Our Flag’s Identity Crisis: Pride and Embarrassment in Flux

American Flag Identity BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of usatoday.com

It’s no longer “stars and stripes and everything nice.”

The American flag has acquired some major baggage in these last four years. The happily waving flag of yesteryear is long gone. These days, it’s not only Americans but people around the world who view it as a nationalistic symbol burdened by racism and Trump’s tyranny. 

Victoria Vargas, who was born in Colombia and immigrated with her family to Queens, New York at the age of eight in the sixties, remembers a time when the sight of the flag was inspiring. 

“I remember driving out to the Hamptons from the city in the eighties and seeing a giant waving American flag on the Long Island Expressway and how it would raise a lot of emotions in me. It gave me a sense of pride and belonging,” Vargas says by phone from her Madrid home. 

She has since retired to Spain to join her family but still votes in all U.S. elections. Vargas says she has had a change of heart concerning how she views the flag these days. 

She attributes that change to the Trump years and the imagery of flag-waving, gun-toting pro-Trump protesters at the vote count recently or those opposed to wearing masks for protection against Covid-19 waving the American flag as well. To her, that image of the flag symbolizes that “other America,” which is not one she ascribes to although she knows it exists. 

“The sight of the flag has become an embarrassment, it’s become a negative symbol in recent years, and it is all related to Trump. But I think the U.S. and the flag will regain its status because eventually everybody needs to pull together in this global economy.”

Tainted Nationalism: Trump hijacks the flag’s symbolism

When did our love affair with the red, white, and blue start going wrong? Although many would argue that the United States is still the world’s most diverse country of people living equally, under Trump’s presidency, the country’s long struggle with systemic racism erupted, and it was at the forefront of our societal zeitgeist once again.

It seems one of the first signs of our nation’s issue with the flag was back in 2016 when the N.F.L. player Colin Kaepernick declined to stand for the national anthem. He later stated that he wouldn’t “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” Trump, backed by his supporters, called Kaepernick “un-American.”

Then in 2019, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted an American flag emoji in a poignant rebuke to President Trump’s racist “go back to where you came from remark to her and congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, not only was she telling him off, but she wrote alongside the flag: “We don’t leave things we love.” 

By doing this, Ocasio-Cortez was trying to take back the flag’s image that had been stolen from the majority of Democrats and liberals. Born in the born Bronx, approximately 12 miles away from the Queens’ hospital where Mr. Trump was born, it was a complete xenophobic attack. 

Since then, Ocasio Cortez’s team created their own take on the American flag, one with the big letters “A.O.C.” written boldly across it to clearly distinguish her America and not Trump’s. 

During this political season, American flags in certain conservative neighborhoods were more visible. In other more liberal parts of the country, they weren’t flying as high due to a bad case of patriotic ambiguity. 

The New Yorker reported that the flag’s affiliation with Trump and his supporters has become so pervasive that progressives have reported feeling reluctant to buy property in areas rife with the flag. 

Here’s the problem, the flag does not just belong to the Republicans, even though Trump and his supporters have done a hell of a job marketing their messages with it. 

Even though skinhead groups have traded swastikas for the American flag during demonstrations, the flag’s appropriation is not the fault of those who wave it. Liberals and progressives can also display their pride in the banner like AOC did when Trump attacked her. 

Many have chosen to place Black Live Matters and the gay pride flag alongside the standard American flag to show their more inclusive political stance.  

In October, National Public Radio asked audience members about what the flag meant to them these days. It reported that most conservatives still viewed the flag with pride, while those that leaned more liberally were affected by the sight of that red, white, and blue. 

Kevin Lopez, who works for Microsoft in San Pedro, Calif, told NPR that “with all the protests and the Black Lives Matter stuff happening, we took the flag down for a little bit.” Eventually, Lopez’s family decided to raise the flag again, even though racial justice questions aren’t ancient history for them. 

Like our country, the flag is still searching for its identity, changing depending on the country’s climate. During the Vietnam era, it became a pro-war symbol, and after 9/11, it unified us. 

In French culture, the flag has always been seen as a political taboo of sorts for those who believe in liberté. For this reason, they typically reject displays of their flag because of its association with the far-right or its colonial past. But after the Paris attacks, there was a resurgence of their own red, white and blue throughout the country. 

We have yet to see now in the era of Biden if liberals and progressives who had turned away from the flag will slowly begin to warm up to it again. Ultimately the flag symbolizes “we the people” even when we disagree with our police, president, and policies.  

Let it remain a democratic symbol of all kinds of people, out in the streets, in conversation with their government.