Wednesday, February 20, 2008

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Michelle Obama: Not on the Spirit Team

"Hope is making a comeback and, let me tell you, for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change."
--Michelle Obama at a rally for her husband, presidential candidate, Barack Obama
Mainstream liberals and conservatives are in a tizzy about what Michelle Obama said. Now, I find the oaths to religion and hyper-patriotism that we require from political leaders (and their spouses) to be unproductive. But that aside, is it wrong to not be proud of one's country?
Proud: adj highly pleased, exultant
--Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Despite her many achievements, Michelle Obama is still a black woman in America. And here is what Americans too often forget: marginalized groups, perhaps especially black people, have a different relationship with this country than mainstream men and women. Our histories are different. We are prone to seeing and experiencing the worst of what the country has to offer. We have scars from times when our country and its people have not loved us. We care about America and many of us would never live anywhere else, but pride is sometimes elusive.
If America was high school, mainstream folks would be the spirit team, proudly wearing varsity jackets and class rings, painting their faces and screaming on the side lines at the big football game. The jocks and cheerleaders and popular kids--they get the best out of the high school experience. It is made for them. And they are proud. We marginalized people, we're not usually on the spirit team. We're more like the barely-tolerated goths and chess nerds. High school is not meant for us. We don't fit; we're outcasts. We cheer when our team wins, but our love is not fervent; it is tempered with reality. We know the side of high school that no one wants to talk about--the hypocrisy, the unfairness, the favoritism for some, the ostracizing of those who don't fit in.
If your parents were not allowed to vote until 1965, would you feel pride in your country? If your grandparents were rounded up into interment camps during World War II, would you feel pride in your country? If you and your partner were treated like second class citizens and not allowed to marry, would you feel pride in your country? If your people were the victims of genocide and forced relocation, would you feel pride in your country? If people on the street shouted "terrorist" at you after 9/11, would you feel pride in your country? If the governor stood at the door of a public school to keep your mother or father out, would you have pride in your country? If you were frequently stopped by police for driving a nice car while being the wrong color, would you have pride in your country? If all you knew of the American Dream was minimum wage and no health insurance, would you feel pride in your country?
Some might answer these questions with a negative. These people may not feel "highly pleased and exultant," but does that mean that they are bad Americans? Is Michelle Obama a bad American? Am I?
I do not know if I can call what I feel for my country "pride." I know that I care about America deeply, probably more than it cares about me as a black woman. I know that while the idea of living in another country for a while sounds exciting, I can't imagine being anything but an American. I believe strongly in America's founding principles, but I know that my country too often fails to live up to them. And that makes me disappointed and angry. I know America can do better. And I am a good citizen, so I am committed to helping the country right its wrongs. I am vocal. I am involved. I vote. Isn't that better than pride?

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