Schrödinger’s Racist: On Safety and Pins

You’re not a racist. Of course you’re not. Nor are you a xenophobe. I’m sure you’d never dream of speaking ill of anyone purely based on their skin colour or country of origin. No, you’re a decent and wholesome member of a forward thinking society who speaks out against discrimination and prejudice at every opportunity. You know that. But the thing is, until you tell me so, I do not. And neither does that anxious looking Romanian woman who just got onto the bus and is now having to stand uncomfortably close to you in the crowd.

Handful of pinsAs everyone no doubt already knows, the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU last week by the narrow margin of 52%. There is going to be a lot of fallout over this in a huge number of ways. One of these, sadly, is the ugliest face of the Great British public – racism and xenophobia. Reports of these things have risen to five times the usual level in the days since the referendum. Of course, racism is not new, by any means. I’ve had my fair share of it directed at me. But the leave vote really does seem to have empowered the racists out there to try and tell people togo home.” Even those of us to whom this is supposed to be home.

Being as both of my parents moved to this rainy little island from South East Asia shortly before I was born this is, needless to say, concerning.

One interesting idea proposed by a twitter user by the name of @cheeahs is to wear a safety pin.

I think the idea has a lot of merit. A #safetypin is just a small and simple thing you can wear, so that you can non-verbally let someone know that, no, you’re not going to start yelling abuse at them in public.

Unfortunately, cynics are as cynics do, and there seems to have been a lot of heavy criticism over this. I think the majority of the criticism I’ve seen is coming from the sort of people who’ve never had to deal with racism or xenophobia.

For example, here’s a middle aged white man:

Yeah, shut up Piers Morgan. No one cares what you think.

A few of the more intelligent comments on the matter do, however, have a point. Which is what I’m trying to address here.

The thing is, quite simply, we have no idea that you’re not a racist. You could be second only to the Dalai Lama in compassion and tolerance, but if I don’t know you, then to me you’re just a face in the crowd. That’s a fact, no matter how many things you’ve tweeted to the tag #dontbearacistdick.

And casually asking strangers whether they’re racist tends to be frowned upon, in my experience. I don’t want to assume that people are racist until they prove otherwise. I don’t like having to wonder if that guy who’s staying quiet is every bit as racist as the woman who’s loudly using offensive slurs. I don’t like the fact that until I know one way or another, everyone out there is potentially another hatemonger. They may or may not be, but it’s impossible to be certain. I’m sorry, but if you’re not interacting with me at all, I may need to assume that you’re Schrödinger’s racist.

It’s not personal. It’s survival.

Well of course. No matter how nice that would be, we’re not going to end racism or xenophobia overnight. But a show of support can mean a great deal.

Of course, it would be ideal if everyone were to read this little piece in The Guardian and try and follow the advice in it. To quote it directly:

“…in many cases, when harassment happens it is met with silence from nervous onlookers and there are no repercussions for the attacker.”

It is noteworthy that the kind of people who’re willing to threaten others in public are equally likely to threaten anyone who stands up for them. This can and does happen, and it scares people away from intervening as a result – particularly those who are vulnerable themselves. There’s plenty of information available on how to intervene if you see these things happening.

One of the biggest criticisms made is that wearing a safety pin is nothing more than a symbolic act. Something akin to changing your picture on Facebook or posting to a hashtag on Twitter. That simply wearing a pin does not change how likely or otherwise someone is to intervene.

I’m not sure that’s all there is to it. For a start, posting crap to the internet does not help me in the real world, or my perception of you. Wearing something does.

Honestly, if I have somewhere I need to be or something I need to do, often what I want more than anything else is simply to be left alone so I can get on with it. I’m not asking for people to be superheroes or save the day or single-handedly end racism or any of that. Honestly, if you’d rather not put yourself in harm’s way, that’s your business. Wearing a safety pin does not transform you into a knight in shining armour. It doesn’t mean that you’re automatically willing to get into a fight for me. It doesn’t mean that I’m guaranteed chirpy and socially correct conversation on the situation in Syria. I know that.

It's about safety, really.What it does do is reassure me that you’re probably not going to be the one who starts doing the shouting. That you’re not going to start hassling me or telling me to “go home” (wherever that’s supposed to be). Hopefully, wearing a safety pin means that you’re just going to leave me the hell alone. Just like anyone else who has no business interacting with me.

It means I don’t have to worry about you. You’re one who I don’t need to add to my long list of potentially abusive xenophobes. You are no longer Schrödinger’s racist.

Ultimately, it’s a valuable reassurance for me when I’m in a public space. And for my elderly mother, living in the heart of one of the UK’s most xenophobic regions. Perhaps I might not let my guard down, per se. Obviously, as with anything else, this kind of thing can and probably will be abused. But at least I don’t need to be constantly anxious around you. Chances are, you’re safe. The two of us can happily not interact with each other the same way any other two people normally do. Or… don’t, as the case may be.

Of course, it’s important to remember that you should do a little more than just wear a pin, and no one’s going to give you a cookie for simply being a decent human being. But again, that shouldn’t be the point. If you’re wearing it just as a weird form of self-validation, well, maybe you need to rethink your life a bit…

Of course, this is just my own opinion on the matter. I’d be very interested to discuss this further with anyone who wants to. Particularly those who disagree with me.


About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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