My father wears the American flag on his sleeve. Or rather, on his chest, on his legs, upon the fridge and upon his car. Somewhere in his closet are shirts and swim trunks adorned with the flag. Miniature flags hang around in the odd corners of the house. It’s the kind of imagery you expect from someone attending a Bob Seger concert, not an Arab-American man.
This has been on my mind these last few weeks, as pressure continues to come down on Colin Kapernick, a pro football player who refused to stand during the singing of the national anthem. His words make his intentions clear: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” His actions have been followed by several other athletes kneeling during the anthem in solidarity with Kapernick, as well as a heavy backlash complete with racially derogatory comments. For Kapernick and his peers, it’s clear that the American flag, and its anthem, represent a country which operates on the oppression of its citizens.
The methods of this oppression have never been clearer than they are today. As Jon Schwarz at the Intercept explains, the anthem that Kapernick has refused to stand for is itself a celebration of slavery. Lyrics within the “Star-Spangled Banner” celebrate the deaths of slaves who sided with the British during the War of 1812, declaring “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
Policing itself has long had ties to slavery as well, with police in the antebellum south being connected to organizations initially built to catch runaway slaves. This history continues today, alongside the school-to-prison pipeline and the prison-industrial complex, which see black children frequently removed from school at an early age, then sentenced under discriminatory policies to lifetimes in prison. From there, inmate labor is used to produce commodities—essentially at no cost. It’s a situation that has been frequently compared to slave labor, and has become the impetus for strikes across the U.S. as prisoners try to end the practice.
Also, it’s no secret that the nationalism often inspired by the flag has been associated with oppressive groups and practices throughout our history. White nationalist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan have always attached their sense of white identity to both Christianity and patriotism. Their ideology is often rooted in ideas of duty to God and Country. The Stars and Stripes has also been a frequent presence among the growing right-wing movement in the U.S. It accompanies slogans like “Make America Great Again” at Trump rallies, a declaration that, taken alongside Trump’s rhetoric, ties racist practice to the core of American identity. That same sense of identity can be seen again and again among other right-wing groups. How many conservative radio hosts and abrasive Twitter accounts have self-described as “patriots”, and signaled their loyalty with the flag?
My father isn’t ignorant of these facts, either. At the very least, he understands the way that racism and discrimination have affected both U.S. policy and daily life for its oppressed citizens. After 9/11, he wrote a book observing the rise of Islamophobic attacks against Muslims, Arabs, and anyone else deemed to “look like a terrorist.” I’ve heard the distaste in the mouths of people who speak with him, and witnessed the way his name and origin have been used to deny him jobs. I was there—despite his attempts to shelter me—as he pored over Egyptian online newspapers reporting on the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. It’s bizarre to remember those days alongside images of him smiling and waving a miniature American flag, wearing shorts and a USA t-shirt too big for his skinny frame. He looked, at times, like a kitsch depiction of what people outside the country think Americans look like.
I, on the other hand, stopped saying the pledge of allegiance in fourth grade. Even at the age of 10, before 9/11 and the outpouring of hatred it brought, I felt alienated from the country that suppossedly represented me. Maybe it was the way my family moved around every few years during my childhood, making life feel almost nomadic. Or maybe it was the hyper-visibility I felt every time someone asked me “Where are you from?” and I couldn’t produce a straight answer. Regardless, it felt disingenous to sing “My Country Tis of Thee” and pledge my allegiance to a country that never quite felt like home.
Today, I am an American citizen. After 20 years of living in this country, growing up here, and speaking only its language, the papers are now in place to confirm that, yes, I am a citizen of the United States. But while there are cities and neighborhoods that feel close to my heart, I still do not feel as if I belong here. When I see others stand for the national anthem, beaming with pride, I can only think of the ways the country has told me, repeatedly, “we don’t want your kind here.” When I hear of the “rockets’ red glare” and “the bombs bursting in air,” I don’t think of triumph, or freedom, but of drone strikes killing Yemenis on their way to a wedding. I think of the Syrian civilians killed in this new continuation of the War on Terror. To me, the anthem of America is not the Star-Spangled Banner, but HEEM’s “American Flag Shopping”, whose chorus recounts:
“We’re going American flag shopping/ Red, white, blue on our crib/ The neighbors threw rocks at the house/ They making it harder to live”.
My father, however, never saw citizenship as anything less than essential. He talked about the opportunity it would give us, and the jobs it would open up. He worked on and off for 10 years to get all the documents together for naturalization, and paid almost $2,000 to file the applications for himself, my mother, and me. Before that, he spent years of his life working for the government. First at Americorps, helping immigrants get settled into this country, then on the coast, teaching Arabic to soldiers soon to be shipped off to the Middle East. He loved these jobs, and took great satisfaction in teaching others. But they never quite provided the job security that would allow him to stick around and make a living.
When he became a citizen, my father changed his name. Changed it to something that sounded more French. Or rather, something less Arab. It’s alarming how many more job offers came in. Even so, with a new name, with American citizenship, and even a PHD, my father couldn’t find a job here that would pay him enough to support his family. I talked to him just recently on Skype. He now teaches English in Saudi Arabia, my birthplace, where we lived before we immigrated here for a better life. His online avatar was the Statue of Liberty, set against a waving American flag.