On a cross country road trip from Michigan to Arizona, I passed a sign that left me lost in thought for half of Missouri and most of Oklahoma. The sign read, “I’m proud to be an American. If you’re not, get out.” I pondered what message the person responsible for this billboard was trying to send, but I could not come up with any rational explanation that wasn’t laden in bigotry.
I understand that my thoughts on this may be controversial, but please hear me out. Oxford defines proud as “feeling deep pleasure or satisfaction as a result of one’s own achievements, qualities, or possessions or those of someone with whom one is closely associated.” I would argue that most of us in America should feel lucky to be American, not proud. Most of us are civilians who were lucky enough to be born here and we, personally, did not have to do anything to earn that right. We were born in a country where we are free and do not have to worry about things like access to running water and education. We should not feel pride in a privilege that was granted to us simply by being born. We should feel pride in our personal achievements, in the way we treat others, in the quality of our character- not in our privileges. I am not saying none of us should be proud- veterans who fight for our country have every right to feel proud, but most of us are not veterans. Most of us are simply lucky.
My second problem with this billboard is that there is a tendency for Americans to forget our history. I would bet my entire life savings that the person responsible for this billboard is White. If I am correct in that assumption, I would remind this person that Whites are not native to America any more than elephants are native to Australia. Coming from another White person, let’s not forget that we were once immigrants- how different would our lives look now if the Irish and the British and the French were made to “get out?”
I hope I am wrong in my assumptions of this ardent patriot. Unfortunately, living in small town America, I receive daily reminders that those who are most patriotic are often the least tolerant. Of course, it is possible to be both, but the people who shout patriotism and lack empathy and tolerance tend to be the loudest. Let this serve as a reminder that while we may not always be the loudest, there are those of us that know we are lucky to be American. Let’s take the teachings we learned in kindergarten and invite the new kids to the playground. When we practice empathy and tolerance, our eyes open to a whole new world.