Why safety pins are not enough to stand up to discrimination

Nov 15, 2016 at 3:00 a.m. ET

Have you seen the safety pins? Are you wearing one to show people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and others that you're here for them and willing to intervene if they're harassed or attacked?

The safety pin movement started in the UK after the Brexit, and it's gotten huge in the U.S. since the election. I've definitely heard some people say they feel safer seeing the pins, and that's great. But before you put it on, know this: Lots of people are unhappy with the safety pin, and I agree with them. Here's why.

It's a symbol, when we really need action

For the people who are being targeted and threatened in this country, this week has been difficult and frightening. But these same people have been targeted and threatened for a long time. And they have been asking for help for a long time. They are very familiar with outrage in social media, followed by the latest celebrity distraction and no real change.

It's easy to put on a pin, but hard to change the world. Of course people are likely to wonder if you're just wearing it to feel better during a hard week.

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It's about white people

Imagine if all the conversation you saw online was by men about women. Even if you appreciated the support, you'd want to hear from the women.

If you've ever complained about sexism and had some random come back with "Hey, not all men are this way, I care about women's rights!" you'll know the feeling — like, that's great, but it's also distracting, and pretty condescending. It dismisses the very real problem you're complaining about and directs attention back to them.

It's unfair to the people being attacked

By asking other people to stop and look for "the good people," you're asking more from them than you are from yourself. That's not fair. I spoke to mental health professional and activist Jasmine Banks, who put it this way: "The most important thing is this: It is NOT the job of the marginalized to look for the folks who are safe. It is the job of those with power to look for the marginalized and intervene."

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It isn't very effective

Unless you're trained in conflict avoidance, stepping into a harassment or abuse situation may escalate it. It also may not be what the person you're stepping in for wants. And one more thing: The safety pin might now be dangerous, since it's being reported that white supremacists are talking about wearing pins, too.

Here are 5 things you can do to really fight for equality today

1. Listen to people who are not like you, and share what they say

Seek out and follow people who aren't straight white men and women. Follow them on Twitter. Read their fiction, nonfiction and journalism. Try listening, supporting and sharing without judging, debating or explaining.

2. Practice equality every single day, and don't get defensive

Don't let prejudice and privilege go past you when you see it. Agreeing to disagree about oppression and staying quiet to keep the peace with friends and family feeds inequality like nothing else. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a great guide to responding to everyday bigotry. (And yeah, if you do this, your Thanksgiving might get pretty uncomfortable. It’s easy to put on a pin, but hard to change the world, remember?)

Once you start speaking up about equality, you will probably get your feelings hurt at some point. I might be hurting your feelings right now, because you're wearing a safety pin and I'm over here criticizing your good intentions. But good intentions are not magic beans that cure hate.

If you get your feelings hurt, don't get defensive. Just listen. Banks told me that on social media, she's seeing "people defend their right to wear a safety pin more than they defend Black lives." That's gross. Remember what's important, and don't give up the fight.

The brilliant Jay Smooth talks about racism in terms of hygiene. I love this approach because it reminds us that fighting for equality is something you have to do every day. You don't expect to be admired for showering and flossing. You don’t announce your support of showering and flossing, then forget about it. You don't shower and floss only during a crisis. If you fail at it, people might say you stink. When people say you stink, you shower, you floss. Without fanfare, you get back to your everyday routine of personal hygiene.

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3. Realize this is YOUR responsibility

Don't lean on your friends of color, or your friends with disabilities, or your LGBT friends to tell you what to do, or whether you're doing it right. Think about hygiene again. Would you tell your friends to remind you to shower and then ask them if you did it right?

Google ways to help. Ask on social media where you can do good. Join Showing Up for Racial Justice. Explore whether getting SEED training might be right for you. Study up on conflict resolution, de-escalation and intervention, so that if you need to intervene you'll be ready.

4. If you can, give your money and time regularly

Not everyone can. But think hard about what you really can do. Volunteer and give to causes fighting for equality. Patronize businesses owned by people of color. If you are working on a holiday wishlist, ask for donations instead.

5. Put the people you're supporting at the center of your life

As you go about your business — whether it's joining a protest or joining a book club, sharing on social media or advertising a job opening, ask yourself: "Is this inclusive of the experiences of more than just straight white men and women? How can I make it better?"

Making it better is what the safety pin is about, after all.

Julie Ross Godar is the Executive Editorial Director of SheKnows.