Will Wearing Safety-Pins Help Stop the Rise of the New Racism?

Eva Wiseman, Guardian, July 10, 2016

We’re living in a time when it seems to be necessary to wear a safety pin on your lapel to identify yourself as a non-racist. Even if you’re not aware of the social-media push, you’ll have seen the results on your fellow commuters, colleagues–proud little pins, pinning nothing together. It’s odd. As recently as a month ago–do you remember a month ago?–it was simply assumed that we, as a people, were “on the whole” not filled with hate. Today, of course, things are different. Today the assumption, based on the five-fold rise in reports of race-hate complaints since the EU referendum, is that the bigotry we’d all been suppressing with layers of muscle and Adidas has finally been allowed to shine through, given the OK by Brexit himself. And to stand apart from that, to promise we’re not going to petrol-bomb any halal butchers or shout at fellow bus passengers to go back to where they came from, we are being urged to wear a safety pin.

A safety pin. I can imagine more pathetic ways of showing solidarity, but not many, and most include whispering under one’s breath in a broad wind. And there’s a special hashtag. Of course, there’s a special hashtag.

I mean, I get it. I’m not a monster. It’s a sweet gesture. I get that it feels important to clarify your position as one of the goodies. That many white British people are walking through once-friendly streets, old Remain stickers now ground to purple moss beneath their feet, feeling they need to apologise, to hold the forearms of Polish neighbours and tell them they’re welcome. That they feel a tension in the air, on the train, on the tram, as if something is on the verge of happening, a morning sickness, a fear. And so they have grabbed at the #SafetyPin campaign as code. Except the code, to me, reads not: “I’m not racist” or “I’m safe”, but: “I’m too shit-scared to stand up for you when I hear a woman muttering about sending foreigners home in front of your son, also it’s a bit awk talking to strangers, so tell you what, I’ll pop on a safety pin, cheers!”

It’s the very opposite of speaking up, this little pin, passive-aggressive in its subtlety. It seems to exist purely for the wearer, purely to absolve the person who has stuck it into their collar of any residual guilt associated with being one of the lucky ones. It makes them walk a little taller, doesn’t it. It makes them feel as though they are helping, as though they are combatting racism singlehandedly, as though one lost pin turns them into Nelson Mandela himself, spreading love through this whole Tesco Express.

What would be more helpful when addressing racism? Well, for a start, most other things? Most other things that involve more than a pin. Staying at least part vigilant, for one–not affecting that glazed sleep-look when a stag do’s chants go dark on the night bus or when a woman at a party makes a generalisation about Muslim men. It’s not always about charging in, a literal white knight here to rescue those abused in public–it’s about using your position of glorious privilege in private, speaking up when somebody starts a sentence with: “I’m not racist, but…” Listening, for another, when people tell you about their experiences of being treated differently at work, or the messages they’ve got on Tinder that fetishise their ethnicity, or why they feel anxious waiting at the bar. Listening for quiet racism between breaths. Taking it seriously when a friend discusses the sinking dread of walking past a group of beery boys. Talking to your elderly relatives about the assumptions they hold, about the way they talk about the nurse at the hospital, about the cab driver, your brother’s girlfriend, the war.

Solidarity is easy; outrage is hard. And it’s outrage we need now–it’s fury and action and things that are terrifying. It’s scary to challenge a stranger, it’s scary to call the police, and sometimes it’s scary to tell your boss they’re being offensive. Something vile has been unpacked post-referendum, as if a country’s vacuum storage bags have been pierced and racism has been given air. Violence is rare, but there’s a violence of thought that we recognise in fearful acquaintances, and rather than solemnly attaching a safety pin and carrying on eating our sandwiches, we need to attack it with something bigger, something sharper.

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