Arts & Culture

Exploring the Unity and Division of Flags

Markeda Varkpeh, contributor 

While the national significance of flags is apparent, few take the time to discuss what a flag could mean for an individual. Depending on the person, a flag could represent a symbol of national pride, a grim reminder of the legacy of colonization or a connection to family heritage, with all of those meanings only further complicated by experiences of immigration or diaspora. All these perspectives on what a flag can represent was discussed in a group session held by Augsburg’s Multicultural Life staff, who used an episode from Netflix’s “Explained” documentary series about flags as a jumping-off point for an open dialogue on the subject. 

Mayra Medina-Macias (‘14), an Augsburg alumnus and the current Latinx Student Services Interim Program Director, was one of the hosts of the dialogue, and selected the topic because of its scarcity in discussions. “It’s one that I don’t think many people have stopped to think about, even though we are surrounded by flags every day,” she said. “A lot of us have never really taken the time to process what flags mean to us.”

Mexican American students expressed different sides of how they felt about flags. Some expressed that when they think of the Mexican flag, they feel a sense of pride, thinking of their culture, and especially of their families. Another student explained how the Ethiopian flag triggers a lot of emotions, reminding her of genocide. She explained how the impact of flags throughout Africa has been very impactful on her life. While some students are indifferent about the flags they see, others are triggered. A lot of people may look at the American flag and feel a sense of pride, but others might see it as a symbol of terrorism. 

However, not everyone comes from a background that is represented by a flag. Hmong people do not have a flag to represent them, causing some Hmong students to feel a mixture of emotions after watching the Netflix documentary. Additionally, there are students who don’t know which flag they identify most with. For those students, one flag might represent the country they were born in, while another flag may represent a country that uses them as political pawns. 

Hearing the experiences of other first-generation immigrant students at Augsburg made me reflect on my own relationship to the American and Liberian flags, never truly feeling a sense of pride or belonging to either. America is a place of opportunity for some, and a system of constant limitations for others. It is comforting to know that there are students who also don’t feel a sense of pride when they see the American flag. On the other hand, it was eye-opening to realize that there were students who don’t think twice about the American flag. 

Medina-Macias’s takeaways from the dialogue communicated just how important it is to critically reflect about flags. “It’s good to know their history and why they evoke certain feelings,” she said. “There are flags that bring us feelings of belonging, pride, or acceptance. There are also flags that bring feelings of fear, anger, or unacceptance. Although for each one of us those flags may be different, I think most of us have at least one that we identify with.”

Flags can be strong ideological markers and they can unite or divide us, and a person’s relationship with their flags is deeply individual. Flags can mean completely different things to different people; they can be both powerful and dangerous. We must not forget that although our experiences may be different, we are all unified.