A Sept. 3 photo Gov. Bill Lee posted on his official Instagram page showed him enjoying dove hunting season in Humphreys County. (Photo: Gov. Bill Lee Instagram)
I follow Gov. Bill Lee on Instagram. He’s probably not the first person that comes to mind when one thinks of cutting edge, visual social media. I don’t follow him because I’m a fan of his policies or his plaid shirts or even his folksy, staged pictures in Anytown, Tennessee.
I definitely don’t follow him because of the overtly homogenous racial aesthetic he seems to be cultivating on social media. I follow Lee on Instagram because his account is somehow both painfully bland while also appearing to exist in an alternate reality —a reality where COVID is under control, America offers everyone equity, and rolling up the sleeves on your button-up shirt means you’ve done a hard day’s work.
Like most accounts of politicians, Lee’s photos are a mix of suits and ties, pensive gazes into the distance, and a smattering of proclamations written in font so small that I have to close one eye to read them. The majority of these posts are met with an eye roll or a dumbfounded head shake, but a recent post (a proclamation, in fact) made me linger a little longer.
On Aug. 11, as COVID numbers were skyrocketing, Lee subtly proclaimed on social media that “In TN, our students will be taught unapologetic American exceptionalism” (insert American flag emoji here). There were two parts of that caption that made me immediately pause.
First of all, I couldn’t help but notice that Lee was, once again, directly inserting himself into the state’s curriculum. While I understand that public education is state funded, as an educator I cannot recall a time when a governor has seemed so personally intent on forming policies directly related to curriculum.
The other aspect of the post that caught my attention was the phrasing of the caption – specifically the words “unapologetic” and “American exceptionalism”. Reading that was an eye-brow raising moment. “Unapologetic American exceptionalism”? What does that exactly mean?
While these words are most likely self-explanatory for anyone with a reading level above the ninth grade, breaking them down shows just how absurd and destructive they can be when put together.
The prefix “un” simply means without. The word “apologetic” is derived from the word “apologize” which means “to express regret for something that one has done wrong.” Essentially, the word “unapologetic” means to have the belief or feeling that someone or some entity should carry no blame or feel no shame. As balanced and emotionally healthy humans, we could stop right there knowing that anything that comes after the word “unapologetic” is most likely not the most nuanced version of thinking about, well, anything.
To be exceptional at something is to stand out or to be set apart. In the context of Lee’s post, it is meant to have connotations of positivity or even elitism. The thrust of this proclamation is that all of our students should not have to apologize for being a part of the “greatest country in the world”. There was a time when obtuse patriotism was a hallmark of fine young men and women of our country. That time has passed. Now, we call it nationalism.
When I look at the students in my classroom — mostly minorities — I wonder if they would believe that America is exceptional. Do their parents reap the benefits of the capitalist structure that was built on the backs of their ancestors? Is our criminal justice system aligned with true justice and equality? I cannot teach them unapologetic American exceptionalism because I know that they know the answers to the aforementioned questions. What I can do, however, is teach my students the realities of our history and how that history still has a grip on the societal structures that are in place today.
Several weeks before Gov. Lee’s statement on American exceptionalism, the Tennessee General Assembly banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory in classrooms across the state. In Lee’s whitewashed world, students should not be taught about the inequities caused by slavery and systemic racism within our justice system and how those directly affect people today; they should only be taught blind loyalty to America’s “greatness.”
In July 2020, I attended an NAACP rally in my hometown of Jackson, Tennessee. Logically, I had always known that throughout my life I had certain advantages because of the color of my skin. I could explain the ways I had experienced this privilege time after time. That July night, though, was the first time I had ever emotionally understood what that meant.
I felt it when I listened to story after story of what it was like as an African-American to walk into a courthouse with a Confederate statue silently towering in the front lawn, or how fear gripped them when they were pulled over by an officer for a busted headlight. I felt it when an older black man gestured to a group of white people (myself included) and said “You all talk to white people about this. I’m done talking to them about it. I’ve talked to them about it for years and nothing’s changed.”
Nights like that are what can make America exceptional one day. When we’re able to have honest conversations about race in classrooms across our country, we can start to talk about American exceptionalism and begin to heal the many self-inflicted wounds of our nation. Until that day, however, empty proclamations about our exceptionality are simply that—empty.
I understand the privilege I have to be an American. I also understand that not everyone enjoys the same privileges that I do and that is why America is not exceptional just yet. Until we can all have the same options and opportunities, our country will be a work in progress. And doing the work is what we have to do; we just won’t roll up our sleeves and post it on Instagram while we’re doing it.
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