On My White Knee
Why Black Lives Matter is for everyone and white people need to show up
You know those TV shows where something pivotal happens in the plot and suddenly time freezes? The main character gets a chance to see things from another person’s point of view, or turn back time, or get a do over. That’s usually not the way it happens in real life, but it happened to me.
Exactly one year ago, something happened. I got called into the principal’s office. I got in trouble, just a warning. It took me by surprise. I had no idea I’d done anything wrong. Since then, I’ve had a year off to think about it. A year away and apart from everything. Now I’m coming back and I’m prepared to do it all over again, more determined than before.
See, I wasn’t the errant student in this scenario. I’m a teacher. I wasn’t warned with the threat of detention, I was told I could lose my job. I wasn’t committing a crime, I was standing up, or rather kneeling down, in support of those against whom crimes are committed.
It was the last student assembly of the year, the one where we honor and say goodbye to our high school seniors. All the teachers show up for this one with high fives and tears in eyes and we set free the fledglings that we took under our wings for four years. Emotions are running high. One of the strongest emotions is pride.
It was with that pride pulsing through my veins, that when some of my students began a beautiful performance of the national anthem, that I did what I’d been doing all year and I got down on one knee. I was proud of my students. I was proud to live where we profess a “land of the free.” But sadly, I know that Black Americans are not as free as I am. It was for their bravery, the bravery of my Black students, my Black colleagues, and my Black fellow Americans, that I took a knee.
I grew up Catholic and I am quite familiar with kneeling. Whether it was a quick genuflect or a prolonged half hour of devotional meditation, kneeling has always meant the ultimate sign of respect to me. But what really touched my heart about Colin Kaepernick’s gesture was the sports connection. I’m a dad who watched my kids play soccer. I always loved how whenever a kid gets hurt, doesn’t matter which team they are on, everyone stops and takes a knee. In that moment, conflict and rivalry is suspended and we all see each other in our shared humanity and compassion for one another. Someone is hurt. That becomes more important than whatever else was going on and we all stop to respectfully honor that person in their vulnerability and hope for the best, a quick recovery.
That’s exactly how I feel about the plight of Black people in America. My heart goes out to every mother who lost a child to wrongful death. I feel for opportunities squandered within the locks and bounds of a rampant, punitive, and skewed prison system. I cry for the mistreatment of the sick and negligence towards the vulnerable in health care systems that are too little, too late, too expensive, and triaged towards the privileged. The list of hurts goes on and on, and for all of that, I take a knee.
I don’t want to force anyone to take a knee. That’s what drove my immigrant ancestors here, fleeing from religious persecution and the threat of execution if they refused to kneel to someone else’s God. It should be a choice. But really, if someone is hurt on the field and you stand there, in snobbish disregard, while the compassionate teammates kneel, you’re the one who looks disrespectful.
Anyway, back to my story, I received a cease and desist warning from my school district. They claimed I was going against their policy, but I don’t see how it would apply to kneeling during the anthem. Here’s the actual policy:
Political Activities of Employees
Any staff member shall be free to take part in any political activity or support or oppose any candidate for public office, subject to the following restrictions:
No public employee shall solicit any money, influence, service or other thing of value or otherwise promote or oppose any political committee or promote or oppose the nomination or election of a candidate, the gathering of signatures on an initiative, referendum or recall petition, the adoption of a measure or the recall of a public office holder while on the job during working hours. However, this section does not restrict the right of a public employee to express personal political views.
I think they must have realized that this policy in no way applies because they went on to list three emails that the district had sent out to all of their employees. All of the emails reiterated the rule that teachers cannot promote a political candidate or party. One of them, which happened to be issued right after the 2016 Presidential election, went on to say that our role is to educate and facilitate, not to indoctrinate. To indoctrinate is to teach a set of beliefs uncritically. I take a knee to criticize our country’s disregard for Black lives and the district instructs me to stand unquestioningly. Who is indoctrinating?
