I didn't discover what the meaning of the safety pin two days later, following the worship service at my church. As explained to me, it was intended to indicate that I was a safe person for people to talk to, presumably people frightened by the election outcome. Of course, they'd only know I was safe if they knew what the hell the safety pin meant. And since it took two days for me to find that out myself, I wasn't sanguine that the word had gotten out very far.
Nonetheless I wore the pin for a couple of days, together with a "Black Lives Matter" button, the symbolism of which was impossible to miss. I figured that if I let people know that I believed black lives mattered, they would assume I thought that Hispanic, Muslim, and LGBTQ lives mattered, too.
Just now I finally looked up the safety pin business on the Internet. Among the first hits that appeared was an op/ed in the Washington Post, entitled "Go Ahead: Wear a Safety Pin. But Don't Expect People of Color to Care." It was written by Zack Linly, described as "a poet, performer, freelance writer, community organizer and activist living in Atlanta." The accompanying photo indicated that he was a person of color (POC).
Linly's point of departure was similar to my own:
For any of you still scratching your head or other assorted body parts thinking, “What the hell is this whole ‘safety pin’ thing about?” I suppose the simplest way to describe it is: mostly white people donning pins on their clothing to identify themselves as being definitively against Trump and the toxic culture of uber-conservatism that comes with him, and thus dubbing themselves an “ally” to people of any and all demographics that have been deemed vulnerable.
The safety pin movement has been both praised and shouted down, mostly by people from those vulnerable demographics who are at best skeptical and at worst think it’s nothing more than white savior complex shenanigans, a hollow gesture sure to be unaccompanied by action. For black people, it’s akin to police officers handing us ice cream when we asked them to stop murdering us.
Linly went on to say that he didn't mind the safety pins; he minded the outrage it provoked from illiberal people poised to condemn any attempt at solidarity that did not precisely conform to their notions of the form those attempts should take. But taken on the whole, Linly's attitude was more or less condescending:
White people (and POC, too, for that matter) need to know that they can wear their pins all they want, but they don’t get to demand trust and appreciation. It behooves them to stop trying to tell marginalized people, whom they claim are “safe” with them, how to feel about it. I understand people who see a safety pin and appreciate it and find it comforting. I also understand those who find it to be patronizing and, once again, centering white folk in an issue that generally doesn’t belong to them. (And yes, they are centering themselves in the issue. They’re literally expecting people to take notice of a small pin clipped to their coat, so yes, yes, they are.)
Linly concludes that accessorizing is cheap, activism is hard:
While this [critcism] may be disconcerting to some, I’d look at it as an opportunity for white liberals to prove that their allyship doesn’t begin and end with a safety pin by actually doing the work of dismantling white supremacy, toxic patriarchy and every other oppressive system we have in place. Then you can wear your pins proud, and know that doing it in the face of rolling eyes, turned up noses and relentless mocking is part of what it is to be marginalized and almost entirely what it is to be an activist.
So much for the safety pin. Basically my intuition about it, when first handed the item, was correct. The question was whether the rally would point the way toward real activism. . . .