Race and National Symbolism: Thoughts Brought to You By Marvel
Updated: Apr 20, 2021
It is funny that a Marvel super hero television show got me thinking about the larger connotations of race and nationalism this week.
I have always been a fan of the Marvel movies. It probably has something to do with their ability to fulfill the nerd inside of me in the form of super heroes and fantasy along with the appeal of hot guys and bad ass women doing cool fight scenes. The Captain America series has always been a particular favourite, so when “The Falcon and the Winter Solider” premiered on Disney+ last month I was all over it.
Watching the series as each episode has been released week by week has been the one thing I have had to look forward lately (ah, covid-shut downs; the life). What I have found truly fascinating throughout the series, is that Marvel has made a point of bringing the conversation of race into each episode, especially through the characters The Falcon and Isaiah Bradley, in a very current and relevant matter. While Sam, The Falcon, may be a super hero, the show has shown that he cannot escape the reality of what it means to be a Black man in America. All of this comes to a head in Episode 5, released this past week, where the complexity behind the request made by Steve Rogers that Sam assume the mantel as the next Captain America is finally brought to light. All in all, it addresses the idea of what it would mean for a Black man to become the symbol of “Captain America” when America itself has not embodied those values with the same equality and respect for its Black citizens.
On a deeper level, it was interesting for a Marvel show to address the layers of citizenship, race and nationality together in a provoking and thought producing way. This episode asks in many ways what it means to embody the symbolism of a nation that has failed to protect you in the most fundamental ways.
On a personal level, this episode also sparked some reflection on thoughts I have had about the power of national symbolism, as well as the controversy or internal struggles that can be had in supporting or representing them. I think of this especially heading into the Olympics, where I truly hope to be able to wear the maple leaf and “CANADA” across my chest. Yet, I recognize the pain those symbols may offer to many Indigenous and Black people in Canada. As an Indigenous and Black woman, I wonder sometimes what it means to wear the maple leaf when for many Indigenous people, Canada and all the iconography that represent it, is a symbol of colonial suppression. I know there are many Indigenous people who do not identify, and choose not to identify, as Canadian. I know that in recent years, people of colour (including myself) in Canada and many Black people in America, have looked at their national flag or heard the national anthem and thought deeply about whom that nation truly stands for.
Despite the events of last summer, we are not seeing an end to anti-racist attacks or meaningful actions that are actively dismantling institutions that are supporting racial discrimination and abuse. A week ago, Daunte Wright was murdered by police, not even a year after George Floyd’s murder took place in the same city. This past Friday, the Ontario Conservative Provincial Government announced increased police power and authorization to stop and question Ontario citizens at random as part of its efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19. These actions, which are questionable against our constitutional rights and freedoms, were offered instead of action that could be done to increase healthcare infrastructure and provide more support to front line workers. The final report for the Inquiry for Missing Murdered and Indigenous Women and Girls released in 2019, shared that the level of harm and violence shown disproportionately to Indigenous women and girls in Canada is consistent with acts of genocide. (p.50)
Protest to these levels of mistreatment and abuse are well known and recognized by us now, especially in the world of sport. We have grown accustomed to players kneeling before the national anthem to protest racial justice and police brutality. We have seen athletes wearing warm up shirts with protest slogans, or wearing red hand prints to shine awareness on MMIWG. Sport is not separate from social action. In fact, in an arena where the world’s eyes are glued to watching the world’s best athletes in their countries’ colours, the stage is basically set to shine light on the issues of injustice and abuse those countries may be serving their own. The Olympic Games itself not absent from protest. In fact, if you follow the IOC’s social media, they love to repost the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics in support of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power. Quite a paradox considering the Olympics position to enforce Rule 50, which states that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” This would include the very symbol of protest by Smith and Carlos in 1968. We forget that despite how famous this moment was, Smith and Carlos lost their medals. In fact, any form of protest that purposely does not comply with Rule 50, which could include kneeling at an anthem or wearing a red hand print, could result in suspension from the games or the loss of medals and standings. These Games strive to promote international unity and the countries who participate use the Games to promote their national iconography. But ask yourself, if you desire to question those values or what it means to be part of that symbol, what is the cost you must pay for that in the end?
I think it is important to look at the meaning of national symbolism. What does it mean to call myself a Canadian and represent Canada on the national stage? Also, what will it mean for those who don’t agree with that idea of being Canadian to see me do so? I do believe it is possible to be a proud Canadian and still deeply question my country’s treatment against people of colour. I choose my own understanding of what it means to be a Canadian and represent the Canadian maple leaf. However, it would appear that the ability to question what it means to be a symbol of your country and the illusion of values that your country stands for desire to be truly considered.