As the first notes of the National Anthem were ascending into the stands of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in New Orleans at the College Football Championship game last Monday night, I followed in the footsteps of so many incredible advocates and activists before me and dropped to one knee. And even though my leg was shaking, it felt like taking this opportunity to stand up (or kneel, in this case) for marginalized and oppressed humans was the right thing to do. As a country, we are not serving the needs of all of our inhabitants, and I believe that complacency and inaction will not bring about the change that we so desperately need.
The 2019 State Teachers of the Year were hosted by the College Football Playoff Foundation (an incredible program that “is dedicated to elevating the teaching profession by inspiring and empowering teachers”) and were honored on the field.
At the rehearsal, we were given the choice to either put our hand over our heart or to stand quietly. But these choices didn’t feel like enough to me. Not everyone is given the same opportunity to have a voice and platform in the way that State Teachers of the Year are, and I take that responsibility seriously.
By taking a knee, I stood up for people who are harmed due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and/or their status as a citizen; I stood against political leaders who are xenophobic, homophobic, racist, trying to take away the rights of women, and failing to protect our animals and environment; and I stood with all of the educators who are diligently trying to decrease the educational equity gap in our country.
Many have reached out with messages of support and hope. However, I also have received violent threats and angry messages that are similar in tone to the ones I received after I protested a visit with the President last May. My belief remains that those who are trying to isolate me, shame me, and coerce me into being quiet must be terrified of losing all the ways they benefit from existing systems of oppression. They are furious with me for advocating for the very people that they need to stay oppressed.
Standing up against the words and actions of the current administration does not make me anti-American. People seem to be confusing patriotism with (white) nationalism when they say this. I care deeply about where we have been in this country and where we are going. And I am grateful that I can legally exercise my First Amendment rights in order to communicate that we still have a lot of work to do.
As a gender-nonconforming lesbian, I know what it feels like to be discriminated against. But I do not know what it feels like to be a black person, an indigenous person, or a person of color. And I will admit that my confidence in anti-racist work is not as strong as it is with my LGBTQ+ advocacy work. But I believe passionately that it's not enough for educators to just be allies; they need to be advocates, too.
I need to be willing to step into my fear of making mistakes and remain open to learning. And as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education, Mary Cathryn Ricker, says, “We can’t expect [humans] to conform to our comfort.” As LGBTQ+ humans, we need heterosexual and cisgender advocates to stand with us while we fight for our rights. People of the Global Majority also need white people to stand with them. And we all need to be advocating for intersectional equity. Additionally, I deeply respect that the symbolism of taking a knee is deeply rooted in the civil rights movement and I want to honor that history.
I would not have had the courage to participate in this protest without the support of 2020 Minnesota State Teacher of the Year, Jess Davis. She helped me to process, research, and make the decision to kneel. She even kneeled with me in solidarity from her home in Minneapolis. Jess was willing to pay the cultural tax (that so many people of color have to pay) to help me, a white person, to understand the nuances of anti-racist work. And for her support and brilliance, I am grateful.
There are a myriad of ways that people are “taking a knee” in their own lives. Whether it is subtle and private or overt and visible, it all matters. When we are willing to step into our personal discomfort and “take a knee” as a way to stand up against prejudice and discrimination, then, and only then, can we build a country that truly supports every single heart.
- Kelly Holstine