I put taking the knee in the same category as knocking down statues, raising your fist in the air and changing your Facebook picture to a BLM banner.
All of those things are a form of gesture politics — where the symbol takes on more meaning than the very thing you are trying to symbolise.
While for some it may temporarily generate a feel-good buzz and serve as a visual symbol of unity and understanding, what you eventually end up with is an empty gesture that can easily be misinterpreted or hijacked by other causes.
I’d rather focus on doing the real work to end institutional police violence and racism instead of seeing a bunch of virtue-signallers take the knee and thinking that it is all they need to do to end police violence.
Where it All Began
It all began with American footballer Colin Kaepernick. He took the knee during the national anthem before a match in 2016. He said he could not stand to show pride in the flag of a country that oppressed black people.
His protest followed a spate of police-involved deaths of black Americans including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Kaepernick initially chose to sit on the bench during the rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner anthem, but eventually kneeled “to show more respect for men and women who fight for America.”
While I agree with the sentiments behind the protest, there is one important detail worth noting, which is often left out of the reports.
Colin didn’t just take the knee. He also in a very literal sense, put his money where his mouth is by donating $1 million to “organizations working in oppressed communities”. This included a $25000 donation to the Mothers Against Police Brutality organization that was started by Collette Flanagan, whose son fell victim to police brutality and $10,000 in donations to charities that would be matched by celebrities.
Colin and his partner Nessa founded the “Know Your Rights Camp”, an organization that held free seminars to disadvantaged youths to teach them about self-empowerment, American history, and legal rights. In April 2020, the Know Your Rights Camp launched a relief fund for individuals impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kaepernick donated $100,000 to the fund.
At the time, Colin was subject to a lot of backlash and went unsigned through the off-season and 2017 training camps, due to his political stance. The Seattle Seahawks brought Kaepernick in for a visit in May 2017 but did not work things out with him or offer a contract.
So the irony is that while he kicked off the whole taking the knee gesture, he also took action to help the communities he claimed to care about and made a lot of sacrifices due to his protests.
What I’m NOT criticising
Peaceful protest. Colin didn’t knock down statues, riot or even make any noise during his silent protest. He is the very definition of peaceful protest.
Now there are some who suggest that politics should be kept off the pitch.
So let’s stop singing national anthems at the beginning of sports tournaments then.
Oh and it’d be nice if football hooligans in Europe stopped throwing bananas at black players on the pitch. After all, if you don’t want to receive inconvenient reminders about the racial disparities in your society, you should be against those things as well.
But I doubt very much that’s what people mean when they say keep politics off the pitch.
Oh well. Can’t have it both ways.
So What’s Wrong With Taking The Knee?
When people take the knee or insist that others do it without understanding the infrastructure of activism and support that is needed to combat racism, then the gesture becomes more important than the problem it is symbolising. In other words, it becomes useless.
What you end up with is a bunch of people taking the knee as a cynical form of virtue signalling. One of the best examples of this is US President Biden and Kamala Harris taking the knee.
Let us not forget that Biden was once the Donald Trump of his day. In the 1970s, he fought fiercely against racially integrated schools back in the 70s. He argued that mandatory busing (allowing black schoolchildren to travel via buses and attend white schools) would lead to his children growing up in a “racial jungle.” While some sources dispute this claim, the dispute is over the exact way he worded it, not the fact that he said it.
While people can change their views, the fact is that Biden spent many years fighting against desegregated schools and never fully addressed the fact he spent the best part of his career arguing for white supremacy makes his adoption of ‘taking the knee’ seem a tad cynical.
Kamala Harris is not much better. She was responsible for introducing a series of laws that led to the mass incarceration of black and brown men, which she partly apologised for. Despite her apologies, many of those men still reside in prison.
But this article isn’t about Biden or Kamala. They are merely two ocean drops in a sea of insincerity. This is about how token gestures such as taking the knee are slowly and surely replacing grassroots, political, social and educational activism that would dismantle systematic racism once and for all. After all, the idea is to get to a point where people don’t have to take the knee.
Controversy Over The Gesture
While you have many people criticised for refusing to take the knee, you also have people forced out of their jobs for taking the knee. In the UK, Welsh broadcaster Guto Harri was forced out of his job at GB News after taking the knee. GB News apologised after the TV journalist made the gesture, which it said breached its standards.
But Guto is not the only one criticised for taking the knee. The Swedish national football team were heavily criticised for taking the knee. Sweden defender and Chelsea captain, Magdalena Eriksson defended her stance after critics said that taking the knee would make people stop watching football.
On the flip side of the coin, sports teams have also been criticised for refusing the gesture. Rugby players representing both England and Scotland have come under scrutiny after 14 of the 30 starters in the Six Nations clash refused to take the knee ahead of kick-off.
When others are criticised for refusing to take the knee, it is usually because activists are looking for a token gesture “to prove someone is not racist” rather than dismantling the system of racism itself.
Remember, Kaepernick first took the knee as a way to avoid standing in support of the US national anthem due to the high levels of police brutality and systemic racism in the US. He also took action to back up the gesture. I mention this again here because for Kaepernick, it wasn’t a token gesture. Instead, it was one of many protests and actions he took in order to address the problem of unprovoked police brutality primarily against black and brown people.
Now after losing money and being widely criticised for taking the knee, you have many people doing the same in a sincere attempt to support Black Lives Matter but without looking any deeper.
You People Are Never Happy
Yes, I’ve heard this before. Incensed at the fact I don’t support taking the knee, many people turn their ire towards me. Their argument goes something like this: “We try so hard to do all these silly, politically correct things to appease you and you people aren’t even grateful for it.”
To be honest, those types of responses kind of prove my point. When people think that one gesture is enough to dismantle decades of institutional racism, then they miss the point.
If taking the knee was all it took to combat police brutality, bigotry and bias, I’d be doing it right now instead of writing this blog. But that’s just not the world we live in. A systematic and multifaceted problem such as racism needs an equally systematic and multifaceted solution that is also established over many years. It starts from education at the root level, addressing all forms of racism from all races (including black people) and most of all, simply recognising it (many people don’t). Raising awareness is the start, not the end of the battle.
Why I won’t Take The Knee
It changes nothing. It has almost become a cat-call to virtue signalling, rather than addressing the underlying issues of systemic racism itself. I consider taking the knee to be a symbolic gesture only and in the words of George Carlin “I leave symbols to the symbol minded.”
But I also have a problem with the symbolism of the gesture. Kapernick took the knee because he didn’t want to stand during the national anthem due to America’s history of racism.
Understanding the context behind the gesture makes it kind of irrelevant to me. I am not on a sports pitch. Nobody is singing the national anthem. And the gesture itself almost looks like a form of submission, which again, is problematic.
As a matter of fact, I’d rather take a stand.
I’d rather stand up for the rights of people that have been at the receiving end of police brutality, racism or any other civil rights abuses.
While taking the knee was the perfect gesture for what Kapernick was trying to achieve at the time, the idea should really be to move beyond the symbolism and build upon the goals he was attempting to achieve.
This is why I support local anti-racist groups, it is why I write articles aimed at giving balance and it is why I challenge racism whenever I see it.
Symbols won’t get us out of this mess and it won’t make people less prejudiced. It simply redirects their focus to a meaningless gesture. For that reason, I refuse to live life on my knees. I refuse to submit. I’d rather take a stand and be counted whenever the cancer of racism or bigotry rears its ugly head.
It’s time to get off your knees and stand up for what you believe in.