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Want to Wave a World Flag?

Did you know that there have been various attempts at creating a flag of the earth? One that would represent our planet as a whole rather than a conglomerate of imaginary nations. Flag of Earth by James Cadle is very modern and flag-like and the UN flag has been suggested as a place filler until one can be decided upon. Just this year Sweedish artist Oskar Pernefeldt proposed the International Flag of the Earth, but no contender to represent humanity has gained legitimacy.

My favorite flag of the earth is of course Anne Kirstine Rønhede’s “World Flag” and not because she is a dear friend. She came up with the idea that we need a flag that represents everyone:

No matter where you live, what you believe (if you believe in anything) and what you do – you are a human being and you live on this planet called Earth. We have flags that symbolize countries and organizations; we should also have a flag that symbolize that we are part of the same world.

I’ve always had an aversion to flags. Years ago, I had weeklong argument with my flatmates because I demanded they take down the Israeli and Australian flags covering the hallway wall of our Tel Aviv apartment. I lived with three other immigrants that year—one South African-born Australian, an Israeli-born Canadian with Russian parents, and another Australian.

Flag of the Earth by James Cadle

Flag of the Earth by James Cadle

The Australians couldn’t understand my terse reaction. The flags represented of our multiple identities, they said. Why not add to the collection by bringing our own Turkish, American, and Canadian flags instead of taking down the others?

Thankfully, I had the Canadian on my side. We simply didn’t want the flags even if we couldn’t explain the reason in intelligible terms.

Our home wasn’t an international hotel trying to attract a variety of patrons nor were we a UN outpost in Israel, I argued. No collage of flags could represent the multiplicity of our collective identities. Ours was a visceral rejection of the flag, of all flags.

The World Flag by Anne Kirstine Rønhede in South Africa

The World Flag by Anne Kirstine Rønhede in South Africa

“Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local”

History and cultures are real, countries not says Taiye Selasi, the author of Ghana Must Go. In her TED Talk that got over a million views, “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local,” she presents identity as a set of experiences rather than an affiliation with a nation state.

New nation-states appear, existing ones disappear. Selasi mentions Czechoslovakia, Timor-Leste, and Somalia for recent shuffles in the nation-state order. To that list one may add South Sudan, which ceded from Sudan in 2011 with a flag of its own.

Selasi says that we are all multi-local and multi-layered. She doesn’t like it when people ask her where she’s from.

I’ve hated that question ever since I moved to America as a teenager but the question got even more annoying after my move to Israel. While traveling I developed a personal vendetta against it.

Oskar Pernefeldt’s International Flag of the Earth

Oskar Pernefeldt’s International Flag of the Earth

I’m from Turkey but I haven’t there in over two decades. No, I don’t listen to Ibrahim Tatlises. I live in Tel Aviv but I’m not now… I mean my stuff is there but I’m currently in Mexico. I speak perfect English because I’m also American. No, I am a Jew. Yes, there are Turkish Jews. No, I don’t personally know all of them so I never met your friend.

It’s exhausting.

Selasi suggests that we must replace the language of nationality with the language of locality to describe our cultural identity. She suggests a three-tiered test in order to figure out which localities an individual belongs to that involves a mapping of one’s rituals, relationships, and restrictions.

Where kind of rituals do you practice and to which localities do these rituals belong?

Where are your most important relationships located?

What restrictions—be it due to your passport, race, or cultural affiliation—shape your current physicality?

For globetrotters who collect rituals, relationships and restrictions in four corners of the world, this test might not help narrow things down either. But it’s worth giving a shot.

The problem with flags and nations is essentially a problem in semantics and language. Reducing Turkey to Istanbul or Israel to Tel Aviv as my locality doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. That would take us into philosophical territories: the necessity of naming things to begin with.

But Selasi knows better to get into arguments over semantics. What characterizes international relations—the relationship between nations—is power, politics, and money.   So when we categorize ourselves with flags, we participate in a power game:

It’s possible that without realizing it, we’re playing a power game, especially in the context of multi-ethnic countries. As any recent immigrant knows, the question “Where are you from?” or “Where are you really from?” is often code for “Why are you here?”

Patterns of identification and categorization are harder to dismantle than political entities that are countries. I doubt that the million-plus people who watched Selasi’s speech will stop asking people where they are from. I have yet to hear someone introduce themselves as “I am a local of…” But her request instigates a necessary conversation to fix our linguistic deficiencies in defining our identities.

The myth of national identity and the vocabulary of coming from confuses us into placing ourselves into mutually exclusive categories. In fact, all of us are multi — multi-local, multi-layered. To begin our conversations with an acknowledgement of this complexity brings us closer together, I think, not further apart. So the next time that I’m introduced, I’d love to hear the truth: “Taiye Selasi is a human being, like everybody here. She isn’t a citizen of the world, but a citizen of worlds. She is a local of New York, Rome and Accra.

P.S. Don’t forget to like, wear, and wave Kirsten’s World Flag!