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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Explaining citizenship, racism, and patriotism to the young

“Daddy,” my daughter started as we ate breakfast three weeks ago, “What’s Independence Day?”

“July Fourth, the anniversary of when the United States, our country, was founded.”

“The parade where they throw candy?”


“Why do we wear red, white, and blue on Independence Day?”

“It’s a custom,” I told her. She has heard this term plenty of times, usually followed by society.

“Everyone else will be wearing it.”

“That’s right, and it’s fun.” And performing patriotism is an important skill to develop as a person of color, especially in a predominantly white state like Wisconsin. To indicate you’re a citizen.

“And they throw candy!” she cheered, then started to recount the process of collecting, gathering, and eating candy in simple terms put together in a way I barely understood. Her nouns and verbs stumbled over each other like sandal-clad feet dashing too far into the street for a Tootsie Pop. I nodded, “Uh-huh,” and returned to eating. I wondered if she was too young for this conversation, and remembered just how old she was. I wanted to clarify that it’s not that we were aspiring to be like the majority. Nor that we wanted to be the Model Minority, showing off our success in comparison to African Americans. These points would lead to a series of “whys” and my having to explain that we were vulnerable to prejudice, regardless. Acting all-American didn’t necessarily work for Muslim-looking shop owners who hung flags in their front windows after September 11. It didn’t necessarily work for Felix Longoria, or other minorities in uniform who returned (dead or alive) to the same racism they left. It didn’t work for Takao Ozawa, who believed that converting to Christianity, speaking English, and American schooling qualified him for citizenship. And it didn’t work for Homer Plessy, who made clear to that Louisiana train conductor that he was a colored person, and that he was a U.S. citizen. Through Henry Billings Brown’s majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court responded, “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences.”

On Independence Day we celebrate that our national, secular rhetoric has promised equality. But the authors of our founding documents qualified its applicability, especially when considering race. The Naturalization Act of 1790, the United States’ first law dictating who could achieve citizenship, stipulated that aliens must live in the country for two years, take an oath of support for the Constitution, possess a good character, and be a free white person. These criteria excluded indentured servants, slaves, free blacks, and American Indians. Women gained citizenship through their white fathers but, without property or the ability to vote, their status was secondary. This narrow conception of citizenship favored one segment of society. More important, it set a standard for future newcomers to attain or challenge.

Frederick Douglass as a young man. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Frederick Douglass as a young man. Engraved by J.C. Buttre from daguerretotyppe. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The nation’s first census took place the same year, with local marshals surveying heads of households in the 13 states and the districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and Tennessee. The survey resulted in a population of nearly 3.9 million: 3,140,000 free whites, 694,000 slaves, and 59,000 free nonwhite people. Eighty percent of the nation was white. Our forefathers imagined that the country would remain so, and their decisions established a status quo in regard to race and citizenship. Because of their solipsism, whiteness, privilege, and citizenship bound to each other; white racial status was the fundamental requirement for citizenship, and non-whiteness meant subordination. For the most part, these definitions became standards for other groups who would encounter the American system until the McCarran-Walter Act began to eliminate racial barriers in 1952.

Can wearing red, white, and blue remind people they are not the only Americans? A dress with stars on top, stripes on bottom, and a big red bow lacks the words to explain this position. But hours of scouring the internet for shirts quoting Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Negro Is the Fourth of July?” produced nothing.

My daughter had stopped talking about candy by now, so I pounced on my opportunity to get some words in, “When someone tries to say you don’t belong, they’ll probably say you’re not really American. We wear patriotic gear to stop that conversation.” She looked me in the eye as my words followed each other like oxfords pacing the front of a lecture hall. They reached the edge of the stage and BASE jumped over everyone’s heads.

“Daddy, what’s patriotic?”

“A mixture of pride and dissatisfaction for your country.”

“But mostly pride?

“That’s right.” Class dismissed.

Featured image credit: USA flag by SnapwireSnaps. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.

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