The Hypocrisy of the American Identity
By: Arya Somashekar
Recently, our country has been in a constant state of celebration: Juneteenth, African American Music Appreciation Month, July Fourth. As people reposted Juneteenth posts on their Instagram stories, listened to Drake to honor African American musicians, and went to Fourth of July barbecues, we celebrated ignorantly — we celebrated the activity of celebration and forgot the significance and history of the events we claimed to pay homage to. And although this seems mundane, its effects are pervasive.
Take Juneteenth, for example. Juneteenth refers to a historic event that took place two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in the Confederacy, and six months after the passage of the 13th Amendment, which prohibited slavery nationally. Juneteenth memorializes June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Texas finally discovered the truth hidden from them that they were emancipated — that the freedom they fought and died for was finally in their hands.
When people posted online about Juneteenth and then forgot about it, they engaged in performance activism: the act of engaging in superficial activism due to trendiness instead of a real dedication and awareness to a cause. In doing so, they treated Juneteenth — a day commemorating the pain of the Black community for having generations of their families and children enslaved, dehumanized and stripped of their fundamental rights and human decency — as the new Gen Z trend. On one hand, the widespread awareness and discourse that social media has brought to the current civil rights movement is remarkable in its capability for social change. However, people should go beyond performance activism and engage with social issues on a deeper level for true meaning and impact. In order to do so, it’s also important to understand where performance activism comes from.
In many cases like posting about Juneteenth, performance activism doesn’t stem from apathy but from genuine empathy. On the other hand, performance activism also takes the form of false patriotism and stems from ignorance. Many people champion American values but actively ignore and shut down conversations addressing the inequality and racism that run rampant in our country. By employing patriotism, they try to justify their ignorant behavior, claiming they are being loyal to America by refraining from speaking ill of it. This normalized misconception that to be critical of our country is to be anti-patriotic is not only shallow but also detrimental, since deflecting racism directly allows for systemic oppression to perpetuate, reinforcing white supremacy. But going further, we cannot cherry-pick what it means to be American. We cannot claim America’s individualistic values of universal freedom, equality, and liberty as our own if we cannot claim accountability for America’s racist past and present as our own.
So although being American is often associated with valuing freedom, what does America’s promise of freedom truly mean to us? What does freedom mean to a country that strangles a man who plays violin in the cat shelter, shoots an EMT in her own home and strangles a father to death while he chants “I can’t breathe?” What does justice mean to a country that convicts Black families before they even step into a courtroom? And most of all, what does equality mean to a country that by continuing to dehumanize Black Americans — by refusing to truly change its system — betrays that Black lives have never mattered and still don’t? When 7-year-old Gianna Floyd asks why her daddy didn’t come home as he promised, will America tell her that George was free like we promised?
The question then is not what freedom and equality mean to America, but if universal freedom and equality have ever transcended our imagination. Have they ever gone past being abstract values that Americans strive to live by and become concrete cultural practices embedded in our society and social institutions? I believe that the answer to that is no, because if we are not all free, then none of us are free. Essentially, America practices performance activism: it superficially preaches liberty and equality to feign moral superiority but rejects these values in practice. There’s a recurrent pattern between the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence and proclaiming equality only for affluent, white men to the current waves of new Black voter suppression laws and the ban on teaching Black American history and oppression in the South: America has always been torn between its dichotomy of equality and inequality.
Therefore, at the very core of the American identity is an inherent sense of hypocrisy. We all believe in the intrinsic value of equality and crave to fix social issues out of love for our country due to our shared desire to live up to America’s iconic values. However, despite this, we can never transcend our own self interests and implement the necessary systemic changes that would rid America of its racism and inequality. Our ironic identity crisis stems from the fact that we are a country of freedom fighters: we yearn to be free but are incapable of committing to freedom. To be American is to be a hypocrite.
But, we are only a country of hypocrites if that’s all we choose to ever be. So I implore you: choose to do something greater and be a part of something greater. If you truly care about social issues, go beyond performance activism and engage with issues more deeply: volunteer in your community, attend protests or work with a nonprofit. If you don’t have the time, do the smaller things that matter when you can: standing up to an injustice in front of you, voting in both local and national elections, and keeping yourself educated on current events and our history. Regardless of your choice, just remember that you and your actions matter: we are what we choose to become.