I took a knee yesterday. It wasn’t the result of a coordinated protest, or a detailed plan, or even, frankly, much thought. It was the opening night of the symphony season, and in its honor, the orchestra played the national anthem. I wasn’t expecting it per se, but when everyone stood, I realized that I was not going to. Instead, I took a knee.
I’m not particularly proud of what I did. Which isn’t to say that I’m ashamed of it—I’m not, at all—but I don’t see it as some great thing, some major statement, something worthy of praise. It was a small (very small) gesture of support for something much, much bigger.
And I wasn’t doing it as a mark of protest for the American flag and all that it stands for. The opposite, in a way—it is precisely because of the freedoms that the flag represents that I, and so many others, were safely able to take that knee. That’s important for everyone to understand: This particular protest is, in part, an homage to (and only possible because of) all that the flag stands for—however imperfectly realized in this country at this moment (and all the moments leading up to now).
And while I, like Colin Kaepernick, like Megan Rapinoe, like the thousands of brave professional and college and high school athletes who are taking a knee during the national anthem, totally oppose the shooting of black bodies, and feel strongly that the institutional racism that has allowed these disproportionate deaths to occur, must be called out and must be changed, that’s not why I took a knee, not exactly.
I took a knee in support. I took a knee because someone whose body is on the line—in a very real way, in a way that I, as a white woman, don’t know and don’t understand and can’t feel (although my body is under threat in other ways)—told me that that’s what he needs us to be doing right now. I get that I’m not on the front lines in this fight. I get that my gesture is small and maybe pointless and ultimately only a gesture. But when so many people are doing this very brave thing, this stunningly brave and important thing, it felt right, in that moment, to publicly show that I’m behind them.
It also, to be perfectly honest, felt terrible. I was so embarrassed. My face was bright red (and I’m not a blusher). My knee hurt. The national anthem (beautifully rendered) never felt so long. Not that I could focus on it, except to listen for the ending. I was sure that everyone was talking about me, or thinking about me, or criticizing me. (I’m not sure that the opening night of the symphony crowd is the most sympathetic to this particular approach.)
To be honest, no one could really see me, aside from the people immediately to my right or behind me. And I’m not sure they even noticed. If I’d done it as a way to draw attention to the issue of the systemic attack against black bodies in this country, it would have been utterly pointless. And would have reeked of hubris. Maybe it did anyway. It certainly didn’t feel comfortable.
And, actually, that’s part of the point, at least for me. Until I took this very modest, highly unnoticed, deeply uncomfortable knee, I had no idea quite how gutsy it was. I mean, I’d admired the athletes who took this stand. I knew that Colin Kaepernick was putting a lot on the line. (And I read the vile reactions of some to his protest, making absolutely clear just how explicit racism can be.) I knew that Megan Rapinoe was particularly vulnerable to loss of sponsorship and income and the perhaps fragile support she’d established as an out gay athlete. I knew that college and high school players were showing unimagined guts simply for doing something outside the norm in spaces where the norm is cherished sometimes above all else.
I knew all this, but I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel how awkward, and embarrassing, and downright scary it is to take a knee, in front of tens and hundreds and thousands and millions of eyes focused right on you. I mean, I felt that way with absolutely no one looking, and no one caring.
We teach our children not just to stand up for themselves, but to stand up for others. To be brave. To be caring. To do what they think is right. Even if it is hard. Even if it feels bad.
It felt terrible. And I’d do it again.