Most social media users began spotting (or employing) images of a safety pin after the 8 November 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, a meme that purportedly aimed to subtly signal solidarity among those who had not supported his candidacy.

Like most semi-ambiguous social issue fads, the sudden appearance of safety pins proved both tremendously popular and confusing. On 11 November 2016, NY Mag reported on the phenomenon, saying:

Now that we’ve established that something as bad as Brexit could happen here, Americans are adopting strategies learned from their British peers in coping with its aftermath.

As stories of post-election violence and hate speech circulate online, some people have begun wearing safety pins to identify themselves as allies in the fight against intolerance, and to show solidarity with women, LGBT people, immigrants, and people of color feeling frightened by Trump’s presidency and the vitriol that some of his supporters display. The safety pin was adopted in England after the Brexit vote, as immigrants and people of color found themselves increasingly subject to racist attacks, serving as a visual symbol indicating that the wearer supports tolerance and stands in solidarity with marginalized groups.

In the words of @cheeahs, the Twitter user who launched the trend, the idea was “that anyone against the sort of nationalistic, racist violence we’ve been seeing could identify themselves as a ‘safe ally.’”

The safety pin meme got a boost from some popular Twitter accounts:

In roughly the same timeframe as the American election, Brexit (the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016) inspired a seemingly organic movement covered at the time by the BBC:

There have been reports of racist abuse in the UK since the referendum result.

One woman has found a simple way to show solidarity against racism – wear a safety pin.

@Cheeahs has started the hashtag #SafetyPin which has been shared nearly 30,000 times.

Angered by the stories of racism, she used Twitter to find a way of showing her frustration. She decided that a safety pin was the simplest solution.

An interesting parallel between the UK and U.S. articles was that the safety pin symbol emerged in response to reports of hate speech and violence reported online, but whether or those stories were rooted in real-life events was not addressed, and the word “anecdotal” peppered pieces on both sides of the pond.

Another compelling tidbit of the safety pin lore was that it was not necessarily invented after Brexit. An Internet post from July 2011 asserted that safety pins were adopted as a secret signal of Dutch resistance against Nazis during World War II:

Dutch resistance collapsed under the weight of the German war machine but her people never gave up their loyalty to Queen Wilhelmina….

That is where the “Safety Pin” comes in…

Open rebellion was a sure way to find yourself hauled up on a gallows or simply shot outright. But the Dutch people found a much more subtle way to express their solitary…. with the common ordinary “Safety Pin”…

Worn so it lay hidden under a collar or the hem of a skirt, then only brought out, quickly flashed as a means to identify each other. Quickly the “Safety Pin” was adopted by the Dutch underground as their unofficial insignia. But it wasn’t just limited to the fighting resistance… Children, grandmothers, nursing mothers, everyone who struggled for their freedom wore the “Safety Pin” not just as an act of defiance but a symbol of hope and freedom.

So there you have the story of the common Safety Pin… A story that has faded into obscurity…. relatively few of us know this story… now you do as well… Still there are lessons from history that should not be forgotten and this is one of those….

That claim had popped more than once prior to Brexit, as exemplified by a February 2016 blog post:

The symbolic significance of the safety pin can be dated back to the Netherlands during World War II. When Dutch resistance collapsed against the German army, open rebellion would have ended in execution and so the Dutch people had to find a more discreet way of showing solidarity. A safety pin was worn under the collar or hem of the skirt and shown as a means to identify one another. Dutch people of all ages donned the safety pin as a form of resistance and symbol of freedom. It was not until the emergence of punk in the 1970’s that this symbol synonymous with rebellion, became integrated into popular punk culture.

We were unable to find any references to such a use of safety pins by the Dutch during WWII aside from recent Internet chatter, and the claim bears some resemblance to a legend about Danes‘ supposedly donning yellow stars during World War II:

The legend of Denmark’s King Christian X and his wearing of the yellow star is our most stirring example of non-violent opposition to evil: ordinary citizens (following the example of a courageous leader) defy their military overlords by selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way to prevent the persecution of a defenseless minority. If only more people exhibited such moral fortitude nowadays, we reason, the world would be a much better place. Perhaps if more people had exhibited such moral courage back then, we think, the Holocaust might never have happened.

Although the Danes did undertake heroic efforts to shelter their Jews and help them escape from the Nazis, there is no real-life example of the actions described by this legend. Danish citizens never wore the yellow badge, nor did King Christian ever threaten to don it himself. In fact, Danish Jews never wore the yellow badge either (except for the few who were finally deported to concentration camps), nor did German officials Star ever issue an order requiring Danish Jews to display it.

As noted in that earlier page, one undercurrent of the legend was the practical usefulness of action over symbolic gestures:

Although this legend may not be true in its specifics, it was certainly true enough in spirit. The rescue of several thousand Danish Jews was accomplished through the efforts of “thousands of policemen, government officials, physicians, and persons of all walks of life.” The efforts to save Danish Jews may not have had the flair of the “yellow star” legend, and they may not have required quite so many citizens to visibly oppose an occupying army, but those who were rescued undoubtedly preferred substance to style.

