A dear friend, who is white, asked what I thought of the safety pins many white people decided to wear, indicating amidst the racial chaos following Trump’s election victory that they are a ‘safe’ person for people of color.
Frankly, I hadn’t thought anything of them. I passed them over as an update to the plastic bracelets people wear for causes. Those never resonated with me, I could only ever imagine them clogging landfills. If I thought of the pins at all, it was with relief that at least these had more utility. Maybe my next thought was worry someone could easily put one on for a hostile purpose. Mostly, I found the gesture vaguely heartwarming without finding it notable.
Then I saw posts criticizing the pins as an embarrassing gesture by white people — passively symbolic rather than actively supportive. That seemed an oversensitivity that didn’t resonate with me either. Solidarity is powerful and I appreciated that people more ‘into’ symbols were endowing this common object with meaning.
As my white friend and I discussed the controversy, we broadly agreed with ourselves, as friends do. When, by chance, my friend used the innocent phrase I stand with you, though, something bristled within me. I felt kicked in a deeply-rooted sense of entitlement and I was aggrieved for it.
I had transmuted the pins into symbols of solidarity without considering their purpose of conferring actual support. I hadn’t thought through the fact these pins conveyed people’s willingness to protect me. I appreciated the sentiment but found it very unsettling.
A core sense of prerogative I didn’t realize could be shaken, suddenly and deeply, was. I don’t need any standing with! No more than you do! I stand with you, too, but you don’t see me walking around, saying to non-Trump white people, Hey, I stand with you! I‘m no different from you and I don’t need your privilege, I have my own. Don’t I?
Wait, do I need white friends to stand with me? Has it come to that? Do we people of color need to grab our friendly, neighborhood white buddy to help us walk the street safely? What. The. Cuss. Is. Happening. I felt ripples of reactions that disturbed my sense of self and my place in the world.
I find such an instability productive for self-awareness, but for now, I’m writing my way through the ‘white ally’ relationship. I suppose I consider this role as I do that of tall people. The immutability of height may make it a helpful metaphor here: if I’m struggling to put my suitcase in the overhead bin and you’re tall enough to do it more easily, sure, please help. It’s no problem for you, it saves me hassle, and we can all get down the aisle faster.
If you don’t or can’t help, I may have to climb on a seat and lever the damn thing on my head, but I’ll get it done, believe me. But we’re passengers on the same flight and I appreciate your courtesy. It should be a common one. In that rare case when someone shorter needs my help, I must offer it too. We may go on to calculate the optimal positioning of bins for maximal access and to debate who gets to decide, but let’s not wait to build a new airplane to get all the suitcases loaded onto this one.
White privilege exists. People who have it, recognize it, and leverage it to fight for everyone, are doing the right thing. I want that this ‘right thing’ is standing up, not for me, but for our shared beliefs. I don’t want an ally in my cause, I want it to be your cause. Yes, you stand with me but you stand for what you believe in. This is our cause.
A treasured dream has been turned into a nightmare. Everyone who valued it is heartbroken and in mourning. It’s true, the price of its loss will be borne more heavily by some, and they….we…oh, hell, maybe I will need more support in the fight.
But everyone with that dream, deferred yet again, is crashing on the same clustercussed airplane.