Ten ways of looking at the American flag, from around the globe

A sea of meanings.
A sea of meanings.
Image: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
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The American flag is a potent image, a symbol that triggers strong feelings around the world, both positive and negative. 

Just ask Nike, which this week had to pull a Fourth-of-July-themed sneaker from store shelves after complaints from its own endorser, Colin Kaepernick. The 13-star version of the flag featured on the shoes’ back, from the 1770s, harks back to a time of slavery, critics pointed out.

The 50-state version of the Stars and Stripes, on its own, is somewhat less divisive in the US itself. In a country as diverse as the US, it has emerged as a rallying point, a cornerstone of American identity that transcends political affiliation, says Graham Bartram, chief vexillologist at the Flag Institute, a London-based group devoted to the study of flags. 

“A flag’s design is much less important than you think it is,” he tells Quartz. “What’s on the flag is irrelevant. It’s how the people feel about the flag that’s important.”

Just as some Americans put their flag on their beloved pie or mow it into their yard, others choose to burn it.

The American flag elicits similarly contradictory feelings worldwide. In preparation for the Fourth of July, we gathered a variety of perspectives on the Red, White, and Blue from around the world.

(Comments have been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.)

Karuna Nundy
Karuna Nundy
Image: Courtesy Karuna Nundy

Karuna Nundy, 43

Occupation Supreme Court lawyer

Lives in Delhi, India

Nationality Indian

When I see the American flag, the first thing I think about is Jasper Johns’s image of it. I also think about the right to burn it, set out by the US Supreme Court. That is very much what the United States has stood for quite strongly. I think of a country that I have loved and is the only other country where I am qualified to practice law.

At the same time, it also brings to my mind the xenophobia exemplified in the ICE detention centers, and the fact that there are teenagers taking care of toddlers who don’t have soap to wash with. It brings to mind the kind of racism and the kind of destruction of truth and progressive policy that is sometimes carried out in the name of the flag.

The flag also reminds me of when I was living in New York around 9/11, and the Afghan restaurant around the corner felt compelled to carry the American flag, and a Sikh gas station owner was shot because he looked like Osama Bin Laden to the person who was shooting him. It reminds me of making a young brown friend who was traveling to Chicago University stick a flag on her backpack.—as told to Annalisa Merelli

Kit Hinrichs
Kit Hinrichs
Image: © Studio Hinrichs

Kit Hinrichs, 77

Occupation Graphic designer, flag collector and author of Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag

Lives in San Francisco, California

Nationality American

The American flag is a very powerful icon, partly because of its use worldwide and its historical significance. Our flag has been made and interpreted by the people of this country for 200 years. It’s the only flag to my knowledge that had change built into it. It evolved every time a state was added. The actual look of the flag–the number of stars, the shape of the stars, the proportion of the canton—was up for grabs for the first 150 years. I think the idea of an evolving flag captures who we are as a country. We’re always changing and evolving; we’re never finished.

As a citizen, I’m very much concerned with what we’re doing as a country and its effect on how our symbol is perceived. Recently I’ve been a little bit more distraught about that, but it never takes away from what I think are our basic values. I still have faith in what the flag fundamentally stands for.—as told to Anne Quito

Tyra Miller
Tyra Miller
Image: Courtesy of Tyra Miller

Tyra Miller, 22

Occupation Web designer

Lives in Lagos, Nigeria

Nationality Nigerian

The US flag represents freedom. A country that allows its citizens to live their truth with no restrictions. A country where its people can be whoever and whatever they want, and the law gives equal rights and a level playing ground to everyone regardless of gender, race, religion—unless youʻre an illegal immigrant!

The US flag also means opportunities and a lot of money! Most of my highest paying clients as a web designer have been US clients. The economy is so diversified. With all my skills I often daydream about how rich I would be if I was American or lived in America.

The American flag represents solidarity. Americans are so loyal to the flag, it rubs off on immigrants.

