brown people can’t you see I am HELPING.”

*  *  *  *  *

And to repeat, I AM NOT THE BOSS OF YOU. If you want to wear a safety pin, wear a safety pin. If you appreciate the safety pin thing, yay. If you want to announce your solidarity with Muslims, yay. If you appreciate those announcements, yay.

*  *  *  *  *

I don’t want to leave you in the activist lurch — I know many of us are trapped in the “oh god, someone just please tell me something helpful I can do” stage — so in the interest of being constructive: if you want to engage in accessory-based activism, consider a pin that explicitly says what you mean, like “Black Lives Matter” or “Hooray for trans persons!” or “Muslims are marvelous!” or just “I didn’t vote for Trump.” That’d be much more visible, people would more easily know where you actually stand, and your pin couldn’t be co-opted by white nationalists. Plus, your obvious statement might draw the attention of bigots in your vicinity who might then choose to confront you rather than, say, the nearest person of color, giving you the opportunity to absorb and deal with the hate while a person of color gets to avoid doing it for once, and then you’d have done an actual service for someone.

If you want to try something else, here’s a list of things you can do, right now. If you want to contact your senators or reps, here are phone numbers and instructions and scripts.

The sentiment behind your safety pin is not at issue. But it’s too little, it’s very late — in the case of a Muslim registry, we kind of already have one — and many of us will end up doing nothing beyond the performance despite claiming that we’re just making one small gesture among many we plan to perform. And energy spent getting angry with people of color or queer folks or Muslims or queer Muslims of color or any other oppressed group over this is energy not spent protesting, volunteering, or offering material or proactive support, or working to understand the deep roots of inequality and how white Americans contribute to and benefit from them.

Okay, end White Person Thoughts.


  1. Thank you for saying something because when I as a person if color tells a white person how little their effort of donning a pin means, they would as you stated in post, “Get their panties in a twist “. And some still wouldn’t act when it came down to it and would want cookies for wearing a diaper holder.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. You would face the wrath. I wouldn’t wish that on you. But I do find that because we are in such a self-absorbed, instant gratification society, that focusing on people who are having a harder time than you is like kryptonite for someone in denial of their privileges. I already felt uncomfortable going into certain neighborhoods and since the election, I’ve been laying low. I can’t imagine all the new forms of racism I’ll have to deal with now that hate has been given license to be bold faced everywhere.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I started wearing the safety pin this week. I am doing so as a statement in support of an America that believes in justice and equality for all people. I do it because there must be some way to distinguish between the white people who actually are in favor of inclusivemess and the white people who operate under bigotry and prejudice. We all look the same, after all, as we ride the transit system to work.

    I’m not sure of this “us” you refer to, as in “the folks we’re claiming to support are not holding their breath waiting for us to act.” White people are not a monolithic culture (as you well know), nor are all non-white people marginalized (Bernie Sanders mistakenly made that assumption).

    As for these marginalized people, yes we have a problem. An enormous, complex, global problem that will not be solved with shouting in the streets or ranting on the internet, or by wearing safety pins. However, ANY action is a step in the right direction, because complacency is no longer an option.

    Your post seems aimed at hipsters who do nothing really useful anyway, who use their PayPal account to send a few dollars to disaster relief and then feel satisfied that they’ve done enough as they drink their $6 latte. I know many decent human beings who are wearing a safety pin and making their lives speak in a way that, if there are enough of us, may lead to honest change.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pragmatism rules the day. I’m going to rush to someone’s defense while wearing a thing that will eventually stab me in a tussle? I like getting your perspective and continue to read and listen to the perspective of people outside my life experience. The unfortunate thing about all of this is how much yelling we seem to be doing at each other. After a year of this campaign, it seems to be the only language we know how to speak. We’re all walking around prickly and defensive and flailing about helplessly. Settle down, listen to others and then pick an action that supports your values. Symbolism is not action.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think if I say I am on either side, if I wear a pin or carry a sign, I am saying that 50% of this nation is wrong/stupid/evil/hateful and I am judging them. I say 50% because the vote was about half and half. I am not ready to reject half of the nation, half of my town, half of my social media friends and lose them over this election.

    But more than that, my friends are more important to me than being right. My friends are more important than the outcome of this election. My friends are more important than even the issues. I want to love them well no matter what side of this they are on.

    Indeed American is being pulled apart, pulled in half. Can’t we allow everyone to be free to think their own thoughts? Can’t we trust the democratic process that has gotten us to this far after over 200 years? Can’t we be loving to each other and share our hearts without getting buzz-sawed over ideology? And if I think differently than you on an issue, can I just be different and not evil?


    Can we move towards peace together in America? We have real problems and we have real enemies. It’s time to hang together to fight the enemy, not each other.

    Michelle, you are awesome and thanks for giving me the space to say this.

    Liked by 1 person

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