December 02, 2016

Safety Pins and Being an Ally

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

In the week following the 2016 presidential election there have been over 700 cases of hateful harassment and intimidation--more than in the aftermath of 9/11. The debate on college campuses and among people involved in social movements has been heated over how social justice-oriented folks can support people in marginalized communities who feel acutely vulnerable in this moment.

Can you be white and support Black Lives Matter? Can you be cis-gender and straight while also supporting LGBTQ causes? An initial answer is likely “Sure!” although such a response is more probably followed with a “but…”

The “but…” is quite complex. Under what terms and conditions can one be an ally? Why shouldn’t people self-designate themselves as allies?’ What can folks do to supportive to under-represented and vulnerable groups and communities? How can people be allies when they might also feel that there is never enough that could be done to earn that title?

As a white male I fight to find answers to these questions, but I suspect a good and honest struggle is a healthy thing. It’s my hope that the bit of digging into these questions might be of value to white male Everyday Sociology readers. And I hope that folks—especially non-white, non-cis-men—will provide feedback in the comments as well.

The impetus for this recent set of questions on allyship comes from a movement toward providing a subtle signal to let those experiencing verbal and non-verbal harassment know that you are someone who supports them: wear a safety pin. (Click here to read about the history of the safety pin as a symbol of resistance, and here on how it relates to the Brexit vote.).

For some, a safety pin seemed like a straightforward thing. Not confrontational. A symbol of support. We, in fact, are always sending minor cues to others, from a smile indicating a deep affection to a hairstyle that communicates a wide set of cultural affinities. (Sociologist Erving Goffman notes that we “give off” these kinds of cues, as compared to ”giving” cues, which are verbal.)

But there was a backlash to the safety pins. An article circulating on social media called “Dear White People: Your Safety Pins are Embarrassing.” Rather than seeing safety pins as a symbol of support, the article claimed this an insignificant and incomplete gesture. The author posited that this was just another way for privileged white people to feel better about themselves without having to fight for changes that would make a more meaningful move toward a more inclusive, representative, and just society.

And then came a response to the backlash, with some persons of color expressing some (very, very, very) guarded appreciation over the idea. Here’s what Ijeoma Oluo had to say:

I’m not saying you can’t wear a safety pin. I don’t have the power to say you can’t wear anything. You can wear what you want. And the sight of a pin could well bring a smile to someone in a time of need. But it’s not enough. Not even close. Don’t expect that pin to earn you trust. Don’t expect thanks for the solidarity you should have always been showing. Don’t expect your pin to provide comfort in lieu of action. And don’t expect it to bring actual change. We have real work that has to be done and I suggest we get started.

Isobel Debrujah has a great piece that outlines the details on the action part, from talking through the meaning of the pin to making sure that you know how to de-escalate a situation, and more. Tami Winfrey Harris wrote another resource called “How to be an Anti-Racist Ally,” which includes a few key steps to follow as well (e.g., broaden your definition of racism, listen to people of color (POC) and accept their truths).

Included in the mix of responses are questions about whether or not wearing a pin is just token activism and ally theater. Mia McKenzie, of the site Black Girl Dangerous, wrote about the differences between real solidarity and ally theater: Don’t try to show that you’re not like other white people (e.g., saying “not all men…” or “not all white people”), don’t thank POCs for saying something, don’t perform allyship and expect a cookie. (Don’t rely on my summation. Read the article. BGD has been in my feed since my Everyday Sociology post about learning more from others’ perspectives, and challenging confirmation bias.)

Much of the blowback, like calling actions "ally theater," question the deeper motivations of why a white ally acts in solidarity. Are you really a supporter, or are you just expecting praise? Do you attend a rally to learn or to be seen? (By writing this Everyday Sociology blog post, am I merely providing a digital imprint of my white male allyship even if I do not do enough for my students, colleagues, and friends who are POCs? Is this theater as well?)

This point raises a sticky issue for a sociologist. When we say social action, we mean that most of our actions are conducted in consideration of other people’s recognition. The assessments of others, real or imagined, are always part of set of complex motivations. Aren’t we all social? Returning to Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life details all of the props and manners that comprise a performance of self that create an “interaction role the performer will expect to play in the oncoming situation” (p. 24). Concerns over ally theater is that an act like a safety pin is mere performance, implying that there’s not an authentic and altruistic motivation behind it. Goffman, somewhat cynically, finds everything to be performance, as theater, and social actions are in some fashion, impression management.

Mia McKenzie’s piece directly addresses the issues of online allyship as our primary stage for ally theater. One of her main points is that if a supposed ally sees something on Twitter they should respond privately to the attacker, and not include the targeted individual: “responding only to the commenter, without RTing [retweeting] and without including the queer person of color in the response at all.” The difference for writers like Oluo, Debrujah and McKenzie is, critically, whether the ally is sanctioning a harasser directly, or is bringing the victim into the performance of allyship. (Really, read the whole post.)

Commenting on online harassment does actually have an effect. An NYU Political Science graduate student conducted an experiment, responding to Twitter harassers with four different accounts: two white accounts, one with a high number of followers and one with a low number of followers; and two black accounts, also with one with a high number of followers and one with a low number of followers. (Read his fascinating op-ed in the Washington Post here, and his academic journal article here.) He found that when white online harassers were sanctioned by a white account with many followers, they were less likely to engage in that kind of harassment. Similar race and high status played a significant role. A critical factor:

Many people are already engaged in sanctioning bad behavior online, but they sometimes do so in a way that can backfire. If people call out bad behavior in a way that emphasizes the social distance between themselves and the person they’re calling out, my research suggests that the sanctioning is less likely to be effective.

White allies could be valuable in curbing this behavior and, perhaps more surprising, is that it takes only a little bit of effort. Most of his responses were similar to this: “Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with this kind of language.” Of note: high status bots were more effective in curbing harassment. The bot with more followers implied greater legitimacy. More followers implied a greater audience. The greater the audience, perhaps, the greater the theater.

An article on Vox that addresses how to combat biases and foster intergroup connections, opens with a new study indicating that a frank, brief, and non-confrontational conversation through door-to-door canvassing can influencing opinion. The authors examined face-to-face, 10-minute discussions asking South Floridian voters to put themselves in the shoes of trans people. Anti-trans sentiments declined as a result, and support for laws that protect trans people increased, even months later.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with more questions than answers. Allyship should require work, and the broadening of that group, and capacity building within it is a likely goal. Can a safety pin be as much a reminder to the bearer—a responsibility to one’s own commitments—as it is to be a symbol to other people: a reminder to act?


However well-intentioned the safety-pin campaign and others like it may be, the objective structural position of the white male sociologist who wears it contains an indelible conflict of interest, which cannot but lead to charges of superficiality, of voice appropriation in the form of mansplaining and whitesplaining, etc. I think that white male sociologists looking to become allies in the struggle against social marginalization might want to take up the cause of the working class white men presently embattled by structural immiseration and social degradation, since here the lived embodiment of the sociologist qua white male would be an advantage and not a hindrance (e.g. the white male sociologist could here plausibly take on the role of Gramscian organic intellectual that speaks with a constituency as opposed to trying to speak *for* it). See for example:

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