Sarai Thompson has been donning the yellow, green, and black Jamaican flag ever since she was a little girl. Her parents — both Jamaican immigrants who moved to New York City before she was born — instilled in her a feeling of pride that shone through in her clothing choices.
“Fashion is a way of expressing myself, so I like to make my culture a part of that,” the now-27-year-old says. Thompson still finds herself reaching for Jamaican flag crochet tops and T-shirts, pairing them with high-waisted jeans and platform shoes.
Flag fashion is often seen as an accessory to athletic events and patriotic holidays. Think: American-flag bikinis that come out for July 4th parties or Brazilian flag T-shirts during the FIFA World Cup. “It's easy to be lured into the false belief that flags are just innocent representations of our countries of origin or our nationality,” says Sabrina Strings, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. But for some immigrant and BIPOC communities, wearing their flag on their sleeve — or chest, or back — can be a powerful political statement.
Take, for instance, Ever Lopez, a Mexican-American teen living in North Carolina who was initially denied his high school diploma this June after donning the Mexican flag over his gown at his graduation from Asheboro High School. According to the school’s statement, Lopez’s flag violated the school’s dress code. Only after a flood of activists and classmates rallied for the student and circulated a Change.org petition did the school award his diploma.
A country’s national identity is held together by its symbols and values, belief systems that are expressed in flags and anthems, says Julimar Mora, a researcher at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. During times when those belief systems are challenged, these symbols become flash-points for political discourse.
Take the symbolism of wearing the American flag, which is supposed to represent the 50 states of the union. Especially since former President Trump won the White House in 2016, it has become associated with right-leaning groups that espouse anti-immigrant, racist sentiments. This message came to undeniably sharp focus when MAGA supporters stormed the capitol in January 2021, many of them parading American flags to support their untrue belief that the election was stolen from "real Americans."
“Even though it claims to represent freedom, it doesn't represent freedom for many individuals,” says Strings. "For people of color, the [American] flag represents something more insidious.”
She argues that the American flag also represents “Indian removal, pushing Latinx people out of border towns, and the death of Black bodies,” and that people wearing it should acknowledge that history, as well as the recent uptick in right-wing use of the American flag. As a result, many communities in the U.S. turn to their own group's flags, including the Afro-American flag, Native American flags, and LGBTQ+ flags.
As a child, Thompson donned the Jamaican colors on Flag Day, which takes place annually on June 14. While most of her Bible school classmates dressed up in red, white, and blue, she and her siblings dressed in green, black, and white. “I had to explain to all the other kids, like ‘I'm Jamaican and my parents are from Jamaica.’ And then they’d ask, ‘But you live in America?’” she recalls. “It was my first time explaining this other part of me.”
“You're always going to be put in a certain category of an individual who doesn't belong as a person of color, especially if you're waving a flag that is not from the United States,” says Strings.
Although Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1918, the island — an unincorporated territory of the United States — continues to use both the U.S. and Puerto Rican flags in all official institutions and ceremonies. But to the diaspora, the Puerto Rican flag is a symbol of resistance.
In May 1948, a gag law passed in the Puerto Rican Senate made displaying the Puerto Rican flag and singing the anthem, “La Borinqueña,” punishable with up to 10 years in prison because of its ties to pro-independence groups (the law was repealed nine years later). Today, the flag design is seen on everything from keychains and beer openers to leather jackets, T-shirts, bikinis, and duvet covers, sparking memes that show Puerto Ricans donning the flag and asking: “How did you know I was Puerto Rican?”
“When power imbalances are visible, this unchains an instinct to emphasize cultural identity,” Mora says, explaining why the flag design is so popular among Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States today.
Atlyn Forde, a marketing executive and flag activist based in the United Kingdom, has donned clothing featuring the flags of St. Lucia and Jamaica since she was a child. For her, they are conversation pieces that allow her to connect to other immigrants from the Caribbean, or educate European people about her home islands’ histories. But whenever she’d spot products bearing the St. Lucian or Jamaican flags, Forde says the items were not well-designed and often made with low-quality fabrics.
So, in 2020, she launched Culture Club UK to sell trend-forward Caribbean and African flag fashion, such as sliders, tees, fanny packs, and tote bags. “It's really about a celebration of culture, of being empowered to showcase what they love about their culture so much,” she says.
She is not alone. In fact, there has been a boom in fashion brands adopting cultural heritage as their main driver, especially in the United States. Designer Patty Delgado’s Hija De Tu Madre, for example, is a Latinx-owned, California-based brand selling a jean jacket with flags from Latin America and the Caribbean, empowering its customers to “take your motherland's flag everywhere,” according to the brand’s website.
While flags are institutional symbols, Mora says that it’s crucial to understand they are part of people’s identities. “People have determined agency and can use these symbols to promote their own political projects,” she says. “In the end, identity is constructed by the people and for the people.”