A conversation on allyship with one of the masterminds behind the Safety Pin Box
There are a number of things in this world we cannot measure with metrics, time, or money making it difficult to account for their effectiveness or worth – allyship has always been one of those things. When it comes to allies, there are more questions around their purpose and usefulness than there are answers. Enter the Safety Pin Box, countering everything allies thought their role actually was.
During the very fateful month of November 2016, the trend to wear a safety pin emerged among white people to express their solidarity and opposition to the -isms being boosted by then presidential candidate Donald Trump. They wanted to signify that they were “safe” white people, white people we could trust with our lives as opposed to all the other non-safety pin wearing whites who maybe supported Trump.
This trend then became a topic of conversation between Marissa Johnson and Leslie Mac, two Black women, friends and activists with significant bodies of work behind their names. The result of this conversation and the ones that followed was the Safety Pin Box – an opportunity for allies to put their money where their mouths (and safety pins) are. Per usual, Black people took an idea and elevated it into something aesthetically pleasing, culturally relevant, and actually effective.
Centering the work of Black women, the Safety Pin Box is a subscription service “selling content in a way that is safer and we think more equitable for Black women,” Johnson told me in a Skype interview. Our conversation focused on allyship but more importantly, I came to see the Safety Pin Box as an example of how to truly challenge white supremacist mindsets, even of those on the left that claim they are above white supremacy.
Allyship is a contentious topic. In regards to coalition building, Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton in their book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, advised that it’s only possible under the conditions that both groups have the same end goals in mind. The same could be said for allies.
Often times we see examples of allyship in the form of white folks simply saying they are against some form of oppression whether they are actually doing something tangible to end said oppression or not. Johnson described this as white folks just working to appear better than other white folks. Don’t be fooled though, we see these examples when it comes to the feminist and Black feminist movements as well. What tends to de-legitimize allyship are the allies themselves who end up centering the work and movement around their experiences (see: Lena Duhnam).
There are three levels to the subscription service: the premium subscription is a physical box sent to subscribers monthly with a theme and three tasks related to that theme, the Pin-Pals Box is the premium subscription but split between two people, and the E-Ally subscription which is one monthly task given via email. In addition to these three subscription levels, there is also a Revenge Box that changes periodically – the current box which can be sent to a Trump supporter – is available through Inauguration Day.
When the box launched, so did the campaign of White-furied Twitter fingers against co-founders Johnson and Mac calling the work a scam and alluding to it as an unreasonable place to put your ally dollars. Much of the criticism of the box was about having to pay for the content and education supplied and to a point I became curious about access as well, does this shut people out and restrict this knowledge to those that can afford it?
“Critique is mostly from people who aren’t invested in our work, people who can’t afford it are looking for other ways to promote,” Johnson said, “In our work and on our website we believe that Black liberation has to center Black folks and the needs of Black folks…people find money for the things that they want if access is really a question that’s something for white folks to organize around not for Black women to do labor for free.” True.
Despite the outcry against having to actually pay Black women for their work, 400 people have subscribed to the Safety Pin Box. After the question of access comes accountability. Are 400 white people actually putting in work to tear down oppression?
“Our business model can’t be dependent on White people saying they’re going to do something,” Johnson said. Genius. Whether or not those monthly subscribers are actually checking off the tasks they receive, the money from their subscription goes to Black women and their organizations. The co-founders have also added into their business model that every month a Black woman is chosen from a pool to receive money from the box’s subscriptions. In the effort of keeping these women and organizations safe, it is not disclosed where the subscription money goes.
“We’re trying to stop performative allyship, “ said Johnson, “How do we translate that into funds and reparations? We’re turning up the volume on that conversation.” And what a creative way to do so.
Each subscription also comes with access to the Facebook community of subscribers where participants can talk with each other and appointed white moderators about their monthly tasks and reflections in allyship. One of the main aspects in the Safety Pin Box working, is the idea of protection for emotional and mental state of Black women and Black people. Johnson and Mac themselves don’t participate in the Facebook group outside of times they already designated to do so, further emphasizing their protection.
“[The Box] is a way for us to guard our time. No longer can anybody force them or shame them or guilt them into a conversation.” Johnson said.
“I could have never predicted everything that came out of it but it did way more work,” Johnson said. Much of the critique of the Safety Pin Box did come from White people on the left in which Johnson identified as white supremacist attitudes even those “progressives” are not ready to give up and with that the boundaries of allyship and the left were pushed.
Breaking down performative allyship, the stereotypes against Black women and why we need to pay them for their work, protection against the mental and emotional trauma of oppression – Marissa Johnson and Leslie Mac really covered these important factors in creating the Safety Pin Box all while getting their reparations.
Are you a Black woman doing liberation and racial justice work? Make sure you apply to the Safety Pin Box’s “Black Woman Being” funds!