Whether or not the safety pin originated with Brexit (the idea was certainly in circulation prior to June 2016), post-referendum coverage of the trend described it as a “simple” way to “fight racism” after the vote, a concept that has been criticized by others as an example of slacktivism:

Slacktivism is the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society’s rescue without actually getting one’s hands dirty, volunteering any of one’s time, or opening one’s wallet. It’s slacktivism that prompts us to forward appeals for business cards on behalf of a dying child intent upon having his name recorded in the Guinness World Book of Records or exhortations to others to continue circulating a particular e-mail because some big company has supposedly promised that every forward will generate monies for the care of a languishing tot. Likewise, it’s slacktivism that prompts us to want to join a boycott of designated gas companies or eschew buying gasoline on a particular day rather than reduce our personal consumption of fossil fuels by driving less and taking the bus more often. Slacktivism comes in many forms, but its defining characteristic is its central theme of doing good with little or no effort on the part of the person inspired to participate, through the mechanisms of forwarding, exhorting, collecting, or e-signing.

The Huffington Post published wide-ranging opinions about the safety pin trend, first lauding the “incredible reason you might start seeing safety pins everywhere” on 11 November 2016, then in a separate article deeming the trend “embarrassing” and designed to “make white people feel better”:

And make no mistake, that’s what the safety pins are for. Making White people feel better. They’ll do little or nothing to reassure the marginalized populations they are allegedly there to reassure; marginalized people know full well the long history of white people calling themselves allies while doing nothing to help, or even inflicting harm on, non-white Americans.

The Huffington Post also hosted an article featuring twelve of the trendiest ways folks could assert their solidarity in style, with safety pin baubles
ranging up to nearly $1,000 in price (funds that arguably could be better spent supporting a charity than virtue signaling):

If you are looking to show your solidarity and want something a bit more permanent than a safety pin, here are 12 lovely pieces of jewelry to consider.

Some people of color were not fond of the safety pin movement as a whole, finding it a mostly-white “effort” and an affront to what they asserted were more action-worthy concerns. One writer was disheartened to find that concerns about a largely symbolic act’s diluting support were lambasted by “mostly white” people:

So after taking a day or so to cry and drink and hug my grieving kids after the election of Donald Trump, I got to work on coming up with ideas of what people can do to help make sure that we never ever do this again. I took a little bit of hope in the thought that maybe now more people were paying attention to the racist, sexist, Islamophobic, ableist society that we live in. Maybe we could mobilize this grief, anger, and fear into action.

But what I got were safety pins. Suddenly everywhere I looked, (mostly) white people were talking about safety pins. What a great idea! Something we can all do! I couldn’t tell people on social media apart anymore as their pictures were all replaced with pins. All that energy that I had hoped would go toward real-life action in support of marginalized populations who have been fighting this system alone for far too long was diverted to a symbol that most people wouldn’t even notice.

So I questioned this. I questioned why the most popular act of solidarity would be silent, why marginalized people would have to look for it. I questioned why, in times like this, people weren’t shouting. I questioned why so many people who would never wear a Black Lives Matter shirt are jumping to put on a safety pin. And to those questions, I received hundreds of replies.

Within hours, hundreds of white people had flooded my Facebook page and Twitter feed in defense of their safety pins. I was told that I was part of the problem. I was told that I was being divisive. I was told that my skepticism was making people sad. None of the commenters seemed to be aware that telling a black woman that she was wrong to question white people is kind of the opposite of racial solidarity in a country where the majority of white voters just elected Trump.

The Daily Dot combined those concerns with ancillary reports of the symbol’s being touted as one of white supremacy, concluding that action was more effective than signaling:

However, many say that [safety pins are] a form of passive support, putting the onus on the abused to seek out someone wearing a safety pin rather than making allies take direct action.

We don’t need you to wear a #safetypin. We need you to do the work and educate yourself and your loved ones on white supremacy.

Now, there may be another reason why the safety pin movement is questionable, however. White supremacists might be co-opting it.

A tweet by Zoé Samudzi began circulating this weekend with screenshots, one from a 4chan board, calling for white supremacists to wear safety pins as a way to trick people looking for a safe space, or as a symbol of their racist beliefs, thus confusing the safety pin’s meaning.

On Reddit, Trump supporters have started multiple threads about wearing safety pins on their “Make America Great Again” hats or on their guns.

The safety pin movement spread on social media, so there are plenty of marginalized people and allies who aren’t glued to Twitter who probably don’t know what it means. And perhaps that niche is why it’s so easy to co-opt.

All this confusion regarding the meaning and efficacy of the pin is another reason to take active measures to step in when you see injustices happening. That will mean more than a safety pin ever could.

So while safety pins (like many other vacant gestures for causes such as breast cancer or child abuse) emerged first in the UK after Brexit and again in the U.S. after Donald Trump’s election as “solidarity symbols,” the value of the signal is both subjective and questionable. Like the “Black Dot campaign” before it, the symbol’s actual usefulness to those it aims to shield is negligible, and critics have suggested that the measure exists solely as a means for non-marginalized persons to assert they are “helping” individuals at some sort of risk. That interpretation illustrated further how the notion of solidarity, in essence, subtly painted a number of Americans as inherently dangerous, or America as a place full of ambient hate.