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Why I Wear a Safety Pin

Adopting tangible symbols of peace, hope, and nonviolent resistance is a centuries-old practice. Ancient Greeks used an olive branch to symbolize peace. A symbol of wishes granted for centuries, paper cranes have symbolized hope and healing for 6 decades in Japanese culture. Peaceful protesters in Taiwan use sunflowers to represent the light they wish to shine on oppressive government policies. In Hong Kong, umbrellas symbolize peaceful protest, and women in Iran frequently wear brightly-colored nail polish to express their resistance to the extreme oppression they endure.

In April of 1940, just months into World War II, Adolf Hitler set his sights on an invasion of Norway. Controlling their ice-free waterways would make it quicker and easier to transport goods into Germany. German soldiers occupied Norway for 5 years, insisting that teachers and churches teach complete obedience to the leader and the state, passing anti-Jewish legislation, and deporting 700 Norwegian Jews to Auschwitz.

In the autumn of 1940, students at Oslo University started wearing innocuous paperclips on their collars and lapels to symbolize the binding together of like-minded Norwegians in a rejection of ethnocentric ideologies, peaceful resistance, and solidarity. Pins, bracelets, and jewelry fashioned out of paperclips bound like-minded Norwegians together in the face of adversity.

In December 2014, an Iranian refugee took hostages in an armed standoff in Sydney, Australia. By the end of the 16-hour ordeal, he had killed 2 hostages, prompting intense and violent Islamophobia to erupt across the country. Australian Rachel Jacobs posted on Facebook that she saw a Muslim woman remove her hijab out of fear for her own safety. Jacobs encouraged her to put her hijab back on, promising to walk with her and make sure she was safe. Her post prompted a social media campaign using #illridewithyou in which Australian citizens offered to walk, ride, or sit with Australian Muslims so they would feel safe and protected.

In post-Brexit United Kingdom, when there was a sharp rise in unprovoked attacks and hate crimes against both ethnic minorities and immigrants, a Twitter user named Allison, inspired by Australia’s #illridewithyou campaign, started wearing safety pins to symbolize a rejection of racism, peaceful push back against violence, and solidarity with immigrants. After tweeting photos of her safety pins and explaining, in 140 characters or less, the meaning behind the small gesture, the idea took off. Safety pins are commonly worn in the U.K. as a signal to marginalized groups that they are valued and supported. Thousands of U.K. citizens joined the #safetypin movement in a joint effort to communicate to marginalized and sometimes victimized immigrants, “You are safe with me.”

Since the 2016 general election in the U.S., millions of American citizens are concerned – scared, even – about the seemingly sharp rise in hate-based harassment, vandalism, violence, bullying, and crime being perpetuated against U.S. citizens – citizens who are often labeled “minorities” and are marginalized. As a result, the “Safety Pin Movement” has found a place here.

Many criticize or even condemn the gesture for being superficial and shallow, calling those who wear the pin “slacktivists” – a pejorative term used to describe people who think of themselves as social justice activists, but who only get involved with “easy activism” and “feel-good measures” such as signing on-line petitions or sounding off on social media websites, not the hard work of stepping out of our comfort zones to participate in street demonstrations, visit elected officials to demand change, or support organizations that actively work to affect social change with ongoing financial contributions. In other words, safety pin wearers are often criticized for doing something easy to “pat themselves on the back” without doing the hard work of actively trying to fix the problems they are peacefully protesting.

White people, in particular, are facing backlash for wearing safety pins as a passive and elitist action – an easy way to identify themselves as allies while doing none of the hard work it takes to help affect change. Christopher Keelty said in the Huffington Post, “We don’t get to make ourselves feel better by putting on safety pins and self-designating ourselves as allies. And make no mistake, that’s what the safety pins are for. Making white people feel better.” Others have criticized safety pin-wearers as lazy, saying they are being worn as a way for white people to identify themselves to other white people as having voted -- or not voted -- a particular way in the most recent general election in the U.S.

