Last month I made a decision to honor the national anthem, not out of love of country, but from the fear of what everyone around me would do to me if I didn’t.
Let me set the scene: My boyfriend and I are at a county fair in rural, Western New York, close to where he grew up. This is our second time coming together, and while I initially attended because I thought it would be funny, I can safely say that I sincerely enjoy going…for the most part. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, currently lives in New York City, and has only lived in major metropolitan areas for my entire life, there’s a certain novelty to attending a fair in the middle of nowhere, complete with monster trucks, deep fried Oreos, and a ton of farm animals that are just waiting to be petted. I had my reservations, of course; confederate flag iconography was rampant, a sight which, as a black woman, makes me want to puke.
This year there was plenty of Trump paraphernalia as well, along with corny t-shirts about gun rights and about how much of a bitch Hillary Clinton is. Plus, there’s the glaring fact that I am one of the few black faces in a sea of white; this would bother me less if I was in an otherwise diverse area, but I wasn’t. But overall, I try to see all of this like I’m an investigative journalist for National Geographic or something; I’m observing another culture, and that includes observing things that make me uncomfortable.
Anyway, right before the monster truck rally began, the announcer for the event decided to give a little speech. It was about how great America is, even in such hard times, and that we should be thankful that we live in such an amazing country. Next, thing I knew, we were asked to stand for the national anthem, a generic version of the song from some generic female vocalist. Normally, I wouldn’t give the anthem much thought. I would sit silently, maybe cheer if the rendition was good, and keep it moving. I’m not a very patriotic person; I don’t really get emotional about the Constitution, the Pledge of Allegiance gives me the creeps, and while I’m cool with living here and love plenty of aspects of American culture, I’m not deluded enough to think that this is the only good place in the world to live. So, like I said, normally I would have sat silently, but this wasn’t the place that felt cool with me daring to sit down during the anthem.
Let’s be real: The only black woman at the monster truck rally in a conservative area at a fair where confederate flags are proudly flying…sitting out during the anthem? I knew that my lack of participation would have been seen as an act of violent defiance, and anyone could have decided to harass me in response, and having a white boyfriend wasn’t a get out of jail free card either. So I stood up, along with everyone else, not because I felt like honoring the Anthem, but because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.
My fears aren’t unfounded. Recently, there’s been a surge of silent protests–largely from athletes–during the national anthem, and people are seriously clutching their collective pearls. Most notably, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers got everyone all worked up because he has decided to take a knee when the national anthem plays during the pre-game ceremony.
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 color. 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 was enough to send many into rage mode; people even threatened to boycott the NFL. Then, there’s stuff like this:
— Complex (@ComplexMag) September 26, 2016
Other athletes have joined Kaepernick in solidarity, including US women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe and the entire Indiana Fever WNBA team. The fad has even gained traction for high school athletes as well. And before Kaepernick even began to take a knee, Team USA gymnast Gabby Douglas received some flack for not standing with her hand over her heart when the national anthem played at the Rio 2016 Olympics. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that plenty of people don’t put their hand over their heart during the national anthem; that’s for the Pledge of Allegiance, another thing you shouldn’t feel obligated to do).
On the Anniversary of Mike Brown’s killing .. She did right. pic.twitter.com/J0ZLwLW3ko
— Yac House P (@PhillyTheBoss) August 10, 2016
If you ask me, it’s important to see people who are so young think critically about what the national anthem means to them, and whether or not they feel comfortable supporting it at a time when it is increasingly hard to feel proud of a country that allows cops–who we are meant to put to a higher standard–to racially profile and disproportionately shoot and kill black people. Unfortunately, many seem to be more worried about protecting the sanctity of a song than the lives of marginalized people. These thoughtful students are reduced to confused troublemakers who don’t appreciate their amazing luck to have been born in such a prosperous country, despite its glaring faults. The aggression that has been directed at people for daring to bring attention to harmful structures that hurt marginalized people in this country is just shocking. If you ask me, this has less to do with being patriotic and more to do with people wanting to bury their heads in the sand instead of accepting that their country has a long way to go before it becomes the utopia they think it is.
— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) September 8, 2016
We can agree that one of the most celebrated features of being an American is the right to, basically, do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t put the lives of others in jeopardy. You can say that you hate your senator, you can burn an American flag, and you can even admit that you sincerely enjoy The Big Bang Theory without being thrown in jail. We can all agree that that’s pretty damn great, right?
So here’s a thought: Let’s stop shaming people for not being patriotic enough. If people want to bow out of the national anthem as a way to protest systematic racism, let them. It’s totally within their right, and they’re not a bad American for it either.
I never really understood why people get so worked up about patriotism. Maybe being patriotic seems a little more out of my reach because it has always been so tenuous for black people. Yes, I was lucky enough to have been born in a developed country to parents who are educated and provided a pretty privileged life for me, but I’m regularly reminded of the fact that my ancestors didn’t come to America seeking a better life; they were forced to come here as slaves. Not so long ago, people who looked like me weren’t even allowed to vote in this country. My dad is old enough to remember “white’s only” bathrooms. Even today, racism is still a problem that this country just doesn’t want to grapple with in any serious ways; people are still assuming that everything is peachy because we have a black president. Ha, yeah, right.
Honestly, the most emotional I get over the National Anthem is when I watch the video of Whitney Houston singing it at the Super Bowl in 1991.
But it’s not just that. I love various aspects of American culture–our food, our music, our love of bad action movies with a bunch of explosions–but there are so many things I don’t love about our culture as well–gun violence, economic disadvantages, racism, the prison system. It’s hard to feel proud of a country where gun deaths are a norm, where students can’t even afford to go to university (unlike other countries), where healthcare is so expensive, where people live in poverty despite our nation’s wealth, where black people still suffer consequences of slavery, where most women still can’t have proper maternity leave after giving birth, where we start bad wars that leave thousands of people dead… There are so many things to love, and so many things to be disgusted by! It’s fair to see why many are dismayed by how many awful things are seen as the norm in this country, right? So what’s wrong with them taking a stand against them?
To the patriotism nuts out there, any criticism of the status quo is seen as bratty and ungrateful. I’ve personally been told to leave the country because I once Tweeted something that was critical of the United States. Are you only patriotic if you think that there’s nothing wrong with the country? Are you only patriotic if you think the things that are wrong with this country are in line with what the hardcore patriots–the “Make American Great Again” crowd–and bigots think is wrong with the country? I’d argue that some of the people who care about the country the most are actually marginalized people who want the country to be better and more inclusive; they strive to get there by calling out oppressive structures in our society. I know that this is cliche, but take Martin Luther King Jr for example. I think we can all safely say that he cared about making the lives of struggling Americans, particularly black Americans, better, right? Well, back in the day, he was labeled anti-American for even suggesting that the United States has problems with racism and economic inequality. He was literally killed because of those beliefs.
— Erin Lisch (@ErinLischWCTV) September 14, 2016
I refuse to believe that the only way to show that you care about this country is by pledging allegiance to the American flag, loving guns, and blindly supporting the police. America can afford to withstand a little tough love, right? And maybe, just maybe we need to stop acting like everyone has to be patriotic in the first place. It’s not a mortal sin to be indifferent or even dismayed about being an American. There are countries out there that are, statistically, better places to live than here; places that have a better standard of living and less violence. Either way, the world will keep spinning just because an American isn’t super emotional about red, white, and blue.
If you don’t want to participate in some performative “America, f**ck yeah!” act, stand your ground and try to ignore the haters. Stand (or take a knee) for what you believe in to the end; after all, isn’t that the American way?
What do you think about taking a knee during the national anthem? Tell us in the comments!