Bystander Activism

Fashion can be a powerful form of protest. The safety pin isn’t that.

ELENA SCOTTI / FUSION

Since Donald Trump was elected president two weeks ago, the number of hate crimes has risen to levels not seen in America since 9/11. There have been reported incidents of high schoolers chanting “white power” and swastikas with the phrase “Make America White Again” spraypainted on a building in New York. In response, Americans have started to wear safety pins on their clothing as a gesture of allyship with people of color, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community.

Originally a post-Brexit sign of support for immigrants, American fashion media outlets have jumped on the trend. Yahoo! Style called it a “powerful fashion statement.” Fashionista offered up “13 Safety Pins To Wear Now And For The Next Four Years,” featuring a $244 brooch that doesn’t even go to a cause. And on Friday, Vogue published “10 Ways to Wear Safety Pins Post-Election and Show Your Support,” featuring a $1,000 diamond-encrusted safety pin and $300 Gucci sneakers, because if you’re going show solidarity it should also unattainably expensive.

“It’s just a little signal that shows people facing hate crimes that they’re not alone,” the UK-based safety pin movement’s founder Allsion told Indy100 in June. She also told The Guardian that while she thinks people who wear the safety pin are “pledging to stand up” for immigrants and people of color, it has limits. “Even if you feel too frightened [by bigotry], you can go to the person afterwards and say: ‘I’m so sorry, is there anything I can do for you?’ Even if it’s just making them a cup of tea.”

While it’s obviously a gesture with good intentions, the safety pin is ultimately a bystander form of activism entirely on white people’s terms. There are white people telling other white people why it doesn’t work. There are white people arguing that it works. There are white people telling people of color they are wrong for questioning the pin’s intentions. But there isn’t much dialogue where white people ask people in marginalized communities what will actually make them feel safe. Or a sign that white liberals are doing anything except showing solidarity because they don’t want to be grouped together with Trump supporters. It’s trendy, it’s easy, and there’s no binding commitment.

“For a lot of people of color this is a really ineffective way of showing allyship,” says Muslim Girl founder and editor-in-chief Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. “It can almost be offensive that there are people that are self-identifying themselves as allies and thinking that putting on a safety pin is supposed to make us safer.”

New York Magazine’s fashion editor Lindsay Peoples, agrees, calling the trend “really embarrassing” and “essentially white people making themselves feel better.” To Peoples, it’s saying, “‘Hey, I want to look good, I want people to know I’m in solidarity’…I think fashion tries to get behind certain purposes that they deem are chic enough or cool enough to put on a T-shirt.”

At its best, activists can use fashion as a point of connection, to start a conversation, to reject the normal standards of beauty. There have been effective gestures of solidarity in the fashion industry thus far: Designer Sophie Thaellet, who frequently dressed First Lady Michelle Obama, recently announced she would boycott Melania Trump because of Donald Trump’s xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, and racist rhetoric. InStyle said they wouldn’t cover the president-elect’s wife anymore. But instead of addressing the pressing issues facing people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, or wielding power to make a real statement, the safety pin mostly addresses white guilt.

“Fashion is engaging, and it can be a really powerful message,” says Elizabeth Way, a curatorial assistant at the Fashion Institute of Technology museum. “It ties you physically to those political beliefs…It might not be appropriate or it might not be in your nature to speak about things, but you can put that message on your body without having to say a word.”

Throughout history, using fashion as medium to show solidarity or spread a message has been most useful when the people involved are actively being affected by the stakes at hand—and aggressively fighting for change. Way recalls the 1960s, when black men and women wore afros as a way of forming solidarity without a specific political message. “In advocating for black beauty there’s always political clout,” she says. In the same era, civil right protesters adopted the uniform of agricultural workers and working class blacks in the South, wearing denim overalls to build camaraderie with them. Designer Patrick Kelly later referenced the overalls in many of his designs.

“For a lot of people of color this is a really ineffective way of showing allyship”

- Muslim Girl founder and editor-in-chief Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.

Early suffragists wore white with colored ribbons to promote their movement, which included political clubs and lobbying for women to run for office. Young women in the 1960s wore miniskirts as a form of feminist protest against double standards and women’s right to wear whatever they wanted, right on the heels of the sexual liberation movement and the introduction of the birth control pill.

More recently, in 2000, a South African brand Stone Cherry started creating T-shirts with images from one of the country’s only black and anti-apartheid magazines Drum Magazine, putting the covers and images from the zine on T-shirts. Post-apartheid, it was important for South Africa “to look at their political history and tap into this nostalgia of the 1950s and 60s during the anti-apartheid movement in its infancy, to really use that as a form of nation-building,” Way said.

Derica Cole Washington, a costume designer, says the most recent moment of effective fashion activism was in 2014 when Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and other black NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts after the jury decided against indicting the police officers who killed Eric Garner.

“That was a huge moment for them to actually wear those shirts,” she says. “[The] NBA is made up of mostly black men so for them to really come together that was a specific statement…the big thing is it created a different wave of conversation.”

Washington says that year yielded another t-shirt movement: The Very Black Project, created by André Singleton and Justin Fulton, is a collective that sells T-shirts, tote bags, and other accessories marked with the slogan. “When I talk to André he’s always like, ‘It’s not a brand, it’s a conversation,’” Washington says. “It’s a means to create dialogue and have people really talk about how they feel as a black person in America, or how you feel as a black person anywhere.”

Singleton, who is a performance artist and teacher, didn’t intend to start the Very Black Project with any particular political point in mind—it was just a celebration of blackness. But he says he’s excited by the personal experiences people share about wearing his shirts. As a performance artist, he understands that people perceive you differently in different spaces—“what’s it like to be around x amount of people who are white wearing it. And, then what’s it like to be around x amount of people who are black wearing it? We want to just show up as ourselves all the time,” he says. The act of being yourself all the time becomes an act of resistance in itself when the world around you doesn’t always want to hear your voice.

“What does make me feel safe is when I’m being given the opportunity to speak on my own behalf. It’s really important for us to allow people of color to take the lead in things rather than be led,” says Al-Khatahtbeh, Muslim Girl’s founder. She thinks the people who are wearing safety pins now were probably also the ones who “when we expressed our grievances about racism in our country [before Trump] would say things like, I don’t see color or we live in a post-racial America.” For those people, she has some advice: “Actually listen to the people that these policies are impacting.”