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Can You Take A Stand, Without Taking The Knee?

Updated: Feb 10, 2021


Dr Loreen Chikwira and Hannah Cotton explore how individual autonomy helps or hinders the goals of organisations and social movements.

With Covid, and since the murder of George Floyd, so much is happening in the world.

It has challenged who we think we are and the ideologies we subscribe to.

One thing for sure is that these global events have demonstrated that life is not black and white, especially when it comes to issues of intra-group relationships and dynamics.

In an interview with BBC Nottingham, Lyle Taylor, a 30 year old player who identifies as mixed race is suggested to have noted that he was no longer going to take the knee in support of BLM movement, though he emphasised that he unequivocally supported the campaign that sought to raise awareness of the injustices that black people across the globe have suffered and continue to suffer. However, he also said that he did not support BLM as an institution or organisation.

He is not the first football player to stop taking the knee, as some feel that it has lost its meaning.

What is interesting about Lyle’s position is how he separates the organisation from it's vision.

As we were chatting about the young player, one of the questions that came up, was, can one support a cause or vision and not the organisation that may be central to the issues? This question took us down different routes and points of discussion, and this piece is my reflection on the notion of individual action within team settings, a review of autonomy and collaboration, and how they can be used to compound or challenge tensions that may arise when faced with conflicting views .

As a black, African, woman and scholar, who positions herself a certain way and is socially positioned by others in various ways, this article cannot do this subject justice. However, I am eager for readers to gain insight and understand how we must understand our way of thinking before we can implement change.

The Organisation

Black Lives Matter (BLM) was started in 2013 after the acquittal of African American Trayvon Martin’s white killer. As a movement, BLM is a widely recognised social and anti-racist movement against social injustice and violences perpetrated against black people and people of colour in the US and has been effective in raising awareness of these violences globally.

In support of the BLM movement, many people have used different ways to show their solidarity and allyship to those that are suffering. Some of the ways have included the fist in the air and taking the knee.

Taking the knee initially started to gain traction with American footballer, San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sat instead of standing during the national anthem at a pre-season event in 2016. His actions were supported by some but vilified by others. Various social media posts/ media news called him a traitor to the nation and a disrespect of the national flag. His actions became a protest act against racism and police brutality of black and other people of colour in the US. After his actions, taking the knee became a protest act against racism in the wake of George Floyd's death.

Lyle Taylor’s view and position made us ask the question, can one support a vision and not the organisation that champions the vision?

What makes this discussion challenging is that issues of race, racism and violence against black people and other people of colour are personal and also emotional.

When I first heard about the article, I was outraged that while we are trying to fight injustice, as a collective, someone has to bring in the mix such trivialities that murky the waters and detract from the vision. However, after much reflection, a difficult process, fraught with tensions and conflicts, I commend Taylor for standing up for his beliefs, even if they may go against expectations.

I realised that it is other people’s expectations of us and the need to affirm our commitment to the vision which may cause discomfort when one takes a stance that may be seen as going against the collective.

The idea of protesting and supporting a movement and not organisations that may represent them is not new.

There are lots of debates over whether a social movement necessarily needs an organisation with a defined structure and goals to succeed, with some arguing that it does not. If we transpose these experiences to various organisations and causes, we find that we have all struggled in some instances when we feel we have to support an organisation and their vision, even when it goes against our own personal values and beliefs. For example, when we provide our labour to our employers.

It is interesting that the BLM movement and organisation has come under fire from different people, who thought it is divisive and exclusionary. There are few other organisations using a simple and seemingly unprovocative statement as their company name as BLM. Hannah noted that there was the global humanitarian organisation with a similarly unprovocative organisation name; ‘Save the Children’. In this discussion we agreed two very important questions. To say Black Lives Don’t Matter or Don’t Save the Children seem equally unpalatable phrases to think, utter or share in everyday conversation.

So let’s look deeper; are there operational concerns forcing Save The Children’s supporters away from non-race related causes? When both organisations rely so heavily on the support of the public to implement their operations, do we hold those challenging systemic racism to higher standards?

After a little research, we discovered that only last March 2020, The Charity Commission agreed that Save The Children had failed to address bullying and sexual harassment claims, downplaying accusations and not dealing with them openly or responsibly.

