Who the Hell Do You Think You Are: A Teacher’s Take on Colin Kaepernick’s Protest
Who the hell do you think you are? I think that anyone that has ever challenged authority or the status quo in a way that makes people uncomfortable have always faced this question. When I first heard about Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem to protest the treatment of minorities in America, I thought about an experience I had in the classroom just last year.
I was a part-time Algebra II teacher, so I was sharing a science teacher’s classroom who turned the classroom desks into tables for a lab activity. I had two students with their backs faced to me in the front row, which was okay because I could still see what they were doing. But I also had two struggling students with there backs to me in the middle row, and I needed them to face me. So when I asked them to move their seats, a third student started complaining that I was picking on his two friends. Why was I asking them to change seats while these two other students were allowed to have their backs to me? He raised his voice, completely undermined my “authority,” and really disrupted the flow of my class. I asked him to step outside, explained to him that I’m not picking on anyone, I’m just trying to think about what’s best for them. And I also told him his conduct was not appropriate, and that he should wait for a better time to voice his concerns.
Then guilt hit me. What was I talking about? I was basically giving him the same, “Who the Hell Do You Think You Are” message people told leaders of the Civil Rights movement, who were constantly told they need wait and seek incremental change through the system rather than their highly disruptive public protests. In doing so, I reflected the same faulty logic of many of Mr. Kaepernick’s largest critics, who presume that there exists some sort of “right way” and “right method” to address a genuine concern of social injustice.
And then I had to accept an unfortunate truth: my own experience of being a college activist who faced tremendous backlash when I was part of a movement against Former Mayor Giuliani’s invitation to speak at Syracuse University’s commencement the semester after 9/11 caused me to deeply internalize the “Who the Hell Do You Think You Are” sentiment. Not surprising when I got emails from angry alums telling me I was the reason racial profiling existed and another email saying “Colin Seale…Remembering that name…Never hiring that idiot.” I was only 19. And here I was 15 years later sending the same message to one of my students.
So the next day, I addressed the whole class and told them that I never want to do anything to discourage them from speaking up when they feel that something isn’t right. I gave them the comfort of realizing that there actually is rarely a good time or an appropriate way to speak out in the face of injustice, but sometimes the personal cost of silence is far greater than the costs of speaking out.
And something else about Colin Kaepernick’s situation reminded me of my classroom experience. The student who spoke out in my classroom was not himself a victim of the unfair situation he observed. He spoke out for others through a lens of empathy. This reminded me of an important fact many of us forget. When you look back at the role all of these young African American leaders played in the Civil Rights movement, young folks like Representative John Lewis who was a college student during the peak of this time period, we rarely think about how extremely privileged these young folks were. A lot of these students were not only the first in their family to go to college, but often the first in their entire communities! They were the hopes and dreams for their neighborhoods, the cream of the crop, the best and brightest. And they not only sacrificed their education, they sacrificed life and limb for what they believed in. I can only imagine what their parents must’ve thought when they heard that they were leaving school to sit-in for voting rights throughout the Deep South. Maybe they were worried. Maybe they thought their kids were being naive. Stupid even. Who the Hell Do They Think They Are?
So when I see Colin Kaepernick putting his career on the line, my first reaction is worry. Are they going to slay him for this? The part of me that is still scared of speaking my mind wants to figure out all these different ways he could’ve gotten his message across in ways that didn’t bother too many people. But the truth is, I’m in awe of his courage. I’m inspired by his fearlessness. And the very fact that he has been extremely privileged is what makes this action that much more powerful.
So when I think about his protest, my student’s protest, and our country’s history of protest, there is only one response I can think of to answer the protester’s query of “Who the Hell Do You Think You Are”: