When my 9-year-old son told me that he had been thrown out of his fourth-grade class for kneeling during the Pledge of Allegiance, I was mildly surprised by his actions, but furious with his teachers.
Their instinctive responses were harsh reminders of how deeply white supremacy is embedded in the classroom. But more important for me in that moment were the shaming and intimidation tactics used against my child.
Dash had not asked for my permission to take a knee; nor did he need it. He has followed the national conversations on state violence and policing in this country. He has seen video of police shootings. We’d like to think that our babies haven’t seen people who look like them gunned down in the streets, but they have. Between social media, iPhones, YouTube and news stations, they’ve seen it. As parents, we just have to figure out how to talk to them about it.
From the moment Colin Kaepernick first sat, then took a knee, during the playing of the national anthem, my son has contemplated taking a knee in solidarity. Although he is aware that Kaepernick has been blackballed for his unwavering stance against police brutality, Dash was not prepared for the judgment. He did not expect swift, antagonistic responses. He was not prepared to be kicked out of class and told that if he wanted to protest, he needed to do so by “sitting quietly.”
He was not prepared for another teacher, his favorite teacher, pulling him aside and asking if he felt that it was right to disrespect the flag, and telling him that her father was a veteran. Of course, Kaepernick stopped sitting during the anthem earlier on, choosing instead to take a knee to make it clear that he did not mean any disrespect to the military. But apparently, these facts didn’t matter.
Dash’s confusion broke my heart. I had taught him the importance of standing up for what he believed in, but I had not warned him that there would be “good” white people in positions of authority who would try to crush him for doing so. I didn’t warn him that these “good” white people could stretch out their arms for hugs one day, then order him to leave a space because they find him offensive the next day. I didn’t warn him they could pull him aside and question his integrity, his humanity, in a way that positioned them as victims of his right to exist.
He had not taken a knee expecting applause, but neither did he expect condemnation. And I had been so busy teaching him about the wolves that I didn’t think to warn him about the foxes.
To the principal’s credit, she responded swiftly and appropriately. She has assured me that the teachers have been disciplined and that a schoolwide training seminar on students’ right to protest is being planned. The teacher who threw Dash out of class wrote him a letter of apology, and she has apologized publicly. I insisted that just as she felt the need to publicly interrogate, shame and punish my son for standing for black lives, she could apologize publicly for her discriminatory actions and for violating his constitutional rights.
The letter above is a far cry from what she expressed to me last week when she doubled down on her actions. Her exact words to me during a phone conversation following the incident: “Fourth grade is not the place for protest; it’s just not. I’ve been very supportive of Dash, but we’re going to have to agree to disagree.” In a follow-up email to me, she made it clear that she didn’t have a problem with him sitting during the pledge, but she was “highly offended” by him taking a knee. She knew exactly what she was doing and why; her transparent attempts at damage control don’t fool me in the slightest.
The teacher who dared to ask Dash whether he believed it was right to disrespect the flag has profusely apologized to him—and to me. She is not white, but one doesn’t have to be to uphold white supremacy. I wanted her to look me in my face, as a woman of color, and apologize for shaming my child to the point that he had tears in his eyes recounting the conversation—and she did.
This was my son’s first experience with white supremacy and anti-blackness that he could touch, roll around in his little hands and grasp; the first reckoning between him and them. In that moment, he did not feel revolutionary or brave; he was shaken. He was nervous, confused and alone, and for me, that is not simply unprofessional on the teachers’ part; it is unforgivable.
Just a couple of weeks before this incident, the teacher who threw Dash out of class sent me an email. She wanted me to know that she truly cares about my son and that when he’s at school, he should think of her as his mom and feel free to come to her about anything.
This is a lie that I’m sure many white teachers tell themselves about themselves—that they are capable of that kind of gentleness and care, of being a safe space for black children in an anti-black world. If she “loved” my son, she wouldn’t have crushed his protest against injustice because of her own very fragile, very white, sensibilities, but she did.
This is a reality about the education system that black parents have always been faced with: white educators who claim to love our children because they meet some standard of respectability and nonthreatening blackness; a malleable blackness; a youthful, naive blackness that can potentially be folded into “We don’t see color” white comfortableness.