I acknowledge the limitations of this gesture or symbol. Wearing a pin doesn’t fix racism, xenophobia, exclusion, or cruelty. However, despite the sharp criticism and safety-pin shaming, I wear a safety pin and will continue to do so. Here’s why:

  • It is a concrete symbol that bigotry, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and bullying are not the norms in my circles, and I will actively take a stand against those ideologies in all their forms. If it reminds even one other person to actively stand for inclusion, acceptance, empathy, and kindness, it’s worth wearing.
  • I will actively take a stand against those ideologies in all their forms. I will not just wear the pin – I will attend the demonstrations, write my elected officials, contribute financial support to organizations actively working to affect change. Wearing a safety pin reminds me to actively be the change I want to see in the world, and if it reminds even one other person to do the same, it’s worth wearing.
  • Awareness is important. Awareness by itself doesn’t change things. It isn’t enough. It doesn’t solve problems. However, if enough people work together to raise awareness and use that awareness to dialogue about what we can actively due to help shift cultural norms, then awareness can lead to action, and action changes things. If my safety pin reminds me to act and inspires even one other person to act, it’s worth wearing.
  • Brain research shows that telling people what to do isn’t as effective as showing them what to do and how to do it. If enough people use their sphere of personal influence and social media influence to demonstrate actionable steps we can take toward inclusion, kindness, empathy, and acceptance, we can create social change. If my safety pin prompts even one person to ask why I wear it, and leads to even one discussion about the ACT in activism, it’s worth wearing.
  • Pinning this symbol to my clothes is a small gesture of community, participation, rejecting self-centeredness and apathy, being part of something bigger than my own little space in this world. If it symbolizes that to even one other person, and encourages them to share in this sense of community and togetherness, it’s worth wearing.
  • Knowledge is power. Some don’t understand the symbolism behind the safety pin, or the importance of real activism. If even one dialogue is sparked by a question about my pin, it’s worth wearing.
  • Helplessness, hopelessness, and despair are paralyzing, and we are flooded daily with media stories that incite these emotions. If wearing my pin symbolizes help, hope, and healing to even one person, it’s worth wearing.
  • Wearing a safety pin is not enough, but it may be enough to remind us to ask ourselves and one another what else we can do. It’s not a resolution – but it may be a start. It may lead to work toward a resolution.  If my pin inspires even one person to ponder this, it’s worth wearing.
  • Wearing a safety pin may indicate to a person who lives in fear of being marginalized, bullied, or victimized that I am a safe person. If I witness someone being bullied or victimized, I will not be a silent bystander. I will stand with them and for them. I will help. If my pin conveys that knowledge -- that safety -- to even one person, it’s worth wearing.
  • Wearing a safety pin may instigate dialogue with students and colleagues about the importance of active inclusion and kindness, and if even one student or colleague is inspired to think about these concepts, have these important conversations, act on these values, it's worth wearing. 

So, when you see my safety pin, please don’t assume I wear it out of privilege or guilt or an effort to assuage my guilt. The truth is, I understand first-hand what it’s like to be marginalized and bullied for one facet of the thousands of facets that make up who I am as a whole person. Even though on the outside, I may not “look” like a person who understands and experiences marginalization, I do. I hope I would stand with and for marginalized people even if I wasn’t a person who experienced this myself. I know my own experiences make me acutely aware of and responsive to others’ experiences. My other truth is, in some ways, I do experience privilege that others don’t enjoy. I am acutely aware of this and in the ways I am privileged, I will use that privilege to tirelessly work for inclusion and equality for all.

When you see my pin, please don’t assume it is the only thing I am doing. Don’t assume I am lazy, or a slacktivist. Don’t assume I’m not serious about intentionally and actively affecting change. Don’t assume I wear it to make myself feel better. In fact, I want anyone and everyone who is negatively affected by hatred, exclusion, or “othering” in any form to know I stand with them, for them, beside them, behind them, in front of them – whatever it takes – and knowing there is a need to stand against exclusion and for inclusion breaks my heart. I don’t feel better about myself by putting the pin on – I feel worse for all of us that there is a need to put the pin on.

When you see my pin, please don’t assume you know how I cast my vote. I believe acceptance, inclusion, and kindheartedness can bridge the gap between our differences, no matter whom we voted for and why. Despite political differences – despite all differences – we can find some common ground, stand with one another against bigotry, hatred, injustice, and othering, and stand together for compassion, empathy, and kindness.

When you see my pin, please don’t lash out at me for attempting to show solidarity and support. Instead, please consider that wearing the pin is a statement of my personal values . . . inclusion, acceptance, compassion, empathy, and kindness. But if you do judge me, if you do think poorly of me, if you do criticize me when you see my pin, know that those values – conveying them, reminding myself of them, inviting others to dialogue about them -- are so dear to me that I will wear a safety pin despite the controversy. Kindness matters, and if wearing a safety pin conveys encouragement to even one person who needs to feel a little kindness today, it’s worth it.
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