Posted by: Trina | June 28, 2008

Michelle Obama and the European Soccer Championships

What the heck do these two things have to do with one another you ask? Do the Obama daughters play soccer on their schools team (making Michelle a ‘soccer mom’) or is one of them working on a special project about international sports for school?

To be honest, I have no idea if the girls play soccer. This comparison came to me – in a very roundabout way, I admit – from listening to Rush Limbaugh‘s show on the radio. Before you click the ‘X’ to run – not walk – from this post (which is exactly what I normally do when I read that name anywhere on the web), let me explain that while I’m cooking or cleaning up the kitchen I often listen to the channel AFN SHAPE as well as NPR are broadcast on here in Europe. So, depending on the time, I sometimes inadvertantly – and briefly – run into Mr. Limbaugh and his fans.

On the specific evening in question, I was on my way over to the kitchen table to grab the radio’s remote control when an older female caller vehemently stressed how ‘physically sick’ she gets when she even thinks about Michelle Obama’s statement that ‘for once’ in her adult life she was actually proud of her country. This isn’t the first time this sentiment has been expressed, be it conservative politicians or pundits or simple folks from the so-called ‘American heartland’?

Am I really the only one who gets it?

Americans are certainly not the only folks with a pinch of knee-jerk patriotism in their blood – as anyone watching any of the games leading up to the upcoming European Championship match between Germany and Spain tomorrow night can attest. All throughout Germany – a country that has struggled mightily with its own understanding of patriotism since the last World War – German flags are on display in front of houses, on t-shirt and flying from the antennas of cars with a lightheartedness that wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. I’m sure the sight was pretty similar when it comes to flags flying proudly in (add nation of your choice), too.

Many immigrants in Germany have gracefully bridged the gap between pride in their countries of origin and loyalty to their present home on this particular occasion by simply flying both flags to show support for both teams. When Germany beat out Poland in the qualifying matches, Lukas Podolski (a proud and successful member of the German national team who scored a goal that night) won the hearts of many when – at the end of the game – he jumped into the stands to greet and hugs his family and friends from Poland. Lukas Podolski – and team mate Miroslav Klose – both seem to have found a balance between being German and being Polish that wins over large portions of both audiences.

The question – both concerning Michelle Obama and immigrant finding the right balance when it comes to who to root for – isn’t when your loyalty towards the place where you live (versus the place where you are from ) become more than just a strategically polite gesture. The real question is: When does the loyalty shown to you by those institutions and people in your new home become genuine and unquestioned?

This was most poignantly obvious when Germany was due to square off with Turkey for a place in the finals. One of the Turkish players was actually born and raised right here in Gelsenkirchen, and had played on the same team as three of the German national players. The Turkish team had come back hard against adversity earlier on in the tournament. Their two last minute turnarounds (both played in the pouring rain) will surely go down in history as being some of the most exciting football of the tournament.

Many of the ‘talking heads’ on German TV, however,  were patronizing when it came to Turkey’s chances (though the Germans hadn’t exactly been playing stellar ball). In the press and in beer gardens around the country, the issues complicating the relationship between Germany and Turkey (what some consider failed integration of Turkish immigrants, EU membership for Turkey, rising islamification of immigrants ) were mostly skirted around. Most people chose to either ignore the underlying potential for tension or play it up in such a camp way that the discussion lent nothing to serious discourse. But maybe that’s ok, and they were right to focus their attention on sports.

After coming on strong right from the beginning of the match, Turkey went on to lose to German with a very honorable 3-2 score.

Michelle Obama, in my opinion, was reacting to something that is for many (not only black) Americans a very tangible contradiction. Americans are expected to be ultra-patriotic. Unquestioningly so. We are raised to believe we are the biggest and the best, and this chant goes on inside our collective heads no matter what world affairs and national economics may say to disprove the squeaky clean imagery. Americans expect other Americans to do as they do; i.e. ignore all the contradictions between what America actually stands for and what Americans – as individual or subgroups – really experience on a day-to-day basis: racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

Speaking as a black person I can say this: Given the strained history of blacks in America, it often takes a whole lot of goodwill on one part (ours) and almost none on the other (‘mainstream’ white America) for blacks to be proud of America as it is. Sure, we can be proud of the idea of America. But how can you expect us to be unconditionally proud of a country where overt racism – both institutional and individual – is part of the fabric of which this country is made? Although many white Americans wonder out loud what they have to do with the issue of slavery, black Americans know all too well that we don’t have to look back into the 19th century to put our finger into a putrid national wound. Ask the mother of Sean Bell‘s children.

Are there exceptions to the rule? More and more each day! That doesn’t (and shouldn’t) gloss over the fact that America still has a very long way to go (on both sides!) if the rift between the races can ever be expected to truly heal.

Instead of castigating Michelle Obama for having the audacity to speak the truth, America should be applauding her honesty – as well as our collective progress. Because what made Michelle Obama proud that day is something that should make us all – as Americans – proud, too.

We’ve effectively moved one step further from the truth Langston Hughes expressed in his poem, ‘Children’s Rhymes’ –


    By what sends
    the white kids
    I ain’t sent:
    I know I can’t
    be President.
    What don’t bug
    them white kids
    sure bugs me:
    We know everybody
    ain’t free.

    Lies written down
    for white folks
    ain’t for us a-tall:
    Liberty And Justice
    Huh! For All?

– and one step closer to what Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned in his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.

And, yes, for once I was proud, too, Michelle!


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