Over the past decade — as America’s political lines-in-the-sand have deepened into uncrossable chasms — the meaning of the word “patriotism” has shifted. It’s become part of the right wing’s core brand message, with conservatives rallying around classic American iconography and liberals lining up to mock it. Oddly, for a nation founded on rebellion, the connotation is that patriotism is somehow synonymous with blind loyalty, as if to “fight the power” is an implicit rejection of our nationhood.
But the suggestion that dissent is somehow anti-patriotic is embedded with logical flaws. Anyone who’s ever had friends, family, or romantic partners knows that “day-to-day satisfaction” and “abiding love” are not always aligned. True patriotism ought not be afraid of this nuanced complexity. It should recognize our country’s shortcomings, call them out, and strive to improve them. It should be able to say, “America, I love you, but you have issues.”
On the eve of July 4th, we asked three writers to share their thoughts on what it means to be a “minority and a patriot in 2017.” Here are their answers:
My relationship with America has always been a weird one. That’s not to say I’m not “proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free (conditions may apply),” it’s just… complicated.
While born and raised in these United States of America, I grew up in a Haitian household where Haitian Kreyol, not English, was my first language. I ate Haitian food seven days a week, 365 days out of the year and attended Haitian mass. My parents played Haitian music, and I had Haitian friends. The only time I felt like an American was when I went to Haiti and people would call me “The Foreigner.” That would’ve been a cool ass name if I was a deadly assassin and not just someone trying to visit my family.
Not even in school did I feel American, despite having to pledge allegiance to the flag every morning. I didn’t feel too patriotic when kids called me a “Haitian Booty Scratcher” or said I had “HBO (Haitian Body Odor).” Another fond memory is being told the mild eczema on my face was actually AIDS. The bullying for being Haitian-American was, of course, during peak “Haitians have AIDS” era of the ’90s. It was hard to wave the flag on those days, when I felt like “the other.”
With a common enemy in terror, 9/11 was supposed to unite us all. “We stand united,” they wrote on signs. “United we stand, divided we fall!” they shouted. But I never got on the red, white and blue post-9/11 wave. I wasn’t decked out in patriotic gear. I didn’t go to McDonald’s, demanding an order of Freedom Fries wrapped in bacon served to me by a majestic bald eagle. On the upside, I also didn’t go harassing anyone who looked like they might be from the middle east.
I understood what happened was the most devastating shit I probably will ever see in my lifetime, but I still didn’t feel the kind of fiery anger most Americans felt at the time. I sympathized, but I didn’t feel like my country was under attack. I feel that now, though, but for Black America. I feel under attack because police officers sworn to protect and serve are killing black people with impunity. This country also elected a president who openly appeals to racists. A president who quickly appointed a man who allegedly has white supremacist ties as the top law enforcement officer of the land. I’m also a black woman in America — which means being silenced, overlooked, belittled, abused, disrespected, killed and ignored.
So while I’ve never thought about it, I guess I’ve always felt Haitian first then a black woman then American. Or maybe black woman first then Haitian then American? Either way, American comes last.
Do I love this country, sweet land of liberty? Sure. And I do shout “USA! USA! USA!” at the World Cup and during the Olympics. But only when matches are between Germany, Russia, England, Etc. Even with all its flaws, this country is my home and has afforded me many great opportunities I probably wouldn’t get anywhere else. I think if I was going to move somewhere else, after watching countless House Hunters International, I’d have done it already.
Most of the time, being a minority in this country is exhausting. You’re constantly reminded of ways the country is basically designed to be more difficult for people of color. You’re constantly reminded that most people are going to look down on you no matter what you’ve done or shown yourself capable of doing. The country’s history that includes your ancestors being the subject of mass genocide is taught to you in school, rehashing traumas that are reality for your people. It’s all draining, mentally.
But there are times when I love America, when I realize just how fortunate we are to be here and enjoy the freedoms we’re afforded here. There are pockets of this country that are as diverse and cultured as any space in the world. The melding of cultures, religions, races and nationalities is a unique experience that is enjoyed in this country, something that the country was built upon, despite its racist and problematic past. That experience makes this country and being here worthwhile for a minority, that experience is what makes me patriotic.
