Not My AmericaPatriotism, Thanksgiving, and White Erasure

One year ago, a strange thing happened in circles of white liberals: Being a patriot became a symbol of capital-R Resistance. Some on the left believe that it’s possible, and perhaps even imperative, to reclaim patriotism: “Not in MY America,” they say, referring to the Trump administration’s latest travesty. In a suddenly “woke” nation where everyone knows the Flag Code; regularly checks the Congressional Budget Office website for the costs of the latest GOP tax or health bill; and exhorts people to vote on Election Day, the question of what patriotism is—and whether it can be repurposed to suit specific leftist ideals—is more important than ever.

The question of “whose America is it?” is also particularly relevant as millions of Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday built upon a mythology of good food and fellowship, but is rooted in sanitized colonialism and nationalism. Thanksgiving is as much assertion of white dominance and power as it is turkey and stuffing. We tell ourselves that it’s possible to recover something good—community and love—out of something bad, and that Thanksgiving represents a period of rare national unity, the much-vaunted “common ground.” Thanksgiving looks much the same across the U.S., with friends and family cooking, eating, and arguing around the table. Surely this makes it ripe for building a new vision of American patriotism rooted in speaking truth to racist uncles and embracing our trans family members?

But it’s built upon a rotten foundation. At times, the swelling resistance also believe that it is possible to make something good out of something bad. Mainstream iterations of “the resistance” are fundamentally rooted in the idea that the United States is an entity worth salvaging, that we are able to do so by working within the system, and that there is an ethical mandate to take part.

Columbus Day marchElection Day 2017’s coast-to-coast progressive landslide, in which Democratic voters turned out in force to elect trans people, refugees, immigrants, women of color, Sikhs, and other marginalized communities historically shut out of U.S. politics, is being held up as an example of the power of reclaimed patriotism. Some victorious candidates were relative political newbies driven by a desire to “take our country back” after the 2016 election, aided by organizations like Run for Something, Flippable, She Should Run, Swing Left, Indivisible, and Emerge America. Voters didn’t just elect a slate of seemingly unlikely candidates: They took governorships, wrested away control of historically Republican districts, and clearly terrified the Republican establishment. If they can continue this momentum in 2018, America’s political landscape may undergo a radical shift that doesn’t pander to the center.

The resistance can win,” said NPR politics editor Domenico Montanaro while sentiments like “This feels like the America I remember” circulated on Twitter. But this simplistic attitude belies the fact that the United States is a complicated place filled with hundreds of years of bloody history and oppression. The very idea that voting is an expression of patriotism and duty is loaded in a country where six million Americans are disenfranchised by felony convictions. De jure suspensions of voting rights also affect disabled people, minors, and those living in states with aggressive voter ID laws, all designed to target people of color, disabled people, and low-income communities. Voting feels more like a privilege than a right in this climate, where people are told: “You can’t complain if you didn’t vote,” as though voting is the only way to participate in the civic process.

To say this resembles “the America I remember” is an expression of privilege—the United States is unjust now, and it always has been unjust. Better perhaps to say “this is a glimmer of the America I think could be.” The tremendous gains on election night shouldn’t be understated; the diverse community leaders and candidates from marginalized communities who fought hard and won aren’t tokens, window dressing, or anything to make light of, nor should we underestimate the changes they will work to implement. But this very mainstreamed, reactive, limited “resistance” cannot be the only form of political action. As progressives celebrate a major electoral victory and look to the future, they need to ask themselves whose America they’re working for. Newly anointed patriots use language of reclamation when they should perhaps be using a language of defiance, and those who want to “reclaim” the U.S. should consider whose land they are standing on. Collective national identities like those being championed by the resistance slip all too easily into nationalist flag-waving and a concentration of power in the hands of the few.

Danica Roem, Andrea Jenkins, and Wilmot CollinsFrom left to right: Danica Roem, Andrea Jenkins, and Wilmot Collins (Photos courtesy of Facebook, MCAD, and KTVH)

Arguments that “identity politics” would prove too divisive were what drove the mainstream left toward the middle in the first place; now, the resistance wants to say it’s a collective built on identity politics, drawing strength from perceived weakness, but this newfound embrace still excludes those who don’t fit the “resistance” agenda. The cooption of the work of Black women as “the work of the resistance,” for example, overlooks decades of praxis and struggle in the name of presenting a united front. And some voices are notably underrepresented in the very public face of the resistance, including those with the deepest roots in North America-as-place: Indigenous people. There is something deeply problematic in the proud assertions of patriotism and national pride coming from those who wish to “take our country back” while ignoring the fact that the colonized land now known as the United States belonged to no one before, though Indigenous people did inhabit it and act as stewards, and the country was founded on theft and murder. If anyone has a right to “take our country back,” it’s those same Indigenous peoples, who are still living in North America.

