Earlier this week I wrote about a growing anti-racism, anti-xenophobic campaign in Great Britain: #safetypin. Today we are honored to hear directly from the person who came up with the idea, a writer who only identifies herself by her first name, Allison.
This is the first in a two-part interview.
Allison, thank you so much for agreeing to the interview. Most of our audience is based in the US. For those who may not be familiar with the #safetypin idea (and I’ll refrain from calling it a “movement” for the moment), can you share a bit about the it and what inspired your thinking?
Thank you for asking me, Michael–I’m honoured. The idea for #safetypin came partly from the Australian #ridewithme campaign following the cafe hostage situation there a few years ago. I wanted to come up with a simple, nonverbal way for the many folks in the UK who welcome EU nationals and immigrants to show their support. There has been a very sharp spike in racist and xenophobic violence since the EU referendum, and I was hoping to create a small signal for people vulnerable to those attacks, showing that they were not alone in the UK and that their presence and their contributions are appreciated. A large part of the British population doesn’t tend to speak to strangers in public, so a badge was ideal–no conversation required, just a quiet show of solidarity. I chose a safety pin because most people have one lying around their house just waiting to be used – nobody would have to buy anything, there would be no cost to produce, and no branding or slogans were needed.
Very interesting. Let’s briefly talk about the referendum. Prior to the vote a British friend of mine shared a video editorial done by (EU legal scholar) Professor Michael Dougan. What struck me were the similarities between the Leave campaign in the UK and the Trump presidential campaign in the US. Have you heard much about the US presidential campaign on your side of the pond?
Definitely. My mother is always threatening to move in with us in the UK if Trump gets in.
What strikes me most about the Leave camp in the UK and the Trump camp in the US is how much of the supporters’ strong feelings seem to stem from the idea that the changing, globalised world has left them behind. They seem to make up huge percentages in locations with industries that have collapsed, such as coal or steel, and are against meddling by “big gov’t” – whether the US federal gov’t or the EU – even though they are often hugely subsidised by those organisations. I think to these people anyone who doesn’t resemble their backgrounds is tangible, walking evidence of how the world has, effectively, “replaced” them. They are fighting to go back to a world that is, in my opinion, no longer viable.
Were you born in the US?
Yep, born and raised. I moved to the UK when I was 24. Before that I had lived in New England during my childhood, college in Philly, and NY state and San Francisco after graduating.
When you say that the Trump/Leave constituents may feel they have been “replaced” by people who don’t “resemble” them, it sounds like you’re talking about an inherent fear of people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Ethno racial divisiveness like you’re describing does’t usually appear overnight. Do you think that these sentiments were present in the years leading up to the referendum?
I know it was – I saw a lot of racism in the small Northern town where I lived the first four years. It has a very working-class white population, but the university there attracts students from all over the globe. Students who were clearly “foreign” got a lot of grief there – the walk up to our college was long and far out of of the city centre, and Chinese and Middle Eastern students used to get eggs and glass bottles thrown at them on a regular basis as they walked back from town.
In both the US and the UK, where (for different reasons) the white hegemony is the political “normal”, I think there’s major fear of nonwhites because they are 1) often vilified by media such as the Daily Mail and by politicians, and 2) in large part absent from a majority of non-urban areas. I would say, though, that racism over here has a different context than in the US for several reasons, most notably because in the 20th century Britain invited many residents of former colonies to come live and work in the UK. Are you familiar with the phrase “Windrush generation”? A huge number of men from the Caribbean came to Britain after the war to replace the white Brits killed in WWII by taking their place in the workforce. The same happened after the partition of India and Pakistan – many South Asians emigrated to Britain and started businesses. In many cases the people who are being harassed now in the UK are descendents of immigrants who were explicitly invited to join the UK by its government. The conversation in the US about immigrants seems to be divided from the conversation about, say, black Americans who are descendents of slaves. In the UK these people are all being lumped together into the “other”.
That’s horrendous! It also serves as a reminder as to why safe places are so important, as are ideas like your #safeypin. It sounds like the idea was born of escalated racial tension in a divided country (at least judging by the referendum results). What sort of reactions have you gotten?
I would say that all the reactions to #safetypin have had a positive effect, even though not all of them were positive on the surface. There was also definitely a split between people who weren’t vulnerable to abuse and people who were. I’ve gotten lots of messages of support and agreement from the former–only a tiny minority (hello Piers Morgan!) mocked it as a useless gesture.
The response from immigrants, EU and non EU, was also pretty positive, although some questioned the “passive” nature of the gesture.
The most critical voices–and I thank them unreservedly for speaking up–came from black and minority ethnic (BAME–the equivalent UK acronym to PoC) Brits. These are individuals who have been experiencing racism for years, sometimes generations, and who were extremely sceptical that this campaign was anything other than (to quote one guy on Twitter) “the visual equivalent of Not All White People”. I reached out to some of them to communicate that I was listening, and wrote a few threads on my own Twitter feed to address their concerns. The majority of criticism focussed on the idea that a pin alone is useless – action is required. I completely agree with this, and to be honest, until these criticisms started to come in I had never imagined that someone would just put the pin on and then think the job was done, or that they didn’t have to intervene if actual racist abuse started up near them. It was the response of this group that helped push the pin from a sign saying “come, sit next to me!” to a pledge to combat racism in all its forms.
A mixed response means that people are giving serious thought to your ideas and that they value your thinking. I think the mixed reaction and the dialogue which ensues means that you’ve tapped into a feeling–a set of values, perhaps–that many people feel the need to express.
I’m so grateful for the dialogue that ensued. The hashtag not only allowed people to express their support for a movement, but also gave those angry with the general state of race relations in the UK a readership they might not otherwise have had. Even if everyone had decided the safety pin idea was idiotic, at least a conversation would have been got going. I certainly think there was a huge number of people–still is–in the UK desperate to do something, anything, to counteract the waves of hate we’ve seen. Unfortunately a lot of British are still culturally not that good at being seen to do things publicly–public attention is kind of taboo. I think it’s good I was a loudmouth American in this instance. 🙂
I’m gonna go out on a limb here for a moment, as this idea has occurred to me before, but never so powerfully as in the last few weeks: While it is of course impossible for a white person to “know what it’s like” to be a PoC in a white world, the way I come to terms with black feelings of fear, anger, injustice and helplessness is by drawing a parallel between those feelings and my own as a woman who often is on her own in a public space. I know that not all men are rapists, but I have to remember, on a certain level, that all men are capable of committing harm against my body in a way which society is still struggling to place in an appropriate (i.e. resoundingly condemned) context (see the Stanford rapist etc.). I don’t hate and fear men, but I know that a small percentage of them are dangerous to me, and I know that that percentage does not identify itself immediately, so I have to be on guard. I imagine there is a similar level of reasoning for people of colour in a white world. Understanding that parallel helps me to understand the experiences, even if I can never truly step into another’s shoes on that front. I think how I would feel if a man started to try to “explain” sexism to me and my blood boils, so why would I ever try to explain what is and isn’t racist to a person who lives that? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that women make better allies, but I do think that women and PoC have this in common, at least.
Our conversation continues this Wednesday!
Michael Maliner is a festival blogger.