During a three-hour drive through the disastrous Bombay highways, my mom relayed the story of her citizenship ceremony. My parents became American citizens in 2005, but it came at a cost: They had to renounce their Indian citizenship. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played in the courthouse, my mom grew misty-eyed as an integral aspect of her identity was replaced by that of a post-9/11 country where she felt uncomfortable wearing her cultural clothing in public. My sister and I exchanged glances of confusion as my mom continued by explaining that the Indian national anthem brought on a wave of patriotism in her, even today. Neither of us could imagine feeling so tied to our home country, nor the feeling of loss when unclasping yourself from your roots.
I primarily think of myself as American. I was born less than 20 minutes from the University of Michigan campus and spent my childhood in small towns across Michigan. This is my home, and it always will be.
Nevertheless, the feeling of intense patriotism that my mom feels for the place she was born has never resonated with me. At football games, I stand up out of respect for others and fear of retribution, not necessarily for the flag or because I feel the loyalty that sweeps the crowds. This country was not made for or by myself or my ancestors.
It’s possible that this lack of patriotism is generational. Only 32% of millennials believe that the United States is the greatest country in the world — a 16% drop from Generation X. Thus, it stands to reason that Generation Z would be even less patriotic than every previous generation. However, in America, Gen Z’s lack of patriotism may be due to its greater racial and ethnic diversity, as well as the higher number of immigrant families.
Or, perhaps the growing criticism of the U.S.’s policies and institutions has contributed to a decreased sense of national pride. Nevertheless, it seems counterproductive to assimilation that a first-generation American like myself would feel such a deep disconnect with this increasingly diverse, melting pot of the world.
Many would consider a lack of patriotism to be a fault of myself, my parents or even my education. Patriots are seen as the backbone of the country, the lifeblood of government and the basis for national pride. Naturally, patriotic sentiment has long been intertwined with wanting a country to succeed. Since the Cold War, patriotism has been considered necessary to be a true American. It was a tool to distinguish between those who belong in America and those who were threats.
However, this crude, outdated idea of patriotism fails to recognize that it is no longer a dichotomy, but rather a spectrum of ideas about how people interact with their country and with their fellow citizens. Patriotism no longer has any bearing on who does or doesn’t belong in America and shouldn’t be used as any measure of worth for an American.
Over the past few years, members of my generation have had their eyes opened to the misdeeds of the U.S. It has become increasingly apparent that the financial freedom and “family values” for which America was once revered by its people were actually tools of oppression, designed to only uplift certain groups of people — namely wealthy white people.
As people have come to these realizations, there have been calls for change across the country. But political parties on both sides of the aisle have co-opted patriotism as the way to restore unity to the country, which has only led to increased polarization as Republicans and Democrats alike believe that their definition of patriotism is the correct one. This tool of division is only doing what it was intended to do, and intense feelings of patriotism have not helped in restoring any sense of unity.
Without this overwhelming allegiance clouding our collective vision, we would be able to look at this country through a more objective lens. Our love for this nation would be defined only by virtue of this being our home, the place where we have chosen to build our lives and not by some sense of American exceptionalism. Criticism of U.S. institutions and policies would be more poignant, and sensible foreign ideals might be able to permeate our unnecessarily thick skin.
As a first-generation American, I am somewhere in the middle of the vast spectrum of patriotism. I see this country for what it is, but moreover, for what it can be. My parents came to this country for a better life, for education and for the promise of a bright future.
And as an American, I am deeply invested in helping this country reach its full potential, regardless of my apparent lack of patriotic sentiment. I would not die for this country as it is now; I probably wouldn’t even mildly inconvenience myself for it.
But I would die to make it better.
Mrinalini Iyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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