After the initial shock wore off, I contacted my union rep and wrote an official response to my principal. The union immediately asked the district to retract the letter, but they refused. The union hired a lawyer to look into it for me. Meanwhile, I pointed out how my actions not only were not in violation of policy, I was actually upholding other policies that we as teachers are held to. We are compelled to be culturally competent in our teaching and to advocate for social justice. I reached out beyond the simple human resources issue that was just about me and my behavior. I went before the school board and called on them to take a proactive stance in support of teachers’ rights to take a knee. In fact, I also contacted the director of equity and she asked me what I thought she could do.
I told her that our professional development around racism and equity in our schools continues to be a repeat of the same introductory 101 lessons. We are shown the statistics that our black and brown kids are disciplined at a disproportionately higher rate, they are underrepresented in advanced classes, and their graduation rates are lower. We are taught about implicit bias and how we subconsciously attribute the benefit of the doubt to white students and approach black and brown kids with suspicion. There are actual tests for this. Try it yourself here. They put all this evidence in front of us and then instruct us to go back into the classroom and make it better. Turn these statistics around, they say. But they don’t tell us how to do that.
The director of equity asked me what I thought we could do to show how to address implicit bias. I’m certainly not an expert on such things. But one thing I would love to see is role playing scenarios. There’s a terrific program they use at our local university called Rehearsals for Life. A group of actors perform a scene with some kind of conflict in it. Once the characters are established and the scene is presented, they freeze the act. They invite people from the audience to step into the play and act out what they would do next. The same scene can be reenacted several times. There is no right or wrong to it. Each act is examined and each outcome considered.
I love this approach for several reasons. As an observer, you get to see other people model for you. I think many white teachers feel like a deer in the headlights when suddenly confronted with a racially charged issue in their classroom. This is especially true when, either directly or indirectly, he or she is called out on his or her own racial bias. Robin DiAngelo explains how white people often have difficulty recognizing the ways that racism affects the ways they think and behave. We need models for ways to respond in real life. As a participant, the role play puts you on the spot to take your theoretical ideas and put them into practice. Like anything new or different that you try to adopt, practice is the best way to incorporate new habits.
Institutions are cautious, however, in the risks they take. Administrators don’t like to make anyone “uncomfortable.” What they mean by that is actually that they don’t want to make white people uncomfortable, because non-whites are expected to continue to put up with ongoing levels of discomfort, inequity, and threat. Our country and our schools were built on racist beliefs. Undoing that is going to be “uncomfortable.” So, ultimately, we keep getting the same “less risky” professional development. This contributes to systems of inequity getting entrenched over time. In my case, there was a ballot measure coming up to garner more funds for education and the district did not want to “dissuade voters” which was why, when push came to shove, they made the choice on an institutional level to issue the warning letter.
In the end, the district held their stance that my taking a knee was in violation of my role and the union lawyer said that legally, if I did it again, they could fire me. This is where the time suspension kicked in. Before any of this came down, my wife accepted a yearlong assignment abroad. We had been planning this, and I applied for and was granted a leave of absence. By the time all the conversations had been had and the decisions had been made, I was already out of the country. The national anthem that I knelt during just happened to be the last time I would hear it performed live for over a year.
Now I am embarking on my journey back. I have had a year to think about what I will do. I like my job and I feel like I can make a difference there. I don’t want to be fired. On the other hand, I am a man of principle and I believe in doing what I think is right. When I look back, I can see that one thing that was sorely missing was open communication and honest dialog. First off, someone went to the principal to complain about me taking a knee. That person was offended by what I did. The principal should have at that point sat us down with each other to talk it out. We have become a culture of “us” and “them.” We no longer think about settling disputes personally. It is a shame because that is the most important work that needs to happen, especially among white people talking about race. Another thing that didn’t happen was the broader conversation with the whole school community. I was contacted by the press to give my comments, but I am bound not to discuss anything related to the school district without passing it through their PR department. Instead of treating it as a social issue that affects the whole community, the district classified it as a human resources concern, bound by privacy laws. That’s why I’m writing this article without any references to actual names.
When I hear the Star Spangled Banner, I feel a lump in my throat that is just like what I felt when a kid on the soccer field didn’t get up. Not dropping down to my knee makes me feel like a Class A jerk.