Thankfully, I live in one of the most diverse and integrated pockets of the country in Northern California, and that’s created an existence that is rare for most. Yes, there still is racism and problematic, systemic issues do exist. Still, here I’m able to coexist with people of all sorts, and see them for exactly what they are: people, just like me. There may be barriers in place for some, but that’s not the existence I have known, and in America I’m presented with the opportunity daily to interact and appreciate people that supposedly aren’t like me, and I’m able to find out we’re not so different after all.
When I immigrated from Moldova in 1991, I was seven years old and there was nothing that I wanted more than to assimilate. When my classmates made fun of my accent, I watched hours and hours of Barney* to make it go away. When my mother warned me that I was being too American — too willful, too independent — I took it as a compliment, not an insult. And when I became a citizen in the seventh grade, I gladly swore away my prior allegiance to all other countries, princes, and sovereignties (even though I’m still not really clear on what a sovereignty is). I’ve loved America since my first night here, when I ate KFC and drank grape soda in a greasy motel on a layover in New York City. I loved it even more when I saw the Golden Gate Bridge and the rainbow flags (their meaning would become more important to me later). I loved it the most when, for my family’s first home-cooked meal in our new country, my aunt made us tuna salad and told me that the stuff was so cheap here that I could have it for lunch. But this is July 2017 and I’m having a hard time making this love affair work.
I will always be a patriot. Up until last week I was legally blind. My parents always told me that if we hadn’t immigrated I would have gone to boarding school for the unsighted and then assigned a job in a factory. I wouldn’t have a master’s degree in clinical psychology. I wouldn’t teach college. And I certainly wouldn’t have the time or energy to pursue my dreams of writing, let alone make it my career. In Moldova, I would have never come out of the closet; I would have never married another man. And I may have never become sighted, either, because how the hell would I have known that one of the few surgeons who could flawlessly perform an operation on my “disaster” of a right eye worked in fucking Los Altos, California?
How can you not love a country that alleviates that kind of torturous future? How can you not want to grasp it by the lapels and fall to your knees giving gratitude for all the opportunities that it provides? It’s not conscious; it’s a reflex. But like all reflexes, it grows weaker as you get older. My love diminishes every time another person of color is murdered without repercussion by the people that are supposed to protect us. It falters every time we collectively make the decision to elect a bigot because to elect a progressive (a woman!) would threaten too many historical systems of oppression. It shrivels whenever someone shouts “all lives matter” to minimize the disproportionate amount of hate that minorities face. It withers when I hear the words “don’t call it a Muslim ban,” or “build the wall” emanate from another political hack’s lips. Every night I go to sleep wondering what fresh horror will come next and every morning I wake up to find that I have not been disappointed. The president is tweeting gifs of himself beating up CNN. NASA has to actually deny that they’re running a child slave colony on Mars. And the alt-right — “don’t call us Nazis, even though there’s clearly a case to be made” — is being given a national platform on which to spew their hatred.
Comparatively, I’ve had it pretty fucking easy. I’m a disabled gay immigrant. But looking at me from fifty feet away, you can’t identify me as such. In skin, I’m white. I live in San Francisco. I don’t have to fear holding my husband’s hand on the street and I don’t have to venture outside of my culturally diverse progressive bubble if I don’t want to. And why would I? The small dangers that lurk inside San Francisco’s borders are nothing compared to the ones that are writ large without. Even the lure of socialized health care doesn’t have me pledging to move to Canada. No, if we are to be patriots, there is far too much to be done here.
So I speak out. I apologize when I make mistakes. I try (although it is difficult, because I love the accolades and attention) to amplify the voices of others rather than my own when it comes to subjects outside of my own experience. I live unapologetically. I am as gay as my parents once feared I would be. And I do my best to continue loving America, even though liking it right now is incredibly hard.
*This has left my english crisp and clear, although many people have commented that my tone and inflection often reflect the many hours I spent pronouncing new words with the purple dinosaur of my childhood.