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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Marquette professor examines the anxiety some people of color feel toward the American Flag

National Flag Day became a holiday on June 14, 1916.
Stock Adobe
National Flag Day became a holiday on June 14, 1916.

Today, June 14, is National Flag Day. It was established in 1916 to commemorate the adoption of the Stars and Stripes as the official flag of the United States.

And did you know that Wisconsin is likely the influence behind it? According to the National Flag Foundation, in 2004, Congress declared Flag Day originated in Waubeka, Wisconsin, in Ozaukee County.

While some see the American Flag as a symbol of freedom for all – others, like some people of color — struggle with a connection to that symbol due to their experiences in the United States.

For example, I'm Black American, and over the past few years, I've continued to analyze what the American Flag means to me. Especially considering the growth in extremism post-Trump-presidency and those extremists using the American Flag against people of color to say they're the real Americans.

I explained to Associate Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University, Dr. Grant Silva, the challenge I had with the excessive display of the American Flag.

During a road trip with my friend to another friend's wedding in Springfield, Illinois, we stopped for gas in this small town where American Flags lined businesses along the street we were driving down.

"And both of us were like, "Yeah, we need to hurry up and leave. And I thought about it like, 'why did we feel like that?'" Powell says.

Black people for generations have dealt with tension with the American flag. Our feelings were nothing new. But I asked Silva what he thought and he says he's had similar experiences.

Silva told me a story of traveling with his family to his grandfather-in-law's childhood home in Chippewa Falls and stopping at a gas station in Eau Claire on the way.

"I remember seeing stickers that said something similar to like ‘Immigrant Hunting License,’ and it had like a target and the image of people crossing — like the sign, the signage that they use to signify that people may be crossing a border like family, a family crossing," Silva says.

"That kind of imagery, pointing a gun at these individuals, and I remember thinking as a Mexican American, how safe am I in this particular gas station when this signage like this — these are stickers being sold, right?" Silva says.

Silva says he also understands the anxiety I had surrounded by excessive American Flags.

"I also get a little bit anxious around the excessive imagery of the flag in part because in my experience, patriotism quickly slips into nationalism," Silva says. "Especially the simplistic version of patriotism, the flag waving, my country love it or leave it kind of attitude. That is just a hop, skip and a jump away from becoming nationalism."

Silva adds, "As much as I would like to see the flag displayed in a proud manner, it all too quickly takes on the stakes that, as a non-white person, can mean a lot, right? It can mean a sense of inclusion or exclusion. A sense of belonging or the ascription of perpetual foreigner, perpetual outsider status; that that flag is not for me unless I'm willing to abide by the assimilatory paradigm that some of these individuals that you're talking about tend to put forward."

I told Silva he makes a good point: That people of color often have to assimilate and give up some part of their racial or ethnic heritage to be seen as true Americans.

"Go all the way back to, you know, W.E.B Dubois's Of our Spiritual Strivings. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, he says, in his language: I'm a Negro and an American, and I don't want to bleach the Negro or Black in America. I want to be both at the same time," Silva says.

Silva thinks about his own experience.

"It wasn't the color line that was causing this difference, right, but it was the imagery of the border. And so we see the border when we see certain individuals that don't fit the meaning of what it means to be an American," Silva says. "And so, for me, it was those ascriptions of difference that I continuously had throughout my childhood and early days of adulthood that kind of reinforced this perspective that, well, in order to belong here, I would have to pay the price in a sense, I would have to assimilate."

Silva says he can imagine a better sense of national belonging when the nation incorporates different kinds of people into the mix — when they can see themselves in the recomposition of the whole.


Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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