Should You Wear a Safety Pin – Say Something Sunday

People in the US are borrowing a response to Brexit.  It’s the small act of wearing a safety pin to show that we are in solidarity with marginalized groups.  This is in response to the US having a president-elect who ran on a platform of blatant racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, anti-Queer anti-Trans sentiment, and anti-Semitism, whose election was supported, endorsed, and celebrated by the KKK, and who has appointed a white supremacist and a boatload of viciously anti-queer and trans people to his transition team,

As word of this project has been getting around, there have been arguments against it, and a few hundred of you have asked me what I think.  I thought I would discuss the major arguments that I’ve seen and then give my thoughts:

The first argument I’ve seen is the idea that you shouldn’t wear the pin unless you have a plan to intervene in any and all situations that might occur, with all marginalized populations, wherever you are.

I think that this argument is flawed in its premise.  I don’t think that anyone is (or, at least, I think that anybody should be) expecting that everyone who is wearing a safety pin is going to have any specific competence when it comes to intervening in these situations.  I think that the safety pin serves as a simple symbol that a person is not part of the active bigotry that has been a cornerstone of donald’s campaign.

As a queer woman, when I’m out in the world there is often no way for me to know if someone is as virulently anti-gay as, say, our new vice president-elect Mike Pence (who wanted to divert funding away from caring for people with HIV and AIDS, to programs that claim – all evidence to the contrary – that they can literally shock the gay out of people.)  If I see someone wearing a safety pin, it comforts me to know that they do not wish to try to shock me straight, and I appreciate that.

However, I have no expectation that they would have any particular skills should some gay bashing go down, and I don’t think I have any right to.  They are wearing a safety pin, not a certification in de-escalation of difficult, dangerous, possibly life-threatening situations.

That said, creating these plans and skill-building around them is an absolutely a worthwhile undertaking that I encourage.

The other major argument I’ve seen is that the pins only serve to make the wearers feel better/assuage their guilt at being privileged, and do nothing to actually help in the situation.

I would never speak for groups to which I don’t belong, what I will say is that as a queer woman (and thus part of at least two of the groups who people wearing the pins are supporting) I disagree with this for several reasons.

First, as I mentioned above, I think that the safety pins show support for me – which I appreciate. Seeing a safety pin is comforting to me.

Perhaps even more importantly, I think that the safety pins serve to disrupt the assumption that bigots tend to have, that people like them hold the same prejudices they do. This happens to my thin Size Acceptance friends when other thin people assume that they are cool with fat bashing, it happens to me when another white person assumes that I am ok with racist jokes, it happens to straight (and straight passing) people when straight people assume that they are ok with anti-Queer and Trans talk.

When someone is wearing a safety pin, the bigots are forced to acknowledge that the person does not hold the same prejudices.  More people wearing safety pins = less comfort and sense of safety for bigots. In this way people can use their privilege to disrupt bigotry.

I think that research supports the idea that these small steps are important building blocks for future activism. In his book, Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini talks about a study in which two psychologists asked people living in a neighborhood in California to agree to erect a huge billboard in their front yards supporting safe driving. As you might imagine, almost all of them said no. But in one small group, incredibly, about 75% of the residents agreed to put a big ‘ole billboard in their yard. The difference?  That small group had previously agreed to display a 3-inch safe-driving sign in their windows.

Cialdini explains that when they put up the tiny sign, it changed how they viewed themselves.  So when they were asked to say yes to the billboard, they were much more likely to agree because they saw themselves as agents of the cause.

As activists I think we sometimes want people to jump to doing big work, and we get frustrated by small gestures.  But, again speaking only for me and the marginalized communities to which I belong, I think it’s important to remember that those small gestures are more likely to lead to bigger work in the future, and that discouraging people from participating in activism is unlikely to encourage them to participate in the future.

Finally, I know that holding back the tide of bigotry and oppression is going to require a difficult and sustained effort, and I suspect that we are going to be encouraged at every turn to stop paying attention.  It’s my hope that putting on a safety pin every day reminds people that our constant vigilance and work is required.

[Edit:  This came up on my Facebook post and I wanted to address it] – someone copied a list of things that the writer said people must be willing to do if they were going to wear the pins.  My response was:  I appreciate people sharing their thoughts on what they think the safety pin should mean and what they think people should be prepared to do if they wear the pin. But I’ll point out that there are as many opinions about what allies should do as there are marginalized people – and they differ wildly.)

