What is taking the knee? Origins of the gesture and how to explain it to children

In the first lockdown Premier League game last week, players "took a knee" in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
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  • Questions about what “taking the knee” means have been raised over the last week as foreign secretary Dominic Raab revealed that he didn't know the origins or significance of the gesture.

    In an interview, Dominic Raab said that he believed taking a knee was a “symbol of subjugation and subordination rather than one of liberation and emancipation”, and originated from the popular HBO series Game of Thrones.

    He also said, “I take the knee for two people, the Queen and the missus when I asked her to marry me.”

    The comments were made in response to a question about whether he, like the Premier League players who took the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in their first lockdown game last week, would “take the knee”. His response naturally drew criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement and other members of Parliament, including MP David Lammy, who described the comments as offensive and “embarrassing”, especially as the gesture has a long-rooted history in the civil rights movement.

    READ MORE: People are calling for books about racism to be added to the GCSE reading list

    To try and clear up his mistake, Dominic Raab said later in a tweet that he has “full respect for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the issues driving them. If people wish to take a knee, that’s their choice and I respect it. We all need to come together to tackle any discrimination and social injustice.”

    However, people were quick to point out that only two hours earlier he had little to no idea of what the gesture meant and where it came from.

    So what does “taking the knee” mean? And in an age where children are more aware of issues surrounding race and racial inequality, how do you explain “taking a knee” to children?

    What is “taking a knee” and why are people doing it?

    what is taking the knee

    Credit: Getty

    The idea of “taking the knee” – going down on one knee as a protest – has a long history, steeped in the American civil rights movement. In 1965, one of the most famous civil rights activists, Martin Luther King took the knee in Alabama in solidarity with protestors.

    The act was then made world-famous in 2016, when NFL player Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem before a game. At the time he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.

    “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder”

    This is in reference to how historically, police officers who have killed Black people on duty have rarely been prosecuted for the crime and instead, lost their job or were suspended on paid leave. Among many others, this was the case for the officers involved in the death of Eric Garner, who was killed in 2014 and whose last words “I can’t breathe” have been a verbal indication of the protest against violent, institutional racism ever since.

    Despite backlash from the NFL and US president Donald Trump, other professional players have “taken a knee” to protest injustices across America. While in the UK this month, at the beginning of the first Premier League game of the season, players knelt in protest and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

    On June 17, the phrase “take the knee” also made its way into the Cambridge Dictionary, clarifying the meaning and origin of the phrase.

    However, “taking a knee” isn’t just a sports-related sign of protest, as the origins of the gesture remind us. Black Lives Matter protests have swept across the country and people have been “taking the knee” in the streets as a sign of peaceful protest, just as Martin Luther King did in 1965.

    How to explain “taking a knee” to children

    Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, there have been calls from America to the UK to diversify children’s education and understanding of the prejudices facing Black people around the world. A huge part of this is the understanding that children need to be raised to be “anti-racist” and the responsibility of this lands on parents and schools, who have been advised to take it upon themselves to make institutional changes and to educate children about racism.

    So how do you explain “taking the knee” to children?

    While you might not think that children have picked up on something like “taking a knee”, experts suggest that children will actually know more it than you might think. Whether they’ve seen it as you’re sat down watching the news as a family, on social media, or on one of the many front pages of newspapers recently, the chances are they’ve seen something and they might have questions.

    Also if your child is a sports fan and you want to take the example shown by Premier League players as a teaching moment, then it’s important to know where to start.

    The Positive Coaching Alliance is an organisation is the US dedicated to creating a “positive, character-building youth sports environment that results in better athletes, better people”. When debate first began around athletes “taking the knee” in 2016, they released advice for parents on how to talk to kids about what was going on.

    Start by asking questions

    Start by asking your child questions – rather than giving a lengthy explanation of where you personally stand on the issue. If you go first, you may never hear what your child thinks, and you’ll learn a lot by letting him or her speak first.

    This is also about making sure you give them information that they can understand linguistically. As Roger Harrison, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Nemours/Alfred I.duPont Hospital for Children told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017, “Rather than trying to explain the whole history of race relations and athletic activism in America, you want to provide the simplest answer or explanation at a level appropriate to the child’s development.”

    Use the resources available to you

    what is taking the knee

    Credit: Amazon

     If you don’t fully understand the political significance behind taking the knee and want to learn alongside your child, there are plenty of materials out there for you to use. Along with surges in adult books about racism, there has also been a huge uplift in purchases of children’s books about race.

    The Hero In The Helmet: Colin Kaepernick’ is a children’s picture book, written by Joa Macnalie and published in 2018. It aims to teach children about the life and legacy of the NFL player, from his career in football to social activism.

    One Amazon customer said the book had “well written verses and engaging illustrations”, while another commented, “Great discussion questions and glossary in the back to aid in conversations with children and adults! A must have for your library.”

    Realise it’s okay not to have all the answers

    “It’s OK to model not having all the answers,” the Positive Coaching Alliance advises, suggesting that parents could say instead, “This is a really tough topic. Let’s talk about what’s happening and figure out how we feel about it together.”

    By showing your child that you might not have all the answers but will endeavour to answer them, you’re also encouraging them to come to you with other questions in the future and showing them that it’s okay to talk about difficult things.