Dear White People: Put The Pin On

11/29/2016 06:58 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2016
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Is it right or wrong for a white person to wear a safety pin? Christopher Keelty has written a provocative essay calling safety pins “embarrassing,” superficial displays, good only for making white people feel better about their privilege. He may be right, but it does not matter.

The safety pin is a symbol, and the thing about symbols is that they are aspirational. A symbol is not about what we are, but what we want to be. A Christian does not wear a cross because she is like Christ, but because she strives to be. A Muslim bends at the waist in prayer not because he is humble before God, but to make himself humble. An athlete who rises at the national anthem hopes she can become everything this country stands for, and one who kneels hopes this country can be better than it is. The safety pin can be like that.

The safety pin is social in ways that other symbols are not. It is supposed to be a signal of solidarity to marginalized people, but it may be more effective as a signal to other white people. It can remind Trump supporters of the racism their vote helped unleash. It can remind those who deny white privilege exists that there is plenty of evidence for it. For a white man living in the South, it can remind native-born Southerners that the past is more present than they would like to believe.

In other words, to decide to put on a safety pin is to decide to make other white people feel awkward.

To put on a safety pin is to decide to make other white people feel awkward.

One of the great luxuries of whiteness is anonymity. Caucasians can keep their heads down and choose not to be noticed, not to say anything or upset anybody. A lot of white people will do that this holiday season. A dinner guest or family member will make a bigoted or sexist remark, and this will be met by uncomfortable silence followed by a change of subject. Such apathy is shameful, unacceptable, and all too common.

The safety pin can be a prick at the conscience. To choose to put it on is to aspire to cause trouble. It might be motivated by white guilt, but guilt can be a good thing. True guilt is the symptom of a troubled conscience and a sign that something is wrong. Guilt can be a call to action.

One may think of putting on the safety pin as a ritual of penance. Penance in the most ancient traditions is less about making guilt go away than it is about taking responsibility for it and responding appropriately. Rather than salve a guilty conscience, the safety pin could help keep the conscience guilty. It can remind the wearer of the times she was the silent dinner guest and that she aspires to be better than that now.

To be confessional for a moment, I have reservations about wearing a safety pin too. White people should fight like hell to resist paternalistic attitudes toward those with less privilege. One does not respect minorities if one thinks they need to be rescued. Nobody needs me to be their great white savior. If people are deciding not to wear a safety pin for that reason, then their decision is commendable.

That said, there is one other very good reason for a white person to put on a safety pin. Many people in this country are less safe today than they were a year ago. They face an uncertain future, and they are frightened. An undocumented immigrant or a woman in a hijab may see the safety pin on my shirt and think I am some self-righteous white man trying to ease his privileged conscience, and she may be right. But at least she will know I am not a threat.

That is not enough, but it is a place to begin.

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