Have Save The Children's operations been impacted by lower public support? It is difficult to tell when Covid has impacted all areas of the third sector.

Have Black Lives Matter's operations been impacted by lower support? We're increasingly seeing a critique of the US based operation, and here in the UK there is ambiguity as BLM UK legally register as the Black Liberation Movement in September 2020 and the Black Lives Matter UK site claims "We are NEITHER associated or affiliated with @ukblm, recently registered (Sep 2020) with FCA under the name 'Black Liberation Movement UK' nor are will affiliated to BLM USA and or any other political group, party here in the UK or abroad."

Does this ambiguity support the cause? Would collaboration of these groups support it more?

Additionally, is it wrong to question the machinations of an organisation with the right purpose, but policies and processes we disagree with?

I like the definition of social movements that is suggested by della Porta and Diani (1999: 16) who notes that they are ‘networks of interaction between different actors which may either include formal organizations or not, depending on shifting circumstances.”

This definition allows for different ways people can participate across contexts, and from the global to the local.

EquALLIES supports organisations to recognise the importance and benefits of diversity and tackle barriers to inclusion. We raise new questions and call for reflection on your own experiences and those within your organisation. We ask how you can negotiate the tensions and conflicts that come with acting authentically and independently to realise the shared outcomes of your team.

Despite growth in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training over the last few decades, BLM protests have once again brought exclusion and racism to the fore. The shared anger, frustrations and backlash to anti-racism have raised critical questions on the work done in this space to date.

Some of the issues that these organisations grapple with include;

  • How can organisations best manage and fully benefit from diversity?

  • In what ways can they work with their staff to identify and address exclusionary and racist practises within their organisations?

A key starting point of the conversations and actions is noting and acknowledging that we are more than just our races and or ethnicities.

There is a plethora of research on why identification with a group will push people to align themselves with it. Identifications with a group, based on race or ethnicity can be a powerful force that connects people and creates boundaries of who is included and who is not.

These identifications are not only based on shared race or ethnicity, they can also be about shared values and ideologies. However, what Taylor highlights is that we are more than our races/ ethnicities.

I can’t help bringing in my position as a transnational feminist, and I centre my work on intersectionality as an approach of understanding people’s experiences. Intersectionality is about how different identities intersect in how we experience the world, for example, gender, ethnicity/ race, class, sexuality, disability, and other factors. Also, we are people with certain values that we adhere to that shape our experiences.

What is interesting with the BLM movement, is how people can highlight race to be at the forefront of the discussions at the expense of other identities. As a society, we need to remember that, lest we are subsumed under the racial category at the expense of our other identities and values. A focus on one aspect of an individuals’ identities, in this case, only race or ethnicity in an organisation can lead to minoritised groups feeling dissatisfied and excluded.

This then brings another issue to the fore; the relationships between the individual and the institution or organisation.

The issue of inclusion or addressing racism and discrimination is not a question of individual change versus organisational change, it is about both individuals and the organisations, collectively working together to create an inclusive environment and vision.

If a collective identity is necessary for effective change, then how do we create that collective identity when there are diversities of identities, beliefs, and values? Taylor is an individual who is being true to himself and taking a stance for his beliefs.

However, he also draws attention to the complexities of the vision, the individual and the organisation.

A key scholar in the area of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, Ferdman and Deane (2014) note that inclusion involves creating work contexts that value and appreciate individuals as integrated and complex.

The question then is how do we create such an environment that recognizes and celebrates these diverse identities, values and experiences?

Inclusive Leaders within organisations should understand that the individual may agree with the vision of the organisation but have a conflicted relationship with the organisation, i.e. other employees, leadership and some of the practices that may hinder one’s performance and progression within the company.

Tensions and conflict are part of our everyday lives. In some way or the other, we all experience barriers and feel challenged by change. However, it is important to remember that there are no binaries between the individual and the organisation or between races and ethnicities.

Inclusion is about the individual experience, values and norms and organisational behaviours and practises that are defined and shaped by our leaders.

Recognise the full diversity of your team. As well as meeting the minimum requirements of the Equality Act, look beyond the protected characteristics to engage all colleagues in the work of creating inclusive actions plans and how to embed them within the workplace.

After all, once all individuals feel safe to stand up, to be seen, heard and accepted as they are, there may no longer be the need for anyone to stand and shout, or take the knee.

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