Why Safety Pins Are Not Enough
Tonya Lovelace, CEO
Women of Color Network, Inc.
November 14, 2016
This post-election period has been a difficult time for all of us, particularly marginalized communities. And I have been reminded, if not validated, many times this week why the Women of Color Network, Inc. (WOCN, Inc.) coined the term “aspiring allies” back in 2007. Recently, I posted the article “Dear White People, Your Safety Pins are Embarrassing” written by Christopher Keelty with the Huffington Post (November 12, 2016). The byline is, “We don’t get to make ourselves feel better by putting on safety pins and self-designating ourselves as allies.”
A white aspiring ally who is also a lesbian wrote in response to my post, “I will take an ally, so…” So I decided to educate. It is not my job, but I did. I found the article that I had skimmed about the safety pin earlier and posted it as a part of my reply. That article was “Why Safety Pins Symbolize Resistance: A Short Explainer” written by Rasha Ali in the Wrap (November 11, 2016). I responded:
“The safety pin gesture was developed in response to Brexit where many marginalized communities are also in a state of emergency. ‘Alison’ (she will only offer her first name) said she came up with the idea of wearing the safety pin to let targeted people know that they are ‘safe’ with whoever is wearing it. She said it was ‘simple’ because just about everyone uses safety pins and you don’t have to go out and ‘buy one’. I definitely believe aspiring allies are important. Since this article is focused on white people, my idea of white aspiring allies are those who know that this is a never-ending process. A daily struggle. A white aspiring ally knows that they will never fully arrive at being an ally. They know that they can definitely can never fully assume or guarantee they can be/provide safe space for me or BE a safe space for me. They will have to invest time, and yes, they may have to invest/give up money. They absolutely will have to confront/challenge/push/lean in to real conversations with, in the case of the article I posted, white people and have courageous conversations that move beyond the surface and truly examine the depths of racism. Because racism can look like sitting in diverse spaces with marginalized communities and talk about oppression and not challenge their own family, neighbors, friends, and other explicit and implicit bias and acts of racism, because it is easy. It is simple. The article I posted questions the curious gesture wearing of a safety pin at this time, a gesture aimed at me as a woman of color, as one of the people it is meant to support, when the real work is to speak and struggle with white people about what the hell has/is happening. White aspiring allies NOT doing this on a daily basis, or only doing this when it appeases them or doesn’t take them out of their comfort zones, or doing it once or twice a year is why we have gotten here. White aspiring allies have a lot of work to do. They always have. I appreciate them coming/being in spaces with me and other people/communities. But this is only one small part of the work. We are looking at the results of what happens when largest portion of white aspiring ally work is not getting done. This is why I originally posted the article.”
The aspiring ally responded back saying, “Totally get it. I just feel unsafe and I am projecting my needs. You are right about the level of commitment that is truly needed.”
And I responded back with “I am with u. And I know. Been there too this week. Love and blessings for both of us.”
WOCN, Inc. will hold a series of “Healing and Action in the Midst of Backlash” #JaggedJustice calls (another term we coined), where we point to high profile cases, as in this election and the results of it, and connect the dots to the impacts within the anti-violence against women/gender-based violence movement. WOCN, Inc., like the marginalized communities it supports and strives to reach and build a platform for, has experienced its own backlash regarding its use of the terms “endangerment of the woman of color advocate” and “aspiring allies.”
In 2007, WOCN, Inc. released a national email putting out a “National Call to Action” within the anti-violence against women movement/gender-based violence movement. It was our 10th year as an organization, and while we had done several rounds of leadership training with women of color, and had lifted up the need for and laid a national platform for women of color voices to be heard, we were seeing women of Asian, African, Latin, Native, Middle-Eastern, and Bi/Multiracial descent being fired from and pushed out, and feeling unsafe in their programs. We were receiving reports of them being under surveillance yet under recognized and under appreciated. After many years of work on this issue, WOCN, Inc. now has evidence to show that they are also under-promoted and underpaid.
Women of color were saying that RACISM = VIOLENCE. They were painfully sharing that to walk by a white woman executive director who was speaking to her today but would not speak to her the next day because she didn’t like being questioned in a staff meeting – that this was gas lighting. This was power and control. This was emotional abuse. This was violence. Many of the women on our calls were survivors of domestic violence, and they shared their trauma experiences of being triggered within their programs. They shared, whispered, shouted, that they would prefer interacting with their batterer than coming into a program that is intended to be a “safe space” and feel more endangered than if they were home with their batterer. At least they knew where the gun was, literally and figuratively.
In our National Call to Action, we also stated that in order for change to be made in the movement, it would take white and male allies to join forces and to address this. WOCN, Inc. would require that they do this work in the presence of women of color, with women of color having the first and last words, since, in Move to End Violence’s current language, they are the “last girl.”
Back then, almost ten years ago, all we had was the evidence of women of color voices. And for many, this was not enough. This election shows that even for many aspiring allies, it wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough for them to challenge systems beyond hiring one or two more women of color and saying, “done.”
It wasn’t enough to resist only associating with/agreeing with/holding solidarity with women of color who say many of the same things expressed in the National Call to Action, and embracing only from those who say it the way they like/want hearing it, or in order to discredit the former message, they triangulate by embracing it from their “favorite women of color” and use it as an excuse/tactic to take aim at women of color whose voices/tenor/approach/rawness/pain they don’t want to experience.
It wasn’t enough for male aspiring allies to push themselves beyond sitting back and watching women of color who were being vulnerable in expressing the rawness of their pain and anger and watching them get devoured.
And safety pins are not enough. It is time for REAL steps toward finding what truly is enough. And for aspiring allies, this will shape and reshape. Just as finding ways to survive and feel safe walking out of the door shapes and reshapes for me. Every day.
And no safety pin will change that. Yet, I say to those truly aspiring to be allies: I am with u. And I know. Been there too this week. Love and blessings for both of us. For all of us.
Tonya Lovelace, MA
Tonya Lovelace is the Chief Executive Officer for the Women of Color Network, Inc. (WOCN, Inc.), an independent women of color-lead national nonprofit based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Originally based in Ohio, Tonya’s career within the field of ending violence against women/gender-based violence is as old as her daughter, 21 years, where she has held various positions along the way. Tonya has a Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from Miami University of Ohio, a Master of Arts in Black Studies and another in Women’s Studies, both from The Ohio State University. She also has served as an Adjunct Instructor at several universities and has conducted numerous trainings on local, state, and national levels. Now living in Harrisburg, PA, Tonya is a proud mother, and believes that one of her greatest achievements is raising a strong, activist daughter in the midst of ongoing global inequity for women and girls of color and their families. Tonya is also a survivor of child sexual assault, bullying, teen dating violence, and domestic violence in her recent adult life. She has a refueled vision of transformed systems and communities that connect the dots across all forms of violence, with intersectional feminism and advocacy at the center of the work. It is her passion and goal to work within innovative spaces and alongside women of color and aspiring allies to help make this a bold reality.