I think that the safety pin is a simple symbol that someone is not in active agreement with the platform of bigotry that saw donald elected and continues with his transition team. I also want to point out that the things people mention that people “should” be willing to do are things that some people can do, but they are things that many people can’t do because of physical ability, degree of neuro-typicality and more, and so when we demand specific things like this in order to be an ally, we are further marginalizing marginalized populations by telling them that their activism isn’t – and never will be – good enough, and can be profoundly ableist. [end edit]

Certainly there are issues with this project:

There are people who may be using the pins only to assuage their guilt, or they will consider the safety pins to be all they need to do.  The thing is, if that’s how they feel then they probably weren’t going to do anything else anyway, so at least they are doing something.

There are issues of privilege – as a white, currently able-bodied, currently neurotypical, cisgender person wearing the safety pin is less risky for me than it would be for people who have other marginalized identities. Also, while women are definitely marginalized and in danger with donald in office, a majority of white women who voted, voted for donald, and so we need to take responsibility for that, and be sure that all of the efforts we make to protect women include and center Women of Color.

The pin isn’t a perfect predictor of behavior or beliefs. There may be some people who are in support of some communities but not others. As a fat person I’m well aware that someone wearing a pin might be absolutely down with supporting me as a queer person, but still see no issue with fat bigotry. More problematically, this may be the most likely to happen to people in the most marginalized communities. We all need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for examining our own implicit and explicit biases and doing the work to overcome them.

It can’t be the only thing we do.  The next four years are going to require constant vigilance, this is the time to fight, to hold the line, to preserve our humanity and save our country, to try to make this the last stand of the bigots. Safety pins are a start, but they certainly aren’t the end.

The safety pins are meant to show support for People of Color, Muslims, Immigrants, Queer and Trans people, disabled people/people with disabilities, women, and all marginalized populations under attack. There are people in all of those communities who do want people to wear safety pins, and there are people in all of those communities who don’t want people to wear safety pins. No community is a monolith and so every time we do something that some people in the community ask us to do in solidarity, we will upset other people in that same community who disagree with the action. It’s the nature of trying to work in solidarity.

The safety pin project is imperfect.  But then, so is every activist project that has ever been undertaken. So it’s up to each of us to decide what we want to do.

In this case I’m choosing to wear the pin because I would rather err on the side of showing support and solidarity, with apologies to those who would rather I didn’t and who don’t feel supported by the gesture.  And, because it’s Say Something Sunday, I’m telling people that I appreciate them wearing a safety pin in support of the marginalized communities to which I belong.

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30 thoughts on “Should You Wear a Safety Pin – Say Something Sunday

  1. I read recently somewhere on FB that white supremacists are co-opting the safety pin to lure/trick/further victimize the very people the symbol is meant to support. Could you find out more about this? Is it just a rumor? Is it true? If it’s true, should we wear the pins anyway?

    I.m going to be offline in retreat for most of this week. I’ll check comments here before I leave and when get back. Thanks!

    1. My research shows that this is trolling from the 4chan site and not a real thing, just an attempt to disrupt our activism. Even if it was true I think wearing the pins is still a good idea since there are so many more of us than them.


  2. I have heard the same thing, and I like your answer, Regan. You always give me something good to think about. I had decided not to wear it but will now give it more thought. In the meantime I am committed to action in every situation where I am physically able.

  3. Thank you so much for this. It never occurred to me that showing solidarity or hoping marginalized peoples would support one another would be so loaded…until yesterday, when my Twitter blew up around this.

    One thing I’ve seen that you don’t address: some PoC I’ve spoken with have expressed real fear that this symbol will be coopted by people on “the other side” and used against them, either to provide a false sense of safety or lure them to their doom. It really never occurred to me; I personally don’t think of the other side as having that much imagination. But it may be something to bear in mind.

    1. The problem with that idea is that applies to pretty much any possible show of solidarity. A KKK member could get a BLM tattoo if they wanted. Literally nothing is 100%.

  4. Thank you so much for systematically addressing all the issues I’ve seen tossed out in relation to this. I agree completely that a tangible sign of support and an attempt to establish attempt visual community is so important right now.

  5. I think wearing the pin is one good way to show support, and I am glad to know that you, at least, would feel supported.

    I do think that occasionally a pin might draw violence from especially angry people, so it is something to be aware of.

    I also think that something small is a good place to start. I don’t know how to even begin to change the minds of so many people who are racist/homophobic/misogynistic/anti-whoever I missed and didn’t mean to.

