“Come on! You can’t let him pee on a flag.”

As I snapped back to reality, I noticed my neighbor shaking his head at me. I was unaware that my dog had just desecrated the mini American flag by my neighbor’s mailbox. My heart began to race as I power-walked away, trying to ignore the persistent image of the anger on my neighbor’s face. In an effort to distract myself, I counted how many houses proudly displayed the Stars and Stripes. I noticed that while not a single house failed to exhibit this supposed symbol of freedom and liberty, a myriad of Black Lives Matter signs also stood in stark contrast.

The juxtaposition of the flag with Black Lives Matter made me question whether the two could exist (quite literally) side-by-side. In light of the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, in addition to the countless other Black victims of hateful violence and police brutality, I experienced a wave of disconcertion at seeing symbols for seemingly opposing ideas in the same yard. On the one hand, the Black Lives Matter movement has been amplified by these recent murders, and they are calling for the change that this country so desperately needs. On the other hand, the American flag implies unwavering pride in one’s country both with and without necessary reforms. 

These observations ultimately led me to a striking question: are the ideals of patriotism and wanting reform mutually exclusive? Can they coexist in a nation that grows increasingly divided?

Before answering these questions, it is crucial to differentiate between patriotism and nationalism. I was taught from an early stage that the two words are interchangeable, but this oversimplification misconstrues what it means to truly love one’s country. Loving one’s country does not mean unquestionably following its actions even when they are immoral; rather, it entails holding the nation and government accountable while respecting their complex history. The definitions of patriotism and nationalism encapsulate such nuances. In the words of American journalist Sydney J. Harris, “The patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.” As such, patriotism requires that one understands the complexity in the history of a country and subsequently holds it responsible when it contributes to injustice; nationalism assumes absolute allegiance to the country. This allegiance, often coming from warped perceptions that place the country on a pedestal, can maintain undertones of discrimination towards people deemed as “outsiders” and blind superiority over other countries. 

Upon seeing the American flag and Black Lives Matter signs together, I reassessed what it meant to be proud of this country and if criticizing it made someone un-American. I would consider myself patriotic because I am grateful for the opportunities America has given me, but I am also dispirited by the lack of necessary reforms. I love this country for allowing me to express my opinions through this very article and for numerous other liberties not granted to women in other countries, such as voting, driving, or learning. However, it would be naive to accept and disregard America’s flaws simply because some of them have never affected me.

Although non-Black people will never truly understand the paralyzing fear of police sirens or the not-so-subtle way a white woman clutches her purse when walking by, this is no excuse to simply ignore these perspectives. Different races and ethnicities cannot understand each other’s experiences in a literal sense, but empathy fosters an awareness that makes us responsible in the fight against injustice, whether or not such injustice impacts us directly.

The ability to empathize with someone else’s pain should be more meaningful than mere “thoughts and prayers” or a black square on Instagram. These actions are almost automatic and therefore do not require deeper interrogations of institutional problems; they end up in the same pitfalls as those who believe the most dedicated and patriotic American is the one who recites the Pledge of Allegiance perfectly, blasts “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the Fourth of July, and parades the American flag. The black squares and national anthems are all just symbols, and symbols become less powerful as they stray from the ideals for which they stand.

In fact, despite the stereotypical patriot being depicted as a flag-waving zealot, many Americans only have a surface-level understanding of this country’s history, ideals, and symbols. According to a 2017 survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches of the government. Another survey from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that of 41,000 Americans from all 50 states, only four in 10 Americans could pass a citizenship test. Following this, foundation president Arthur Levine stated, “Americans don’t possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens.”

In order to make this country truly great again, we need to engage in education and empathy on a day-to-day basis. Genuine patriotism requires that we hold ourselves individually accountable for continuing to learn about experiences that differ from our own. It is ultimately the person who watches Ava DuVernay’s brilliantly informative 13th and dedicates time to petitions, protests, and activism who is more patriotic than the person that denounces Colin Kaepernick’s knee and defends Derek Chauvin’s. 

It is crucial that we redefine the narrative of what it means to express patriotism in America by advocating for continual learning and growth on both an individual and collective level. There is nothing un-American about acknowledging the country’s flaws and actively seeking to right them, just as there is everything un-American about mindlessly displaying symbols that have strayed far from their intended meanings. The colors of the flag symbolize valor, purity, perseverance, and justice, all of which slip further from our grasp every time we see another story of a cop killing a Black person in cold blood. We should utilize our right to criticize America when its policies and institutions call for such. The beauty of this right was expressed by novelist James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

This very right came from the seeds the Founding Fathers planted in the 18th century; the ideals of dissent run through American blood. The Declaration of Independence holds great influence from English philosopher John Locke, whose social contract justified defiance against government if it did not effectively protect the rights of the individuals it represented. The very essence of this country was founded on the belief that we cannot blindly accept the actions of the government simply because it is our government. Our right to criticize America, as stated by Baldwin, remains one of the most fundamental tools in provoking genuine change as it allows us to hold this nation accountable in promoting inequity. 

We can appreciate America’s opportunities while maintaining that not all of these opportunities are equal and that inequity urgently needs to change. America will continue to foster injustice so long as its people remain complicit and tolerant of its bigotry. Thus, the most patriotic thing you can do is acknowledge that your country is flawed and work towards a more equitable future.

The notions of patriotism and fighting for reform are not mutually exclusive but rather work together hand-in-hand. We cannot be proud of a country that fails to give us something to be proud of. Our right to criticize America is profound now more than ever.

Dissent is necessary to the growth of this nation, so much so that even in the midst of a global pandemic, millions of people have participated in demonstrations to protest the endless murders of Black people. Four recent polls from the Pew Research Center, AP-NORC, Civics Analytics, and the Kaiser Family Foundation suggest that about 15 million to 26 million people in the U.S. participated in such demonstrations throughout June. These figures would make Black Lives Matter the largest movement in this country’s history, and I can think of nothing more American than that.

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