Despite growing up in a Midwestern, quintessential American small town in Ohio, I have never felt deeply connected to the term patriot. Don’t get me wrong — while I have not always been proud of our country, I know truly wonderful people and have always felt a deep love for the United States. But when it comes to the word patriot, my experience has been neutral at best, and of late, downright negative. Why?
My first association with the word patriot — old white men in wigs — comes from my elementary school history textbooks. I don’t remember those books ever describing the Black reconstructionists who brought so many positive changes after the Civil War as patriots or the women (including Black women) who fought for equal rights in the early 1900s. That word was used exclusively for the founding fathers, and since I wasn’t a founding father it left me wondering: did this mean I wasn’t a patriot?
My next clear memory of the term patriot did not come up until my sophomore year of college with 9/11 and the subsequent passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. Each year on the anniversary of 9/11, I see posts that say, “Let’s remember who we were on 9/12 — we were all Americans.” And that certainly felt true at the time as our country came together. Unfortunately, as is often the case in times of fear and uncertainty, we retreat to what is familiar and comfortable — and in this country, our default is so often division and othering based on race. We saw stereotyping and fearmongering around people from the Middle East, not only informally, but also formally through something explicitly aligned with the word patriot: The PATRIOT Act. I didn’t believe part of our response to 9/11 should be to make racial profiling easier for government and law enforcement agencies. It left me wondering, did this mean I wasn’t a patriot?
More recently and most prominently though, I saw and heard the term patriot being associated with Donald Trump and his supporters. They used the guise of patriotism to spread lies about President Barack Obama’s citizenship. They used patriotism to justify keeping up statues and flags that celebrate our history of slavery and racism. They used patriotism to claim the right to own and carry military assault weapons. They used patriotism to defend storming the U.S. Capitol and endangering public officials. The list goes on and on. But, different from times past, their actions didn’t leave me wondering if I was a patriot — they prompted me to actively dissociate from the term and from those people claiming the identity.
But here’s the thing: that’s absolutely the wrong way to go about this. I had a lightbulb moment two years ago in a conversation with my best friend. Why did we let someone else define patriot? Why does the right wing get to define patriotism and claim the label? My answer now: they don’t. Period. Those of us defending this country from enemies and detractors, foreign and domestic, are patriots. Those of us who want this country to live up to and exceed its ideals are patriots. We are the patriots, and we are taking the title back.
You can learn more about Kate McMahon and the movement to reclaim patriotism, Patriots Believe, here.
Join Patriots Believe & DemCast USA in our effort to reclaim our flag and the honor of being called a patriot.
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Image by Frank McKenna on Unsplash
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