    I really don’t understand supporting Trump, but enough people did that there is a lot to do in order to make the people I love (and all the others) safe.

  6. Thoughtful post, and I was inclined to agree with you. Then I read that safety pins are being co-opted by white supremacists. See

    l guess I’ll stick to wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt or something along those lines. Maybe adorn the shirt with buttons supporting LGBTQ rights, love trumps hate, etc.

    Fortunately I don’t have to worry about dress codes or anything like that. 🙂

    1. I totally support you wearing your BLM shirt and other buttons, I wanted to let you know that my understanding is that this isn’t real, it’s just (internet hate group) 4chan trolling people.

      1. Okay, thanks for that info. I’m still on the fence about wearing the safety pin.

        I do believe the intentions are good. But I probably won’t be wearing it myself based on comments made by so many people of color in my twitter timeline saying it’s really not helpful.

        * Hugs to you and all the other folks trying to deal with this massive wave of hate *

  7. Good well-rounded take. I especially appreciate your view that positive gestures should not be rejected just because they do not go very far. I believe that attitude was behind voter apathy toward or even rejection of Clinton and establishment Democrats in this electoral cycle. Even when we are very disappointed by tiny reforms to a corrupt system, if we fail to recognize that these are better than the alternatives offered by the other side, we will keep getting the alternatives.

  8. Thank you for this intelligent, well reasoned article. In particular, I appreciate the reference to Dr. Cialdini’s work because I am new to activism and need more than editorialized facebook posts to go off of.

  9. I’m wearing the pins, to show that I’m a safe person to come to. If I can help, I will – even if it’s just calling 911 and taking pictures. I did not ask for white privilege, or any privilege at all, and if I can use it to help people without it, I will do so. there is also a cartoon circulating that explains how to de-escalate a situation without confrontation. I recommend it.

  10. Another thing not often mentioned is what effect things like this have on the bystander effect. It may deter or limit those seeking to do I’ll when they do not perceive the crowd to be with them, as you explain in disrupting bigotry. And it may make it easier for someone else to speak up. The first is always the hardest. Once one person, or two people, and then three break the barrier of silence, the crowd tends to follow. And if you suspect that you have a receptive crowd you are more likely to speak and act.

    It not only disrupts bigotry, it supports the sort of action generally asked for. And it is a reminder (I hope!) for those wearing it to be a little bit more aware. To notice the problem in the first place.

    1. The bystander effect is HUGE. This is why, in my emergency (CPR and Automatic Defibrillator) training, they tell us to point to someone, and say, “YOU! Call 911!” In fact, they tell us to point to several people, and give each an assignment, including the assignment to herd the rest of the crowd away, giving the people working the space they need to work.

      People are more likely to think it’s not their job, the more people there are present. If it’s only one or two people present, they’re highly UN-likely to play bystander. Although it does still happen, because some people freeze when they panic.

      The point is, whether you wear a pin, or not, if you break that barrier of silence, you are giving other people permission to break it as well. And if you can actively include them (“Don’t you agree with me, Fred?” “What do you think, Mabel?”), then it’s more likely they will act, as well.

  11. If you’re not comfortable wearing the pin, you might simply carry one in your pocket (or one in every pocket!) so that each time you feel it, you can be reminded of your commitment to step up and speak out.

    For me, I think I put my hands in my pockets a lot (gotta have my chap stick), but if I wear a pin, I generally forget about it (and frequently wash it, so I’ve stopped wearing pins, except on rare occasions).

    I guess it boils down to WHY are you wearing it? If you’re wearing it to show people that you are safe and support them, then having it visible is best. If you’re wearing it only to confirm your own commitment, then use whatever works best for you to be frequently reminded of it.

    It IS important to let the people with whom we socialize know that we do not support bigotry. We don’t have to wave a sign. We can simply glower at them, whenever they do/say something bigoted. We can pointedly stand up and walk away in the middle of a conversation, if it turns that way. Silence can speak as loudly as words. The point is, if we nod, smile, laugh, or otherwise “give them permission” to continue that way, they will.

    Another thing to remember, as well, is that an awful lot of the marginalized people may not be aware of the pin’s significance, at all. You know that keeping abreast of Twitter and other such methods of spreading news is a privilege that many to not actually enjoy.

