I still remember my discomfort as I stood from my desk every weekday morning. As I reached my right hand towards my chest, a hesitation lingered. With each familiar word, feelings of doubt manifested themselves, twisting the depths of my stomach and sitting heavy on my heart.
I’ve always felt uneasy paying homage to our flag. Throughout elementary and middle school, I would force myself to proudly stand, place my hand upon my chest, and recite the (compulsorily) memorized lines of our Pledge. But, as I got older, I slowly began to rebel.
In sixth grade, after a quick sideways glance to ensure my peers wouldn’t notice, I’d refrain from mouthing “under God” and swiftly resume with the next line. (I grew up near an Air Force base and knew any defiance towards the Pledge would alienate me from my friends). By college, although I still stood, I objected to participating in the Pledge’s recitation during a bylaws-mandated occurrence at the beginning of my student government term.
This discomfort emerged due to my beliefs (or as some argue, lack of beliefs) on religion. The presence of the phrase “under God,” an addition legislated in 1954, seemed to preclude my inclusion in this one united nation.
Irrespective of my atheist beliefs, the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag it honors, and the symbols they represent are made for someone like me. I’m a white, heterosexual, middle-class woman. While my religious ideologies stray from the archetypal American narrative, I will otherwise prescribe to and achieve the “American dream.” I attended a great college. I’m fortunate to have a well-paying job in New York City. I can assume that I will get married, have children, and eventually settle down in a home I comfortably own. These facts should foster a sense of patriotism within me. They should cement my pride in a country that affords me with such opportunity.
Yet, my discomfort remains. Unconditional attachment to these symbols is worrisome and problematic. Our patriotism blinds us from the dangers created by a society rooted in American exceptionalism.
I have seen relatives, friends, and acquaintances criticize Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, and his decision to remain seated during the national anthem at his preseason games. While some completely disagree with his motivation (to protest police brutality and the unjust treatment of people of color in this country), others stand behind his reasons, but chastise his methods of protest.
However, their criticism is misplaced.
By conflating respect for our flag and our anthem with love for our military and our country, Kaepernick’s detractors miss the point. The quarterback’s decision to not stand during the national anthem is one full of nuance. While race relations in this country continue to be black or white, this critical expression of free speech cannot be classified in such absolute terms. You can respect our nation and our military, and be grateful for the opportunities it and they provide, and still hold our country, its symbols, and the values they represent accountable.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump asserted that “maybe [Kaepernick] should find a country that works better for him.” For a candidate whose slogan vows to “Make America Great Again,” this reaction is deeply ironic. Donald Trump, and Kaepernick’s many critics, should not proclaim, “What country is better than America?” Instead, they should eagerly ask, “How can we make America better?”
Until then, I will continue to feel uncomfortable when asked to recite our pledge.
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