The Cheerleader Behind the Viral #TakeAKnee Photo

Raianna Brown kneels at her Georgia Tech football game. Photo: David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

This weekend, as NFL players knelt down and linked arms at stadiums across the country, a photo of a Georgia Tech dancer went viral. The image showed Raianna Brown lowering herself to the ground as the national anthem played at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, her knee sinking into the grass while her teammates stood with their hands over their hearts. Brown tweeted the photo just before midnight on Saturday, and by Tuesday morning, it had more than 35,000 retweets and 128,000 likes.

The photo, however, wasn’t from last weekend — it was taken last year, about six weeks after Colin Kaepernick first knelt to peacefully protest violence against people of color, including violence by the police. Brown, then 21, decided to support Kaepernick by taking a knee as well. “I’ve always had that twinge and twist to my thought pattern of being social justice–minded, so I followed Colin Kaepernick’s protest,” she told the Cut. “Then right before the game, that weekend of October 1, Terence Crutcher was killed by law enforcement. And for me that was kind of like another last straw, if that was even possible to have another last straw. I just really didn’t feel comfortable standing for a flag for a country that I didn’t feel like was respecting people who looked like me.”

Brown never expected the tweet to get the reaction it did. But on Friday, after President Trump ranted against NFL athletes who’ve followed Kaepernick’s lead, #TakeAKnee began trending on Twitter and Brown’s photo went viral. “I was really surprised,” said Brown of the response she received.

On Monday after her classes, the Cut spoke with Brown — who said she isn’t on the dance team this year due to hip surgery she underwent in May — to get the story behind the photo.

I think a lot of people are assuming the photo was taken over the weekend, but it was from last fall, when you were on the Georgia Tech dance team. Where did you first see the photo, and why did you decide to post it this weekend?
I actually first saw this photo last year, right after the game … One of the photographers that works on the field came up to me and they said they had a photo of me kneeling during the anthem and asked me if they could post it and send it to me. So I said sure … and I posted it after I got it from him that time. Then, this weekend, I reposted it to just stand in solidarity with the NFL players who would be kneeling this weekend.

Thousands of people have reacted to your post — and the number keeps growing. How is the response different than when you first posted the image last year?
This time it most definitely has gained a lot more traction, probably just because overall in media the #TakeAKnee hashtag has gained a lot more traction as well. This time I’ve actually gotten a lot more, I guess, blowback; as far as social media, there have been a lot more negative comments. But the negative comments are really outweighed by all the positive support I have received. I have gotten a few comments like, “I hope she gets kicked off the team and loses her scholarship.” Stuff like that.

I saw one of those. You responded to one like, “Actually, I’m fine.”
[Laughs] I didn’t get kicked off the team and my scholarship has to do with academics not dancing, so, yeah. But yeah, I’ve gotten a couple of those [comments], but those don’t really bother me. I’m just glad that the conversation is being had.

If you can go back, what was going through your mind right before the national anthem started to play, and you knew you were going to do this?
I think it was the day before the game, I reached out to my coach and said, “I plan on kneeling for the anthem during the game. This is why.” I sent her an article about the death of Terence Crutcher and gave her all the background and she was really supportive.

I was very, very nervous. As a part of the dance team, you do some dancing before the anthem happens and I’m pretty sure I messed up like four times, and I usually don’t mess up. I really just had to center myself on why I was doing it. And so when I took the knee during the anthem, I just said in my head the names of the people of color who have been killed or been victims of racial injustice in the United States, names that I knew like Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, at the time Terence Crutcher … all these names. That kind of gave me the strength to make it through the anthem. I’m pretty sure I was crying a little bit too, but I was far away so hopefully nobody could tell.

One of my favorite acts of social justice … is the Little Rock Nine and when they integrated the high school in Little Rock. It was just amazing to me to think about how much more nervous they probably were than I was. A lot of those stories gave me the strength to be able to make this statement and make a stance on something that is controversial but I think needed to be said.

How did the crowd react?
I was a little nervous if anyone was going to do anything crazy or say anything really mean to me, but I didn’t experience anything like that in person at the game.

Unlike a lot of the athletes who protested this weekend, you were kneeling alone. Had you talked to your teammates about your plans to kneel during the national anthem, or asked if anyone wanted to join you?
I told them I spoke to the coach and it was fine and they were welcome to kneel as well, but for the most part, well, I guess actually everyone else didn’t kneel for whatever reason. I respect that they didn’t. We’re still great friends, even though they didn’t kneel. I told them everyone has different ways that they participate in social activism. I tend to be more on the visible side of that.

What was the reaction on campus afterward? Did any of your classmates say anything to you?
A lot of my classmates were very supportive. Some of the administration or faculty offices I passed by all the time told me if I had any problems with anyone that they will speak up for me and speak to me about it.

Trump has been trying to frame the conversation around the protests as being anti-American, and an insult to the flag. On Monday he tweeted, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race.” What do you say to that?
I don’t really have anything to say back to that specifically to him. I would just say kind of what I said before: For me, it’s not about being disrespectful toward the country or toward the flag itself. It’s more making a statement about what’s going on in the country that’s being ignored.

Like you, some WNBA players took a knee last fall before there was the level of public support we’re seeing right now. In your view, is it important, or why is it important for women athletes to also be visible in these protests?
I think a lot of the times women actually are the catalyst for a lot of social-justice change and movements, and unfortunately that is not necessarily portrayed in history all of the time. So I feel that this is most definitely one of those cases where the men tend to get more of the attention. Which, it happens. It’s fine. But it’s important to know that it’s not a one-sided thing. The issue itself is not one-sided. It’s not just black men who are seeing this as an issue.

What’s next for you in terms of your social activism?
Right now, I’m working on the premiere of my dance company. The dance company is called Raiin Dance Theater and our show that’s coming up is called In Human. In Human is described as an examination and celebration of black culture, but for me it has a little bit more than that to it … It’s about recognizing humanity in others, and what happens when you don’t and what type of art that leads us to create.

*This interview has been edited for length.

The Cheerleader Behind the Viral #TakeAKnee Photo