    I’m choosing not to openly wear my safety pin. But when I’m out and about, I do fully intend to use my reputation as one of “the Laughing Sisters” (yes, they call me and my sister that, because we laugh a lot, and we laugh loud, and we give other people permission to laugh, by doing so, ourselves). I’m going to use that reputation for laughing, because whenever someone makes a bigoted joke, I can stare at them, and say flatly, “That’s not funny.” When someone then responds that I need to learn how to take a joke, or that I need to develop a sense of humor, I can remind them to whom they are speaking. I laugh when things are funny. When someone is hurt, I HELP them.

    1. Michelle~ Thank you for your post… i am especially loving the last paragraph. And these right here are words to live by:

      I laugh when things are funny. When someone is hurt, I HELP them.

  12. As an neuroatypical, fat Black woman I find the safetypin one of many empty gestures… as the conversation turns to a safetypin vs. the many assaults that have already taken place in the days that Trump has become the president elect. Actually supporting those in trouble or under assault verbally or otherwise is a way to support us. If you need flare I’m sure you can find pins against homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, racism, and misogyny. Taking action against oppressive acts of aggression against people who are more marginalized then yourself for me, will always be the way to take action. Oh and by the way White supremacists have already co-opted the #safetypin movement in this country. And they sadly, are far more organized than liberal white people. So we have witnessed. I won’t be turning to someone wearing a safetypin when they come for me.

  13. This post pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter. Pretty much everyone I follow on Twitter seems to think that they’re stupid and just a way to make white people feel less guilty, and as a white woman I’ve sat back, not wanting it to seem like I’m telling anyone else how to feel.

    But I feel like you do. I grew up a fat liberal atheist in the Bible Belt, where I constantly feel the need to hide my beliefs so as not to upset anyone since most people disagree with me. It would have been so nice to be able to see something that suggested the person I was standing next to agreed with me on at least something.

  14. Thank you for your very thoughtful article. It was well written and made me feel less sad.

    Last week I saw an encouragement to wear to wear a safety pin to show that you are in support of immigrants, minorities, women, the LGBT community, and the disabled. I put one on right away. I had one out my table, anyway, and took that as a good sign. As a woman with some experience with abuse and as a disabled person with manic depression, and family in those groups, I thought it was a small but good thing. As well as because grief for all of the marginalized groups that are extra terrified right now, I put it on for my siblings who are both disabled, one who also has manic depression and one who has severe schizophrenia, and for my husband who, although not currently disabled by it, has multiple sclerosis.

    I did not see it as a substitute for action for myself in any way, but even if that is all people do, I think that is better than nothing. Personally, I have been trying to fight back concrete ways–but I hoped the safety pin would do a little bit of goodness, too. I hoped that anyone who is looking around at everyone with real fear could be reassured that I was not a threat, and that I would myself make a commitment to speak up when I see or hear hatred and bigotry.

    I have seen a lot of backlash against this in different forms. Much of it was about “white guilt”. I woke up to my husband sobbing on Wednesday because of his fear of losing his medication. I was definitely not feeling guilty. I felt afraid, I was waking up literally unable to breathe, and I thought “good night, then just think how an undocumented immigrant must feel right now.” Or a documented immigrant, or–the list was unending. I felt just so sad. I wanted people to feel even a little less afraid, for a moment. I did not think that I in any way understood their experience or anything like that. And I felt sad that maybe I was upsetting people when I wanted to do the opposite, really sad.

    But I also saw other backlash that I feel I can speak about. I read one person, a person with a disability like myself, call it patronizing to the disabled (except in more depth and stronger, aggressive language). And I can speak to that.

    I don’t feel like that at all. I would love–love love love–to have more allies for the disabled. And because of my own experience, for those disabled by or suffering from mental illness. Even if the only thing they did was wear a pin, although with the hope that might lead to more. There is a great amount of prejudice and stigma towards mental illness, which can sometimes include violence. I have not experienced violence myself, both my siblings have been victims of serious violence because of their mental illness, one at the hands of the police (my sibling was unarmed and it was 100% unprovoked. He just stood up.)

    In addition to all the other reasons, for me part of wearing the pin was a challenge to myself to out myself more for my mental illness and speak out when I hear people say prejudiced things. When I was first diagnosed twenty year ago, I would tell anyone and everyone about my illness–and it would have been obvious to most people anyway. Eventually, though, I because so exhausted by all the stigmatizing and sometimes hateful things people said. So I stopped talking. I have been on disability for many years now and still deal with daily symptoms and struggle to work, but thanks to a mood stabilizer, an anti-psychotic, and creating a stable lifestyle as far as I can, I have not had a full blown psychotic episode in a decade. I can pass myself off as neuro-typical to many people who don’t know me well. Or if not quite neuro-typical, at least not as ill as I am. And I do! Ug. I am ashamed to say that. Even online. I have a few other physical health problems that are not nearly as serious but if I am struggling mentally, I often talk nebulously of “health problems” and try to pass it off as related to my physical health. And I stayed uncomfortably silent when people said wrong things about people with mental illnesses–which sometimes seems like everyone. Many of my friends who would never dream (rightly) to say “gay” or “retarded” as an insult will say “bipolar” or “schizophrenic” as derogatory terms. I have read anti-Trump articles deriding his bigotry and misogyny and refer to him as “having a serious psychiatric problem” or “mentally ill”. So when I put on the pin, I also made a commitment to tell people that I have bipolar disorder and (peacefully) tell them why their words are hurtful to people with mental illnesses. (If I felt any guilt when I put on the pin, it was because I wished I had been braver about my illness and a feeling that in a certain way I had betrayed my siblings by not calling out anti-mental illness bigotry.)

    I considered taking off my pin, because I don’t my pin to make anyone feel bad, and I obviously do not know the struggles of other groups, or even other disabled people, or compare them to myself. But then I thought of the people who say they find them reassuring and how I feel that way, as a woman and a person with a disability. My conclusion in the end was the same as yours, although not so well expressed: “I would rather err on the side of showing support and solidarity, with apologies to those who would rather I didn’t and who don’t feel supported by the gesture.” After reading your well articulated points, pro and con, I feel more confident in this. And I am glad that you would feel more supported, too.

    Thank you again. And if this is too long, you don’t have to publish it.


  15. I may not notice something happening or know what to do – but I want to have some way to show that the person being marginalised is NOT alone and that it’s not ok and that I’m there. If I see and can help I will. But if I don’t see – I’m still there and will help if you need me.

    And if someone is trans and needs someone to go to the bathroom with them I’m there – the pin says I’ll be there, I am there, I’ll do what I can.

    It doesn’t say I know what to do all the time, or how to do it. But hopefully it will be seen as support.

  16. I posted the following thoughts about why I’m wearing the pin over on Kelly’s blog (, after reading some of the comments here. One other point: I do suspect that while white supremacists may talk about co-opting the safety pin, they are unlikely to follow through very often because of the mixed message it would send to their fellow bigots.

    I’ve been wearing a safety pin for a couple of weeks now. I agree that it is merely a start, rather than an achievement in itself. Here’s why I’m wearing it, particularly when I ride public transit:

    First, I want to signal to potential victims of harassment that there is likely to be at least one potential ally among the strangers in the crowd. It’s not a guarantee – as others have noted, there is nothing explicitly stopping potential harassers from also adopting the symbol for their own purposes. But I want vulnerable people to know that there are potential allies among the white faces in the crowd, and hopefully breathe a little easier about being out in public these days.

    Second, I want potential harassers to know that my white skin and male body does not mean they should assume that I will be at least passively on their side. If harassers are aware that some in the crowd are likely to oppose them, they may be deterred from acting in a hostile manner in the first place. If so, that’s good – it keeps a hostile environment from developing.

    Third, it is a reminder to myself that I have promised to intervene if I see harassment going on. So I am thinking about possible harassment scenarios and how I might respond every time I am out in public these days, which means I am more likely to be prepared to act if it does occur.

    Fourth, by wearing a visible symbol of support, I may get people asking me about the pin and what it means, which gives me an opportunity to talk about the harassment that vulnerable people have encountered already and what we might be able to do about it. Raising the visibility of harassment incidents makes more people aware of the ugliness going on and may create more allies among relatively privileged populations.

    But fifth, and perhaps most important, by wearing a clearly visible safety pin when I am out in public, I take away my option of remaining just an anonymous member of the crowd if visible harassment starts to happen in my presence. I know that other members of the crowd will see my pin and will judge by my action or inaction what it really means. I won’t have the option of sitting quietly during the incident, only to think later of what I should have done. I will know that part of the response of the crowd will likely be up to me and how I signal that we should act. So I expect that wearing the pin will impel me to action in order to live up to the expectations I have raised by putting it on.

    I may not do the exact right thing that hindsight would argue for. But I hope I will do something rather than nothing, and will try to watch the victim for clues as to what actions might be welcome or unwelcome.

    I don’t expect cookies just for wearing the pin. I know, by wearing the pin, that I am inviting both the judgement and criticism of my actions from others if I do encounter someone being harassed. I hope and trust that knowledge will impel me to do the right thing if that moment comes.

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