Word got around, nonetheless. I didn’t get a lot of critical feedback. Most people gave me a pat on the back and said they were proud of me. What I found disturbing about the reactions I got was that there was this underlying implication that it was so generous of me to be taking this risk as a privileged white guy. Some even asked me why I was doing this, “Isn’t it a Black people’s movement?” On the one hand, many Black Americans find empowerment and self-affirmation within the Black Lives Matter movement. Certainly, the thirteen guiding principles, which are awesome by the way if you’ve never read them, and the coordination of the movement should be entirely by Black people. But do you really think the Black community needs to be convinced that their lives matter? It is for white people to grapple with, understand, and address the systemic ways that our society continues to undermine, disregard, and discredit the Black community. I don’t feel like a hero. There is so much more I could be doing. I have, of course, the privilege that all white people have to choose when and how I want to participate in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. I can do what I can to interrupt racism and biased assumptions when I see them happen. I’m learning everyday ways in which I can be more aware. I’m sure the comments to this article will show me more ways that I am not seeing my privilege. But just knowing what I know about the injustices that Black people experience in my country, actually in my own neighborhood, I just can’t see not taking the simple act of kneeling during the national anthem.
It is a sign of solidarity. It is a flashlight pointing to something we all try so hard not to see. It’s just basic human kindness to honor and recognize someone else’s pain. When I hear the Star Spangled Banner, I feel a lump in my throat that is just like what I felt when a kid on the soccer field didn’t get up. Not dropping down to my knee makes me feel like a Class A jerk.
It was only after I was cited for violating school policy that someone told me about the origins of our national anthem. Apparently, Francis Scott Key was bested in a battle by a battalion of runaway slaves who joined the British Army in exchange for their freedom. The last stanza of the Star Spangled Banner, mostly forgotten today, includes the line “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” Key was very much a white supremacist and this is written right into the song.
After spending a year abroad, I look forward to returning home. There are things I experienced in another culture that I wish we did better in the United States. There are also things about our country that I have a deeper appreciation for. What stands out for me about what makes America a land of the free is our right to protest. The few people who disparaged me for kneeling all questioned my patriotism, my loyalty to the flag and to those who defend it. In doing so, they sidetracked the issue of inequity and injustices against black and brown people. But it also goes against everything I learned growing up in a military family. My father fought in Vietnam and as conservative as he is, he always maintained the right to protest. I remember seeing demonstrators rallying on the local news and my dad shaking his head at them calling them idiots. But this was quickly followed by “I fought for their right to state their opinion.” I learned that there is nothing more patriotic than standing up, or kneeling down, for righting wrongs and working towards a more perfect union.
While it may be true that much of our democracy has been bought out by corporate interests, the basic premise of a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people still remains. Who “the people” refers to has shifted over time. Age, gender, race, free status, landowner status, place of birth and naturalization have all played into who ‘counts’ in terms of representation, taxation, and votes. We are now in hearings on a bill to study reparations for slavery, finally recognizing the institutional and economic impact of racism and how this continues to play out today. It’s high time for all of white America to get beyond Racism 101 and start really making a difference. When we look back on the history that got us here, it can seem overwhelming and it’s easy for white people to distance themselves saying that all happened before their time. It’s easy to hide behind good will and assume yourself innocent of racism. Even those who are willing to acknowledge implicit bias and work towards being better allies in their neighborhoods and workplaces can feel like it’s hopeless to try to eradicate racism. It’s so big and so entrenched.
I was wrestling with my own inadequacy around racial justice when I made a realization. There’s no real substance to racism. Ultimately, as real and damaging as the effects of racism are, it’s all based on thoughts. If one person can unlearn racism, and by that I mean become aware of it, learn how it infiltrates so much of society, study how to disclose implicit bias, and change how you participate in the perpetuation of racially biased assumptions, then ten people can do it, too. If ten people can do it, they can influence others. Eventually, you reach a tipping point. Things change. Social progress is slow. But really the only thing in our way is our individual resistance to it. That gave me hope. In looking at it that way, I as a white, middle class man feel compelled to play my part.
So, get ready, America. I’m coming back with my head and my heart and my white knee.