Every Fourth of July I dress my two young daughters in various ensembles of red, white, and blue. We attend parades, barbecues, and firework displays. I smile as they recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which they learned at school. I teach them to be respectful when people stand in silence for the National Anthem. Over the years I have done this all without much thought. I’ve only recently realized that I’m training my daughters to participate in the performance of patriotism even though I struggle with the concept and sentiment myself.
I didn’t always struggle with it. But I didn’t always really think about it much either. My Fourth of July memories from childhood consist of family vacations and playing with sparklers. The holiday was never one that found me contemplating or discussing U.S. history. Even still, I think I was – or felt – patriotic when I was young. After all, I was a choir girl from childhood adulthood and knew the words and harmonies to every patriotic American song out there. And I firmly recall feeling moved when I sang them. But then that changed.
For many the attacks of September 11th heightened or awakened their patriotic sentiment (as is not uncommon during times of war). It had the opposite effect on me. Two events forever changed my learned patriotic impulses. The first was my experience student teaching in a high school where 90% of the student population was Arab American. I vividly remember the day when many of my female students who wore hijabs came into my class in tears recounting the racist slurs that were cast at them as they walked to school. They were American citizens and they had cried on 9/11 for the attacks on their country but yet they faced immediate discrimination. I will never forget how our school received multiple bomb threats and we had to herd hundreds of scared students through the process of evacuating the building. I was horrified at how people justified hateful behavior in the name of keeping their country safe. I still am.
The second experience that helped stomp out my patriotic sentiment happened on a random night at a local piano bar only weeks after 9/11. I was there with my best friend, my boyfriend, and his brother. Unsurprisingly, the dueling pianists played many patriot songs throughout the night. When they launched into “Proud to be an American,” my boyfriend and I stood and sang. It was one of my favorite American tribute songs and thanks to my choral training I knew each and every word. My boyfriend, a thespian happy to perform at any occasion, belted out every word with me. When the song ended we sat down at our table and a blonde haired, blue eyed college girl came over and began directing a slew of racist comments to my boyfriend. She ended with the directive: “go back to your country.” When she left the four of us sat bewildered and uncomfortable. We had no idea why she crossed the room to yell at us. One explanation was that my boyfriend was Mexican-American and her comments implied she mistook him for being Middle Eastern. Still, we didn’t understand why she was yelling at him right after he had stood and sung a pro-America song. Had she meant to yell at his brother (who, not being the sing-with-the-crowd-type, did not stand)? With all his theater flair had my boyfriend made a flamboyant hand gesture that she mistook as being disrespectful? We couldn’t figure out what we had done to warrant such rage.
Moments later this same girl marched up to the piano players and paid them to play “America the Beautiful.” The four of us exchanged apprehensive glances and this time we all rose as the chords began to play. On her way back through the crowd the girl again stopped at our table and said, “yeah, that’s right, you better stand.” The next few minutes are a blur. Well, except for the emotions I had. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the anger I felt toward this girl. Despite normally being the non-confrontational type, I launched into a string of insults (punctuated with profanity) and ended my diatribe by throwing my drink in her face. I remember defiantly storming out of the bar (although my friends insist we were about to get kicked because of my reaction). I proudly tell this story of my first and only “bar fight,” but what I often leave out of the story is how it changed me. From that day onward I’ve had a visceral reaction every time I hear “Proud to be an American.” I feel sick and angry. Those feelings attached themselves – to a lesser extent – to other patriotic songs as well. It’s taken years for that Pavlovian-like reaction to subside. And it hasn’t completely.
After these formative moments I went on to become a post-9/11 television scholar who studied the ways in which the media and popular culture endorsed a certain form of patriotism in the wake of the attack: blind patriotism. To be an American after the attacks meant to buy into the rhetoric of “us versus them” and to support the government and its leaders without question. It was a time of feeling not thinking. For example, Americans affixed flags to their gas-guzzling cars as a sign of patriotic loyalty, but didn’t question our dependence on fossil fuel that was again leading us to war.
Fifteen years after the attack, the 2016 Presidential Election highlighted how the struggle continues when it comes to defining what it means to be a “good” American with one candidate claiming we needed to “make American great again” and another claiming that American was already great “because we are good.” The year since that election has made me revisit what I think it means to be a “good” American and what I think it means to be patriotic. It’s a lot more than performance. It’s a lot more than knowing the words to a bunch of songs. It’s actually hard work… or it should be.
I stood with hundreds of thousands of people at the Women’s March in D.C. the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. The crowd was decorated with signs that argued “Dissent is Patriotic” and the chant “This is What Democracy Looks Like” recurred at regular intervals. It was at that my moment that I thought to myself: “yes, this is what it means to be a patriot.” That day while people debated on Twitter about whether the hashtag #NotMyPresident was anti-American or not, I worked to re-conceptualize my own thoughts about patriotism. It is these that I hope to relay to my daughters.
Patriotism is not blind. It is not about seeing our country’s history through rose colored glasses; it is about critically examining the past, acknowledging our darkest moments, and strategically working to never glorify or repeat them. (Those fighting to keep Confederate Monuments in place obviously do not share my definition of patriotism.) It is not about supporting the government and its leaders without exception; it is about holding them accountable for the ways in which they represent and lead this country. It is not only about celebrating our country’s values and accomplishments, it is also about working hard (individually and collectively) to ensure that we continue to live up to those values and that our successes have a positive impact on the world. It is about accepting that one can have complex, contradictory feelings about our country and still be a “patriot.”
I felt the complexity of my own American pride this past summer when I attended the Naval Retirement of a friend. I sat through the ceremony and was, unquestionably, moved as they discussed the unknown sacrifices that those in service make for us on a daily basis. At one point I looked down at my side where my two daughters sat and I realized I was happy that they there taking in this message. Mentally I added another footnote to my complicated definition of patriotism: it is the ability to support our men and women in the military, even when I don’t support the wars they are sent off to fight or the administration that sends them there.
I’m not sure how any parent goes about teaching their child about patriotism, but know how I plan to teach them about this important concept. By taking them along with me to protests that fight for human and environmental rights. By explaining to them why I support the decision to peacefully sit, kneel, or lock arms during the National Anthem as a protest against the systematic racial inequality that still plagues this nation. By supplementing their in-school history lessons with knowledge about the parts of American history that are often erased. By teaching them to think critically about social issues and government actions. By encouraging them to vote for the leaders they want and to demand more from the ones they get. But all that said, I will also support their desire to recite the pledge of allegiance, stand for the national anthem, and to sing any patriotic song they want… as long as they understand that the First Amendment assures that no one is required to do so. And, I’ll also probably continue to dress them in red, white, and blue every Fourth of July because I never pass up the opportunity to thematically coordinate their attire.