But would these educators love our children when that same blackness demanded to be seen and counted? Are they teaching our children math during the day and posting “All Lives Matter” memes on Facebook at night? Are they teaching our children about history in the morning and agreeing with their friends that Donald Trump is really trying to make America great again when the sun goes down? Are they looking at videos of black people being slain in the streets, in their homes and in stores and saying, “If they only had respect for the law”?
We know the answers to those questions. Dash claimed revolutionary space in a way that didn’t prioritize white comfort; instead, he chose to honor black lives—he chose to be—and he was punished for that. In another time and place, his teacher could have been the white woman calling 911 on my son because he looked threatening while seated at Starbucks, or Waffle House, or grilling in the park, or asking for help.
Two educators were so threatened by a 9-year-old child protesting the state-sanctioned murders of black people that they silenced and intimidated him because their feelings and their sense of entitlement mattered more to them than a boy searching for a way to make sense of and join the revolution around him.
According to the principal, the suddenly contrite teachers want my husband and me to accept that they were just so “shocked” by my son’s actions that they acted inappropriately. The thing is, shocked white women who act inappropriately when they encounter free black boys have gotten free black boys killed. I care nothing about their shock beyond how it affects my child.
When I shared what happened to my son with friends, family and followers on social media, the support was overwhelming.
Jalen Bell, a Navy veteran who was assaulted by security guards at a Dallas club last week, posted a video, telling Dash that his daughter wanted to follow his lead:
Hip-hop artist Jasiri X, whose song “The Whitest House” had spoken so deeply to my son that he discarded his fear and took a knee during class, also made a video to show his support:
Colin Kaepernick retweeted my tweet about Dash’s experience, and my son’s #TwitterAunties activated. From Canada to Ireland, New York City to Panama, every single message that has affirmed his humanity, his right to protest, but also the rightness of the protest, I have shared with him. Since we moved to Texas, we haven’t had the opportunity to create a close-knit community, but in this moment, he saw his village. He knows that he is loved and supported by people he has never even met, and I am forever grateful.
Conversely, white supremacist cowards on social media have expressed absolute disbelief that my son decided to take a knee with no urging from me. They want me to believe that they believe the world bends and contorts to protect black childhood, that I am somehow a bad mother for exposing my son to an America not of his making, as if black mothers are ever given a choice.
They are more appalled that my child is aware that badge-wearing agents of white supremacy are destroying and ending black lives than they are about the destruction and death.
“He should be outside playing,” one troll wrote, “not parroting your politics.”
Tamir Rice was 12 years old when he fell victim to a state-sanctioned police drive-by in a park. He was outside playing.
The idea that black children have the luxury to be as oblivious to the world around them as white children is absurd. But it comes from the sedentary minds of willfully ignorant white adults, who were once the oblivious white children who didn’t have to worry about deputized bigots gunning them down if they walked to the store to buy Skittles.
Black pain is nothing more than a threadbare cushion for them, passed down from generation to generation, protecting them from confronting their own aggressive white mediocrity.
This past week, I’ve really thought deeply about what it means for enemies to educate our children. Not the national dialogue around slavery in textbooks—nor teachers and security guards inflicting violence on students—but the smaller moments that occur in between the lines, in hallways and advisory periods; the ways in which some educators attempt to colonize our children’s minds until their blackness becomes palatable to society.
In an open letter to his nephew, James Baldwin wrote: “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.”
Whiteness exposed itself to my son. This rite of passage was inevitable, of course. He now knows that white violence doesn’t always look like police officers with guns.
Sometimes it looks like a nice, white teacher insisting that she loves you.
Dash’s heart must have been beating so fast as he looked around at his classmates and up at the teacher, before taking a knee all by himself—but he did it. And years from now, when he thinks of his courageous 9-year-old self, I do not want him to think of oppressive white hate, but of liberating black love. I want him to remember that his village stood with him and lifted him when whiteness tried to drown his voice. I want him to remember all of the people whom he inspired across the country with one act of solidarity, and to understand that freedom fighting comes with risk.
But today I want my intelligent, inquisitive, silly, sensitive baby boy to know that he doesn’t have to put the resistance on his back just yet. He is loved simply because he is—and we are so very proud of him.