I believe it has a lot to do with how well Americans citizens are treated—just look at all those welfare benefits! Who wouldn’t want to be American?—as told to Yomi Kazeem

Michel Combastet
Michel Combastet
Image: Courtesy of Carole Nehme

Michel Combastet, 90

Occupation Retired wine merchant and scientific researcher

Lives in Paris, France

Nationality French

We lived through the days of May 1944, with the arrival of French troops, and then American troops. It was an enormous joy. We were very, very grateful for what America had done at that moment, because we didn’t imagine it was possible.

I had nothing for or against the American flag. For me, it was the symbol of America, and I had a lot of sympathy for America at the time, with some reservations. I was very happy to meet and befriend Americans.

I went to the US for a much more important visit 20 years later. I bought a property in Maryland, where I cultivated corn and soy. I never settled there but I would go once or twice a year for 35 years. There, I had the opportunity to meet many very nice Americans with whom I’ve kept good relations.

There are two things that I do not like at all about the United States: The number of monopolies that impose their laws…and the separation, which existed less at the end of the war because everyone was in solidarity. Now, there are lots of divisions that upset me between Americans.—as told to Annabelle Timsit

Joey Ayoub
Joey Ayoub
Image: Courtesy of Joey Ayoub

Joey Ayoub, 28

Occupation Researcher, journalist, founder Hummus for Thought blog

Lives in Beirut and Edinburgh

Nationality Lebanese

Just this morning, I was reading this story of a father and his little girl who drowned in a river on the US-Mexico border. And it reminded me of this inherent contradiction that always exists when I see the US flag and how it is represented.

Many see the US flag as terrible, as a sign of hypocrisy, of violence. Others see the flag as something that is inclusive—that can represent unity of some form. The fascinating thing for me about American symbols especially, but probably the American flag in particular, is how inclusive it can be. The potential of its inclusivity.

I grew up in the wake of the September 11 attacks and then the invasion of Iraq, and so, for me, the American flag was this symbol of domination. This is obviously in stark contrast to how I hear Americans talk about the American flag—or even newly arrived migrants in America. In that way, it is very much a symbol of contrast. It can be both black and white at the same time. It has all values embedded within it at the same time, which makes it a powerful symbol.

It’s like somebody is hitting you with one hand and with the other telling you to come over. It’s both welcoming and abusive at the same time. It’s this kind of very weird contradiction.—as told to Adam Rasmi

Yarimar Bonilla
Yarimar Bonilla
Image: Courtesy of Yarimar Bonilla

Yarimar Bonilla, 44

Occupation Political anthropologist

Residence Brooklyn, New York

Nationality Puerto Rican

When asked to think about the US flag from the perspective of Puerto Rico, the first thing that comes to mind are the lyrics of a popular song that says “la estrella de mi bandera no cabe en la americana”—the star in the Puerto Rican flag doesn’t fit in the American flag. It’s meant literally, because the star in the Puerto Rican flag is very big compared to the smaller stars that are in the US flag. But it also speaks to the fact that many Puerto Ricans feel they don’t necessarily fit within the US as a whole, and that there is something about Puerto Rico that is unique, that sets it apart from the rest of the United States. For many, it’s hard to imagine full integration as one of the 50 stars represented in the US flag.

In Puerto Rico, at different times there have been so-called “guerras de banderas” or “battles of the flags”, where nationalist activists will put up the Puerto Rican flag and then pro-statehood activists will put up the US flag in return. The different flags have become symbols of how Puerto Rico is imagined, how its political relationship understood. When I look at the US flag, what I see is a symbol of contention. It doesn’t invoke nationhood or belonging, but rather conflict over identity and over the place of Puerto Rico in the US fabric.

When I think of the US flag I think of conquest. For example, I think of the US flag on the Moon as a way of staking a claim. I also think of the question that was posed to the US Supreme Court after Puerto Rico was acquired from Spain: “Does the Constitution follow the flag?” This question suggests that there is a difference between what the Constitution represents, as a set of guarantees, and what the flag represents as a symbol of conquest.

