Taking A Knee Is Also An Expression of Grief

There’s nothing quite like the start of the NFL . In September the weather is nicer, the season is wide open with possibilities, and life is beginning to wind down. It’s also my birthday month, but I promise that’s never swayed my opinion of the beginning of fall.

I was never much a fan of football growing up, even though my brother played it throughout high school and college. I never understood what was going on in front of me — why did they always kick the ball on 4th down, what was a dime package, and why did everyone have black paint on their face?

It wasn’t until after college, and several Madden purchases, that I learned the rules and began following the sport. I became enchanted with it’s duality — violent but graceful, rigid but flexible, and emphasis on teamwork but still a celebration of individual achievement.

Though I’m from Chicago, I always kept an eye on the San Francisco 49ers as they were the first team I ever watched and also my favorite city. When they drafted biracial quarterback Colin Kaepernick, I paid attention as he led the team to great heights and also great despair (which was extra painful as I had drafted him on my fantasy team one year).

But when he sat for the national anthem, I payed even closer attention. Not because I was offended or even intriged. I saw in him a kindred spirit. As I had done something very similar during my time in elementary school.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

My introduction to racism began in Kindergarten. My initiation came from my teacher (who I’ll refer to as Ms. G) who had short, curly hair and spoke with a high-pitched, seemingly sweet voice. My elementary school, and practically the whole suburb I grew up in, had very few kids of color attending. In my grade there was myself, another biracial kid, one black kid and 2 Asian twins who were my best friends. And I a curly haired, quiet kid was the only shade of brown in my particular class.

Elementary school is all about routine:

Morning bell — file into class — say the pledge of allegiance — class — lunch — recess — class — final bell — meet your parents back on the playground.

You come back the next day and repeat the cycle so much that the days all blend together.

But one day, Ms. G interrupted the cycle after the final bell. Class was dismissed and as the other kids were gathering their belongings to go home, Ms. G asked me to say. She instructed me to sit on the blue carpeted floor and not to look up, so I did. I listened to all the kids pour gathering their backpacks and coats while I simply sat on the floor. Still listening, my classmates left one by one as I stared at the plush carpet. I listened as they all went outside. I heard the rest of the school playing and laughing. I heard their parents talking outside while all I could do was study the blue carpet fibers and wonder when I would get to go home. I knew I was being excluded from everyone, but I didn’t know why.

I’m not sure how much time passed but eventually I was allowed to leave. My mom was waiting in the courtyard, almost the last parent there. She asked what took so long and I explained what happened. I hadn’t been disruptive, she just wanted me to sit on the floor, stare at it and not leave with all the other kids. I’d been raised to listen to adults and I knew when I was in trouble or had done something wrong. But this confused me — I was obviously being punished for something but had no idea why. I was never told what I had done, just punished.

This same event continued for several days. All the kids would leave, I would sit on the floor. Eventually I asked Ms. G what I had done wrong and she said she just wanted me to do as I was told. I was beginning to get flustered and so was my mom. So my parents had a private meeting with my instructor.

A few days later another teacher (who I’ll refer to as Ms. F) took me out of my class and into hers . I was handed a pair of tests. I don’t remember what exactly was on them. But it didn’t take me long to finish. When it was over, Ms. F let me stay in her class and play with all the other kids (which included the only other biracial kid in the school). I remember looking up to see my mom having a very animated conversation with Ms. F, who was simply shaking her head.

What I found out later was that Ms. G had told my parents I had a learning disability and she recommended that I be put into the “Special Education” program — a class comprised of all the troubled kids, mostly of color, to be cast aside, forgotten, and have their futures forever shattered. The tests I had taken were to determine my aptitude for learning and the results indicated I was eligible for the Gifted program, an accelerated learning class. Ms. G had a pattern of recommending all of the kids of color for the Special Education program and Ms. F, who was in charge of the Gifted program, had actually asked before any of this occurred if there any kids who might be eligible to take the test for accelerated learning. Ms. G said that none were.

