Freshly showered, I stand in front of the closet in my underwear. It is 5am and I am getting ready to go to campus for my lecture. I have lots of new clothes, hand-me-downs from a generous aunt who has recently cleared out her own closet. There are colorful tunics, one with flowing sleeves and a spiral print, another with elaborate blue and white paisley. All are “designer” pieces. I’ve never owned clothes like this before. A few days before the election, I had lined up these outfits in the order I thought I might wear them for my lecture days. I couldn’t wait to appear in public in these clothes.
Instead, I reach for a plain black skirt and top. I cannot bear to wear color. This is my second lecture since the election and my second time in all black. I wonder how long this will last, maybe to the end of the semester. I wonder if my students will notice. I briefly consider assuring them that I am not really in mourning. But then, I think, maybe I am and I just don’t feel like talking about it in class.
In the days after the election, the safety pin became a symbol of solidarity. I bought a box of black and white pins and some rainbow glass beads to make something that would symbolize not only safety but coalition. I showed my daughter how we could put the rainbow beads on the pins and link them together, black and white. I told her what this meant to me, to wear this in public. The day after I first put on my pin, I went to a local meeting for Black Lives Matter. I should have been more active all along. I was wrong. I will do better.
Shortly after becoming popular, the safety pin became the target of critique from the blogosphere. The pin was a sign of denial, of liberal white guilt, self-indulgence, faketivism. All valid arguments. White privilege and power will not be dismantled—or even decentered, or even knocked off balance–by a safety pin, no matter how many people wear one. But just as the critique emerged, other voices from threatened communities (Muslims, immigrants, LGBT persons, people of color) expressed their relief at seeing safety-pin solidarity, knowing that allies were there for them.
How does social change happen? How are activists made out of distracted and busy citizens, people whose lives are complicated by neoliberal work and family pressures? Becoming an activist, building coalition, these are processes requiring many, many small steps. Some of those steps may be symbolic, particularly the earliest ones. And some of those steps may be dialogic, the ones that come after. It seems to me that this is when we need to respect our differences and at the same time look through them to find common ground, building the trust necessary to construct strategically powerful alliances. It seems to me that the structure of virtual discourse does not always support these processes, that we need to be mindful of tropes of denunciation, sensationalizing conflict, and immediate obsolescence embedded in the very modes of virtual discourse.
I stand in front of my class, talking about all of this. I meant to mention it as an aside but I go on and on for half an hour. “Regardless of your political orientation,” I say, “the relationship between symbols and action is an important aspect of political”….blah, blah, blah.
But what I am really saying, with my mourning dress and my wordy academic circumlocutions is, please, we have to do something. The dream of a good society is dying or maybe has died already. Pins or no pins, we have to do something radical and we have to do it right now.
So I have started this blog. Our lives have changed and there is no going back. I will write and I will go to meetings and I will protest and I will not stop, ever.
Addendum: I took off my safety pin and ordered a Black Lives Matter pin and an LGBT rainbow pin. And then I thought about it and I put my homemade pin back on. I will wear all three together.