The United States is a victim of its own exceptionalism. The nation’s origin myth starts with the shaky assertion that Christopher Columbus arrived, found a mostly empty continent, and did a great service by colonizing it. The spread of Europeans across the Americas came at tremendous cost to the Indigenous communities that had been living there for thousands of years, and yet they’re squeezed out of history save for a few notable exceptions. There’s the “first Thanksgiving” myth, with a good-hearted crew of noble savages helping some Europeans learn to thrive on their freshly stolen land. Or the legends surrounding Matoaka, a Powhatan woman who, after being held captive and forced to convert to Christianity, was paraded on a grand tour of England—you may know her better as “Pocahontas.”

Even as the United States prides itself on shaking off the yoke of the English in 1776, it neatly ignores the fact that those bold patriots who assembled to forge a new nation (with voting rights for land-owning white men) did so with enslaved people in their kitchens and on their plantations. That the nation was founded by slavers and rapists is no secret. They wrote their belief that enslaved people are only worth 3/5 of a person right into the sacred document that many newly fledged patriots proudly carry around in pocket form, while Thomas Jefferson’s long-term sexual exploitation of Sally Hemings is often described as a “relationship.”

Angela Peoples holding white women voted for Trump sign at the Women's MarchAngela Peoples holding white women voted for Trump sign at the Women’s March (Photo credit: Kevin Banatte, afroCHuBBZ)

A river of thinkpiece ink has been spilled on the 2016 election and how it “revealed” deep fissures in the United States—and much of it was accompanied by eyerolling from those living on the margins. Many in underrepresented groups were well aware of the tremendous social divides in the U.S., like the 93 percent of Black women voters who came out in force against Trump, in contrast with just 43 percent of their white counterparts. Similar numbers from 2017 illustrate that the work of “the resistance” at the polling place is still led by women of color, especially Black women, with whites still steadfastly voting conservative. Communities of color, Muslims, disabled people, the LGBTQ community, and many others warned about the implications of a Trump administration, but white Americans are shocked that these predictions weren’t idle speculation. 2017 has been a year of white backlash in response, and with it has come a retconning of “patriotism.”

The desire to “reclaim MY America” must be rooted in a clear definition of what “America” is—and the United States, founded on stolen land by people with hateful ideas, has never had a leadership driven to providing genuine equality. There’s no era of justice to return to, only a need to look forward, but a surprisingly large percentage of white resistors seem unable to define what “forward” means, and who will benefit from it. If the nation turns Congress blue in 2018, is that enough? If Democrats reclaim the White House in 2020, is that enough? No. It’s not: Democrats and Republicans are deeply tied into the system of national identity that had fed nationalism, exceptionalism, and isolationism. A desire to “retake” demonstrates a lack of vision on the part of the left, which should be flipping the Thanksgiving table over and taking to the streets, not taking a head-bowed “solidarity moment” before arguing about the merits of canned versus fresh cranberry sauce.

Universal single-payer healthcare, free tuition, fair taxes, and other components of a progressive platform are elements of change, but progressives are struggling to articulate the values that might guide that change, almost as though “values” are a dirty word. For years, Democrats told each other that taking a firm stance on social issues might mean “alienating the base,” which is what led to the party enthusiastically supporting anti-choice candidates, failing to pursue seats considered “safe” for the GOP, refusing to affirm that not being shot by police should be a fundamental right, and compromising on an endless stream of anemic legislation. Meanwhile, true radical solutions, like reparations and prison abolition, are still considered too dangerous for many progressives to consider. “Wait your turn,” say whites, just as they have for decades while enlisting underrepresented communities to do their work for them.

Langston Hughes America Was Never America To Me poemAmerica Was Never America To Me by Langston Hughes (Photo credit: Facebook/Jose Vilson)

Being against Trump is insufficient. Progressivism in the United States must stand on its own, rather than in an eternal state of opposition and reactivity. To react is to be forever fumbling in response, rather than cutting a decisive path through politics in the direction of meaningful change; reaction means allowing horrific things to happen and responding to them, rather than proactively preventing them. Reaction fed, for example, the backlash to the Republican health care reforms in 2017, but disabled people had been warning for years that the left needed to proactively address the serious flaws with the U.S. health care system, and the left had the tools to do so, if not the political will.

White people love Audre Lorde’s quote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” but are bent on doing just that. There is no “my America” and there never was—nor should there be. “My America” is a corrupt house of cards founded by genocidal rapists and slavers who profited from the Triangular Trade and established the systems that still squeeze every ounce of value out of the land, heedless of the cost. The bounty represented on Thanksgiving tables is laden with symbolism, but not the symbolism of family and friends—instead, it is the carcass of colonized land, picked clean by greedy fingers. Rinse, lather, repeat, pass the gravy, please.

Better to turn to Langston Hughes, who articulated the problem with #resistance in 1935 when he said: “America never was America to me.” The question is not whether the United States can be reclaimed from conservatives, but whether progressives have the vision to build a new and better iteration of a country that was, as Hughes noted, never truly free. That requires casting away American exceptionalism, admitting that we need national discomfort, and profoundly disrupting the collective mythology of the United States, led by the people who have been doing the work even in the face of oppression and appropriation—it is time, perhaps, for whites to wait their turn.

A white person with short greying hair, wearing a voluminous blue scarf.
by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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