It’s a fairly paralyzing time to be a guilty white American liberal. With Donald Trump elected on the basis of one of the race-baitiest presidential campaigns in modern American history, Republicans firmly in power, and mounting evidence that progress toward racial equality has been stalled out for years if not decades, it feels like there’s little chance of substantive progress anytime soon. What can the conscientious white ally do?
One answer, according to a recent Vice News Tonight segment: Spend between $25 and $100 a month to receive a box that helps you be a better ally. That’s the business plan set up by Grand Rapids, Michigan entrepreneurs Marissa Johnson and Leslie Mac, at least. Every month, they send their subscribers the Safety Pin Box, which Vice reporter Evan McMorris-Santoro describes as being “designed to wake up white people to the realities of being black in America.”
In the first half of the short segment, McMorris-Santoro meets with the founders as they pack up the first batch of boxes. They say they’re hoping to move beyond the mostly toothless symbolism of post-election safety-pin-wearing. “It really isn’t active,” Mac tells him. “So we’re looking to move that into action.” That is, into more substantive forms of education and activism.
In the second half, McMorris-Santoro sits with Safety Pin Box subscriber Barat Ellman, a Park Slope rabbi and Jewish studies professor, as she opens her first delivery. Among other things, the box contains a request that Ellman give higher tips to black people and explains that the month’s theme is combating white supremacy through “radical compassion.” Some of the other content is about media habits — “This week, I take a look at the media I consume on a regular basis and evaluate it for bias and worthiness,” Ellman reads aloud from one of the included slips of paper. She also offers some revealing details about why she subscribed. “It embarrasses me, honestly, that I just don’t have a world where I encounter, naturally, people of color,” she explains. McMorris-Santoro asks her how she’s hoping she’ll feel after she’s received all 12 boxes from her yearlong subscription. “I’d like to think — ‘Wow, I will be so incredibly sensitized,’” she replies. “That’s probably unrealistic.”
It’s important to keep all this in perspective: The Box has only a few hundred subscribers (it would be fun to do a pool estimating how many of them are white Brooklyn liberals), Johnson and Mac are donating some of the proceeds to black female activists, and liberals and lefties themselves have been highly critical of the exercise. So this shouldn’t be slotted into any sort of overheated “activist liberalism run amok” storyline. Plus, there are worse things in the world than the voluntary donation of money from wealthy white liberals to presumably less wealthy black small-business entrepreneurs and activists.
That said, the Safety Pin Box is a very interesting glimpse at a certain strain of woke white slacktivism. This is a form of slacktivism which holds that if only privileged white people were better educated and more conscious of their own privilege, racial progress would ensue — in many senses, it puts liberal, privileged white people and their own inner battles at the center of the struggle. This form of slacktivism doesn’t, as a rule, talk all that much about power structures or even power, really, except at the level of individual privilege.
In a certain sense, it’s a form of slacktivism perfectly constructed for an age in which politics feel futile, inequality is rampant, the prospects for meaningful redistribution are moribund, and a lot of liberal white people who are the winners in the winner-take-all economy are performatively conscious of racism, but also not all that into the idea of living in truly integrated neighborhoods, or sending their kids to truly integrated schools. This form of slacktivism allows white people who live in wealthy enclaves of Brooklyn, technically surrounded by black people in every direction but thoroughly disconnected from them sociologically, to feel like part of a broader struggle — and to broadcast their enthusiasm about that struggle — without actually giving up anything much materially. It’s all very consumer-friendly.