It’s More than a Safety Pin

I’m not an ally. I’m a fellow citizen. It’s not a safety pin. It’s something bigger than that.

The “Dear White People” messages that tell me that my pledge to stand up for American values is flimsy and theatrical are condescending and unkind. Those scoldings are dripping with assumption and disdain about my motivation as an American citizen.

Oh, you’re going to wear a safety pin. Aren’t you precious? 

Don’t you understand how meaningless that is? It’s just something to soothe your white conscience.

As an older feminist, I finally learned not to discount support coming from men. Sometimes, I have been in disbelief that a man actually, genuinely, shared the view that men and women are equal, and more disbelieving when that man actually showed through his actions – small and large – that the belief was real. You don’t find men who are feminists on every street corner but there are more than we think. Many more. So I learned to link arms with those men, to trust them.

I know what it means for a man to be openly feminist. Everyone doubts him. They doubt him because the current of sexism in our world is so deep and strong as to be genetically defined. So there is a great disbelief in the genuineness of his feminist declaration and as great a suspicion that, when push comes to shove, the male feminist will desert us. That might be true but I take that chance.

So wearing a safety pin says what about me?

Maybe it’s a message to other people that I am a supporter, that I will do whatever I can to intervene in mistreatment. It’s easy to discount the safety pin business when you think of it this way, like it’s a tiny secret symbol to the oppressed that you’re ready to save them. It’s a notion ripe for denigration.

Oh right, Jan, someone being threatened by a racist bully is going to seek you out of a crowd to defend them.

Probably not. But we are in a situation now and going forward where individual reckoning with one’s principles and integrity is more likely than theoretical.  Married to a Jewish man for 32 years, there have been many discussions about what I, as a non-Jewish woman, would do to protect him if ‘they’ came for him. We joke about this but it is uneasy joking. At his core, he wonders about me. How far would I go to save him?

And I wonder about myself. What would be my limit? Would I have a limit? Would I be brave? Or would I find an excuse to be a coward? It’s sickening talk and still abstract but for how long? Many things we thought could never happen in the United States are, this minute, happening.

So maybe the safety pin is to remind me that I am obligated to live the words that I say. I can’t tell my husband I love him if I wouldn’t do everything in my power to protect him. I can’t say I believe in equal rights for everyone if I’m not willing to speak up, intervene, and put myself between someone intending harm and the person for whom harm is intended.

What does this mean, though, in a practical sense? I’m not sure. I don’t think there is a recipe for what comes next if you are an American opposed to racism and sexism. We can support the extraordinary organizations and institutions that fight for our rights but beyond that, I think we are winging it on a day to day basis. Perhaps the function of the safety pin is to remind us that we are capable of being braver than we ever envisioned.

Which of the people you know would be the heroic rescuers of Jewish children and families during the Holocaust? Would it have been someone you rode on the bus with one day or would it have been you who protected Ann Frank’s family or secreted Jewish children out of the country with fake passports and middle of the night passage? Do you think the people who stepped forward planned it all along? Or did they just believe they had no choice but to do the right thing?

Maybe the safety pin isn’t for others who see it. Maybe it’s for those who wear it. So we remember that we need to be the heroes. Even if we are weak and small and doubt ourselves, we need to find our own bravery and not wait for it to be delivered by people stronger and wise. I think about the prospects of throwing my 68-year old self in harm’s way and I love the part of me that thinks, yes, they will have to go through this old broad to do something terrible to someone else. I want to be that person.

I want to be brave. Even if I have to wear a safety pin to remind me.