Planting the flag is not about extending promises or guaranteeing belonging, it is about territorial possession. When I look up at the flag in Puerto Rico that is what I see: a symbol of possession.—as told to Ana Campoy

Simran Bathla
Simran Bathla
Image: Courtesy of Simran Bathla

Simran Bathla, 22

Occupation Fashion student

Lives in New Delhi

Nationality Indian

My friend’s trip to the US is scheduled for 2019’s second half, and while I am excited for her first visit there, I wonder if the country is really as sensational as Hollywood depicts.

I visited the US embassy in New Delhi for my friend’s visa interview, I saw the flags everywhere and honestly I think it’s the coolest. I wouldn’t mind the same to be printed on my clothes.”—as told to Niharika Sharma

Ivan Dougan
Ivan Dougan
Image: Courtesy of Ivan Dougan

Ivan Dougan, 27

Occupation: Sports journalist

Lives in Lagos, Nigeria

Nationality Equatorial Guinean

The American flag means hope to me. Knowing that there’s a country where I can realize my dreams, no matter how lofty they may seem. In that sense, the American flag also represents hard work and belief. Seeing where the country came from, where it currently is, and the obtainable future, it serves as an inspiration to get on the path of success and know that a land of freedom, hope, justice and wealth is possible for my country someday.

Finally, the American flag means strength to me. The ability of the American people to rise from any form of defeat, disaster, or adversity, individually and/or collectively tells the strength of its people. Knowing that no matter how many times they fail, get hit, they will always rise again.—as told to Yomi Kazeem

Osiris Flores García
Osiris Flores García
Image: Ana Campoy

Osiris Jaquelin Flores García, 34

Occupation: Unemployed, formerly worked at a tobacco processing facility

Lives in Monterrey, Mexico

Nationality Honduran

I’ve never seen the American flag in person, maybe I’ve seen it on television. You don’t see the American flag in Honduras. It’s not well known.

To me, the US means a prosperous country. Even though a lot of people are leaving it, they’ve been able to make something of themselves by working there. I wanted to go to the US to work. In Honduras there are job opportunities, but you work one day and the next you don’t. What you earn is very little. If you have a business, gangs charge you the “war tax” and if you don’t pay it, they burn your house. I hear in the US it’s very different, the care people get.

We leave our country out of fear of being killed, or assaulted, or beat up, and seek refuge in another country. But then we can’t work properly, because we have no papers. Right now it’s really dangerous to cross. Look at the young father who just died with his baby. My niece says she’s going back. But I tell her, “For what? Honduras is at war. Honduras is worse.”

The US helps Honduras a lot. Instead of helping the government, which keeps all the money for itself, it should help immigrants, those who go out to work, to look for a future for their family. It should allow those with a clean record to cross to the other side, without having to risk their lives.

—as told to Ana Campoy

Jack Barsky
Jack Barsky
Image: Courtesy of Jack Barsky

Jack Barsky, 69

Occupation Former KGB “sleeper” agent living undercover in the US who switched sides

Lives in Atlanta, Georgia

Nationality American (born in East Germany)

Today I attended a military funeral. The deceased had served in the marines. There was an American flag draped over the coffin. The ex-marine was black, the two young soldiers honoring him by performing the flag ceremony were white. What they had in common was a love for their country. And as the young men carefully folded the flag and then handed it to the widow, the meaning of this flag became clear to me.

Regardless of the merit of the policy decisions that sent our soldiers into combat, everybody who served under this flag signed up in full knowledge that he would be risking his life. This is especially true of the young men who plunged into the ice-cold waters of the English Channel during the invasion of Normandy, only to be mowed down by the relentless gunfire of the Nazi defenders. Those men served under the American flag, they served our country, and they served the entire world by sacrificing their lives to eradicate the cancer that had infested Germany and was out to spread its evil to the entire Earth.

To me, the American flag is the symbol for that unequaled show of heroism.—as told to Justin Rohrlich