Before I left Ms. G’s class, she pulled me aside by myself on the playground because she wanted to talk with me alone. I remember being scared, and she tried to console me and convince me to talk with my mom and let her stay in the same class. Ms. G promised that none of the things my mom had said were true and that she would never do anything to make me upset. She was only looking out for me.

When I reminded her about being told to sit on the carpet, she told me that never happened. I didn’t say anything, but I knew she was lying.

A few days later, I was transferred to the Gifted Program.

There‘s an awful moment for all parents with children of color. It’s the moment when you now have to teach your children that certain people would resent them and actively work against them, simply because of the color of their skin. For my mom, this was that moment. And I can imagine it filled her with a combination of anger, sadness, and heartbreak. Her son couldn’t just be a little kid anymore.

And at the age of 5, I was taught this terrible lesson. My education in and about racism continued for during my time in the public school system. At home I learned about my heritage, both the black and white parts of it. But I also learned of oppression, injustice, and how standards were different for people who looked like me. Even though I was taught this horror, my parents assured me that at home I would always be safe. I could be myself with no judgement.

But in public, I had many more encounters where I had to ask myself: had I done something wrong to this person or did this person simply see me as being wrong. Which filled me with anger, sadness, and heartbreak.

Photo by Rob on Unsplash

The cycle continued for several years:

Morning bell — file into class — say the pledge of allegiance — class — lunch — recess — class — final bell — meet your parents back on the playground.

Sometime in the 2nd grade, the words of the Pledge of Allegiance began to repeat itself in my head while I was saying them:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

One Nation.


With liberty and justice for all.

As I held I hand on my heart and spoke the words and I began to realize that they weren’t meant for people like me:

We weren’t really one nation.

We weren’t indivisible.

There was not liberty and justice for all.

Not for myself, my parents, my family, and anyone who resembled me. So at the beginning of a school day when we stood up to pledge allegiance I stood in my middle seat, kept my hands at my sides and stood quiet. I couldn’t bring myself to put my hand on my heart and utter those words.

I could not speak words out loud that I knew weren’t true.

I could not make a promise to something that had not yet come to pass.

I could not say the Pledge of Allegiance anymore.

Photo by Oladimeji Odunsi on Unsplash

When Colin Kaepernick first sat for the anthem in the pre-season, it was with little fanfare. He called no attention to himself and only said why when he was asked by a single question by a reporter. His answer was:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Those words stuck in my mind. I had uttered nearly the exact same thing when my 2nd grade teacher asked why I didn’t pledge allegiance. Although I imagine it’s probably more of a shock when a 7 year old expresses concern for racial oppression. And similarly, I compromised with my instructor by putting my hand on my heart but still remaining silent.

Colin listened to the words of the anthem and heartbroken, he couldn’t bring himself to stand up for it. His protest would soon be hijacked by forces greater than him — whether it was disrespectful to veterans, appropriate to protest during a football game, or whether he was unAmerican. Many said he had the right to protest but that he wasn’t doing it “in the the right way”. That particular phrase speaks to America’s bipolar relationship with individualism — you are allowed to express yourself, as long as it meets pre-determined standards that are constantly shifting.

But let’s get back to the reason that he and others have taken these actions:

Every child of color in America, at some point, has their heart broken by their country. Our innocence is allowed to be shattered. We are forced to grow up with the knowledge that our very existence is a threat to someone. We realize that if actions are taken against us to destroy our livelihoods, and sometimes our very lives, the pursuit of justice is not in our favor. From when we are children we recognize this truth, deal with it and push this to the back of our minds so that it doesn’t drive us into madness. But every now and again, our grief over this knowledge cannot be contained.

And in that moment we lower our hands, we raise a fist or we take a knee. Not to spit in the faces of our country. But to have it love us as much as we are taught to love it .To have it recognize and validate our grief, our suffering, and its longstanding refusal to regard us as equals.

So when someone makes this gesture, there should not be outrage but with curiosity and recognition. The question should not be “why are they doing this?” but “what actions led to this moment?” And when that happens, everyone will stand and pledge allegiance with joy in their hearts.

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