I spent some time in Great Britain while my husband was working on his PhD at the University of Aberdeen in 2012. During this time, we were a few years into the Obama presidency in the United States. Electing our first Black president had shifted our mental gray matter as a nation. We started to believe that maybe it was actually true that anyone could achieve any position in America, and that glass ceilings could be shattered. Deeply ingrained suppositions about what it means to be Black had to be faced and wrestled through. All of this happened almost immediately after the election results were final in late 2008. Most of us were celebrating, but some experienced fear and anger that was deeper than party politics as usual, and this came out in thinly veiled racist efforts to discredit Obama’s eligibility for the office of president and/or use his name to construct a false narrative about his religious affiliation.
As a result of his political philosophy, several nationwide services were provided to citizens during his administration that, for whatever reason, were all labeled with Obama’s name, a trend I don’t remember happening with any other president. One of these services was the Obama phone. All citizens experiencing poverty were provided with a phone, and on these phones were cameras. In my opinion, this was one of the most monumental accomplishments of the Obama presidency. Why? Because the masses were now equipped with cameras to document and publicize injustice. This simple move made America face its sins against those with less power, especially since it coincided with the rise of social media.
As a result, while I was in Great Britain in 2012, there were things going on in America that were broadcast around the world and did not reflect well on race relations in the U.S., and major news providers and politicians could not control the narrative. 2012 was the year Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in February, and our outrage at the shooting grew into outrage at the way many Americans were responding and how poorly our law enforcement and judicial systems were setup to respond with true justice in this situation. In a word, more people and systems questioned the integrity of the teenage victim than the integrity of the adult perpetrator. We were appalled, and we were denouncing this behavior on the part of White America.
As I experienced the culture in Great Britain and the lack of visible racial tension, I noticed something that gave me hope for the great experiment we call America. Great Britain is more segregated. Great Britain’s culture is more compliant and more orderly. (No lie, friends, they have grown folks lining up like school children at public bus stations…with nothing but peer pressure making them do it.) As you can imagine, this is not a culture that pushes the envelope on issues, and as a result of the high value placed on order, the residue of its colonizing past and segregated present is less threatened. It’s a “live and let live” culture, as long as you stay within the norms. One of the things that irritates me regularly about American culture is also one of the things that make us strongest, and that’s our deep need to have a moral purpose for everything we do…a sense of mission. We have an evangelistic undercurrent that drives us our impulse to bring everyone to view the world our way. Let me give you an example of the difference in the two cultures. In Great Britain, if there is the equivalent of what we would call a gardening fair, people are simply shopping for wonderful gardening goods because they love to garden and they enjoy the beauty of gardens. In America, if there is a gardening fair, it includes people trying to convince others that it is important to garden more and that it is important to adopt specific gardening practices. One will likely even find pamphlets (tracts) at the gardening fair about gardening topics that come complete with moral pressure to adopt the practices. We Americans are extreme in our desire to make an impact, serve a purpose, and shift societal norms. This is a blessing and a curse. It makes us really bad at enjoying our evenings and weekends, but it makes us really good at relentlessly pursuing a more just and equitable society. While Great Britain was living as though nothing was deeply wrong in 2012, we in America had our first Black president and were trying to push further into pursuing true racial equality and justice, and at times, things would erupt as we wrestled with the ongoing problems in our nation caused by cracks in the foundation.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the Trump campaign running on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The word “again” in this slogan was and is problematic on so many levels. Similarly to the Obama phone, Trump’s success with this campaign slogan brought some of America’s deep-rooted problems into the spotlight. There were enough people in America that believed the Euro-centric and Euro-controlled narrative of American history to elect a man with a nostalgic view of our past (presumably a past before we had the audacity to elect a Black president) into office – a narrative that believes the founding fathers were Christians, a narrative that believes the days of Little House on the Prairie were Utopian, a narrative that believes a little confession followed by whiteout can erase the damage caused by genocide of the First Nations on this continent and the damage caused by a capitalistic economy built through slavery. While these years of the Trump administration have resulted in so many atrocities against Black Americans, immigrants, and refugees, these years have also shed light on the work that needs to be done.
Shedding light on America’s foundational problems is crucial to becoming a stronger, more just nation. We are often fed the lie that to be patriotic is to unquestioningly praise the good of our nation. This is dangerous rhetoric. It is important to unveil flawed viewpoints of those in leadership and in power so that we can work to improve flawed perspectives or vote people out who are not willing to acknowledge and address injustice and systemic racism. One of America’s greatest strengths is that we are questioners, fighters, and generally non-compliant people. We must never believe the lie that to name our nation’s problems and demonstrate against them is unpatriotic.
The great challenge about being American is that there are two American ideals, one that only goes as far as Whiteness can dream and one for which most of the world is waiting with bated breathe, hoping against hope that it might actually be achievable. There are those that say the system is flawed, and there are others that say the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. I believe that both are true. The Whiteness that structured this nation on a racial hierarchy created a system that needs dismantling. The ideals of our Constitution and Bill of Rights are ideals that motivate us to engage the political process and peacefully protest when we believe those ideals are not being upheld for all. They are the same ideals that cause us to riot in the streets and move toward physical disruption of unjust systems if those systems are blocking the advancement of our ideals.
I’ve traveled many places, and yes, I at times want to live in another nation. Every culture, every nation, has its strengths, and we must be willing to learn from one another. My loyalty is not to a nation; my loyalty is to principles and ideals that are built on a worldview that believes all life has been assigned incredible value by God. It is this loyalty that pushes me into this present moment in history when America is facing a crisis of belief. Do we believe that all people are guaranteed equal rights that include freedom and the pursuit of happiness, or do we not? Unfortunately, the answers that are coming to light are painful and dangerous, but we cannot create a safer, freer, more just society if we don’t face this moment with courage, commitment, and unwavering faith that we can do better as a society. Anger is not wrong; hatred is wrong. Destroying property to save lives is not wrong; killing is wrong. Dismantling systems that rob people of their freedom is not wrong; upholding those systems in the name of order and patriotism is wrong.
My religious beliefs prevent me from pledging my allegiance to any earthly nation, so I do not pledge allegiance to a flag. God has my allegiance. Some find my energy unpatriotic, but I would argue that you can find few American citizens stronger than I in their commitment to our ideals of liberty and justice for all. Let us continue to lead the world, but let’s lead toward a broader vision of what a free, diverse, and inclusive democratic society can look like.